Movie Review – The Shape of Water

The Shape of Water (2017)
Written by Guillermo del Toro & Vanessa Taylor
Directed by Guillermo del Toro

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Elisa Esposito lives in Baltimore circa the early 1960s. She is mute since birth and works as a cleaning woman at a government laboratory. Her only friends are Zelda, a fellow cleaner, and Giles, her neighbor who is a closeted gay man. One night while working, a new specimen is brought into the lab by Colonel Strickland. The creature was discovered in the South American rainforest and is a humanoid fish person. Elisa feels a connection to this poor animal and worries as Strickland oversees his torture. A plan begins to develop, and Elisa becomes determined to help her new friend escape this nightmare existence.

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Movie Review – The Big Sick

The Big Sick (2017)
Written by Emily V. Gordon & Kumail Nanjiani
Directed by Michael Showalter

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Kumail is an aspiring stand up comedian in Chicago who is under the constant shadow of his mother’s search for a wife. While he manages to avoid the expectations of his Pakistani heritage while keeping his family happy, Kumail chances to meet Emily. She’s just a woman at a set he’s doing, but the two click and immediately rush into a relationship. Things go wrong when Emily finds out he’s never mentioned her to his family and the reality of their situation sets in. However, the relationship takes an unexpected turn when Emily suddenly contracts an unknown disease, forced to go into a medically induced coma. Kumail is left to get to know her parents while coming to terms with his own parents in regards to Emily.

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Movie Review – Spring

Spring (2014, dir. Aaron Moorhead & Justin Benson)

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I began the filming expecting one thing but ended up delighted and surprised with what I got. Evan’s mother dies in front of him, succumbing to a two-year battle with cancer. He feels lost and without purpose, so this leads to a spontaneous trip to Italy, the place his parents wanted to take him before they died. Evan wanders to a small town on the coast where he meets Louise, a young student. The two click right away but there is something mysterious about her, for all her charm and wit she remains cagey about certain parts of her life.

I remember seeing the trailer for Spring before its release and got the sense it would be a dark, horror film. However, it ends up becoming a romance story without any traces of cynicism. It is a dark film, but there is an emotional truth underneath the surface. Early in the first act, after Evan first arrives in Italy there is a sense of Eli Roth’s horrid Hostel films, that creeping sense of dread. We worry Evan is winding his way down into a trap. The filmmakers establish a very gloomy mood. However, I find the film has more in common with Linklater’s Before Sunset. It ends up being lots of conversations about relationships and the nature of love between Evan and Louise. Yes, there is gore and violence, but it never overtakes the film and become the focus. Instead, character work is the meat, with violence punctuating dramatic moments.

Spring is a gorgeous looking film. Directors Moorhead and Benson previously worked on Resolution, a small indie horror flick that did similar genre play. It’s very clear they have developed their technique with some truly beautiful and well-choreographed shots. There is an explosive argument in the streets of the small village after Evan discovers Louise’s secret. It is a single take, but it is a dizzying race through the back alleys and narrow streets. They also make use of drones to produce some stunning, sweeping shots of the coastal town that stand up to an expensive crane and helicopter shots.

The bulk of the film rests on the shoulders of the two lead actors, Lou Taylor Pucci and Nadia Hilker. I have never been overly impressed by Pucci. I’d seen him in his early work (Thumbsucker, The Chumscrubber, Southland Tales) and felt he was fairly flat and have noticed him popping up from time to time. Here he reaches depths in his character I wasn’t expecting. Hilker was a discovery for me and is a perfect match for Pucci. You get caught up in the chemistry these two genuinely have. That chemistry, more than the horror elements, is what makes the film. While Spring is a definite play on genres, it teaches a valuable lesson that horror is stronger when it relies on the more human and character-focused elements of storytelling.

Spring is a film that benefits from mystery. I would highly encourage you to read as little about it as possible and just know that it’s a movie that is body horror, but also something more. It’s a film about a young man working past grief and aimlessness and the risk of love. Its whole concept is a metaphor about what we give up when we allow ourselves to fall in love, and weighing if that is worth the risk.

Movie Review – My Beautiful Laundrette

My Beautiful Laundrette (1985, dir. Stephen Frears)

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Omar Ali (Gordon Warnecke) is a young Londoner adrift. He’s dropped out of school and spends his time caring for his father Hussein, bed-ridden and increasingly inclined to drink since the suicide of his wife the previous year. Hussein realizes his son needs to expand his horizons, so he sends Omar to Uncle Nasser who sets him to work washing cars in a parking garage before handing over his failing laundrette. Omar envisions this facility becoming a place the reinvigorates the neighborhood and beginning his fortune. Through circumstance, he reunites with Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis), an old schoolmate who got caught up in the right-wing nationalist movement. Johnny breaks away from his mates but struggles. He and Omar have romantic feelings for each other but exist in two very different communities in their city.

Laundrette is a film very much of its time. Within minutes, the hardships brought by Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as Prime Minister are felt. London is run down, slum lords rule the roost, and anyone who can’t find a job is tossed out on their ass. The Pakistani community is not feeling the purse strings tighten as much and are seeking out fairly non-glamorous avenues to keep the money rolling in. Omar’s father is a socialist and journalist, two things that stand in contrast to the other highlighted members of his community’s ideals. While Hussein rails against Thatcher to Omar, Nasser talks with delight about how he has benefitted from her policies. Many Pakistani characters admit they feel torn between two homes, but Nasser bluntly states that as Pakistan became increasingly theocratic, it was obvious that people like him who enjoyed Western values had to leave.

However, these ideas are never really explored in depth. This is because Laundrette is a film so stuffed with ideas and wanting to say so much about them it never gets the opportunity to say much about anything. It intends to be a slightly light slice of life type film, but also a commentary on contemporary politics, but also a love story, but also a movie about Anglo-Pakistani identity. I kept thinking the picture had all the potential to be a fantastic mini-series, a Pakistani Shameless, about communities in the poor neighborhood in conflict. The romance between Omar and Johnny is meant to be the core of the film based on promotions but I felt it was secondary to the exploration of racial identity in Thatcher’s England.

When the film comes up in conversation, it is often to highlight the breakout performance of Daniel Day Lewis. I found him to be a little dull and nothing spectacular. He wasn’t terrible, the film just didn’t have the time to develop his character to become anything interesting. Omar, the protagonist of the movie, is more interesting but I never felt the deep struggle between his love for Johnny and his community in the way I believe Frears intended. The romance is never something the characters suddenly begin confronting their family about. It’s left a little ambiguous as to where they go from here. The third act shows that life isn’t going to run smoothly for the couple. When the film ends the story doesn’t. You can feel that life will continue for these people and it won’t go smoothly. But in times of government austerity life is a struggle that only those we love can help us through.

Movie Review – One From the Heart

One From the Heart (1982, dir. Francis Ford Coppola)

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Ambition in filmmaking is a dangerous tightrope. In the 1970s, there was a cascade of filmmakers who were highly ambitious and succeeded. Many of them (Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese) continued their successes into the 1980s. Others were not so successful. Hal Ashby (Harold and Maude, Shampoo) became increasingly addicted to drugs and faded away. Michael Cimino translated his enormous success with The Deer Hunter into the bloated critical and box office failure of Heaven’s Gate. And there’s Francis Ford Coppola. The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II are held is such high esteem and Apocalypse Now has garnered a similar appreciation in the decades that followed its release. But something happened in the 1980s that caused Coppola’s star to dissipate. One From the Heart is widely considered the moment everything collapsed, but it’s more complicated than just one movie.

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Movie Review – La La Land

La La Land (2016, dir. Damien Chazelle)

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Two aspiring young people in Los Angeles, Mia and Seb pursue their individual dreams and their paths continually cross. Mia (Emma Stone) is an actress who seems to never get a callback to a single audition and when she does she’s dismissed before getting a chance to read. Seb (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz pianist who wants to live up to the quality of his idols but ends up playing Christmas carols at a cozy dinner spot in the evenings. The duo isn’t sure if they want to be a couple and the story is rife with an interesting variety of musical styles, many reminiscent of Leonard Bernstein.

La La Land is unashamedly a musical. The opening moments are a sweeping crane shot of a traffic-jammed freeway where the motorists depart their vehicles for a song and dance number that evoke a slick Gap commercial. Eventually, the music settles down when the story of Mia and Seb comes into focus, and we don’t really get a showstopping number for the rest of the pictures. Instead, we have duets that appear to have been filmed in very intimate and loose ways. The piano duet of “City of Stars” has the actors sharing a piano bench and it’s obvious that Gosling flubs a couple lines eliciting a chuckle from Stone.

Director Chazelle paints his film in Cinemascope, a 2:35:1 aspect ratio that evokes the iconography of 1950s studio cinema. Set pieces embrace artifice with stages covered in grass apparent as the two soft shoe across them. There are fantastic flights of fancy, particularly during a date to the Griffith Observatory, where Mia and Seb end up waltzing across the galaxy. The whole tone of and look of the picture doesn’t so much as resemble Singin’ in the Rain, but rather films like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. It’s a very stylized French palette, especially in the film’s dreamlike final number. In fact, the film feels much more of a tribute to dance once it gets past its opening numbers than old Hollywood Musicals.

The weight of the film rests on the shoulders of Gosling and Stone. There are supporting characters, but the film refrains from developing any b plots. We have Gosling’s sister and just the lightest touch of her engagement and subsequent marriage. There’s Stone’s trio of fellow actress roommates who show up for a bit but then fade from the story. It never feels like sloppy writing, though. The intent that this is Mia and Seb’s story feels tightly focused. The chemistry between the leads is excellent. They seem like a real couple, and a scene that serves as the pivot in the plot shows just how real this relationship can feel. We’re witness to such an intimate, cringing personal argument between the two. The choking back of tears, the narrowing of eyes in anger, words spoken to cut deep then immediately regretted. Painfully real.

What I loved most about La La Land was the theme of compromise threaded throughout. The opening number, “Another Day of Sun” might have the tone of an upbeat, showstopping musical number but a closer listen to the lyrics reveals the central conflict of the film:

I think about that day
I left him at a Greyhound station
West of Santa Fé

We were seventeen, but he was sweet and it was true
Still I did what I had to do
‘Cause I just knew

Summer: Sunday nights
We’d sink into our seats
Right as they dimmed out all the lights
A Technicolor world made out of music and machine
It called me to be on that screen
And live inside each scene

Later we have Seb walking alone along a pier quietly singing “City of Stars” to himself with these darker lyrics standing out:

Is this the start of something wonderful and new?
Or one more dream that I cannot make true?

The entire focus of La La Land is on having big dreams and the compromises and choices involved in making those dreams come true. In a lot of ways, the film is saying “You can’t have it all” so you need to prioritize and figure out what is important to you. It is also speaking out the people with dreams to know that life will be challenging and that finding the core of why you had this dream in the first place is essential to getting through the hard times. La La Land does not have a happy ending. Characters make some of their dreams come true, and they learn something about what’s important. Damien Chazelle has made what I’d dare say is a perfect film, visually rich, sonically beautiful, and a story that acknowledges the romantic nature of dreams and the grounded way we have to live life.

 

Movie Review – Heartbeats

Heartbeats (2010, dir. Xavier Dolan)

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In watching I Killed My Mother, it was clear that Xavier Dolan had a sharp sense of humor. In Heartbeats he allows himself to make an overt comedy of manners that has delivered more laughs from me than most comedies I’ve watched this year. The story centers on Francis (Dolan), and Marie (Monia Chokri) are best friends who meet Nicolas (Niels Schneider), a young man who entrances them both. They begin a vicious back and forth to decide who gets Nicolas in the end.

The comedy in Heartbeats comes from Francis and Marie’s growing animosity with each other over Nicolas’ affections and the ongoing confusion his behavior and words illicit. During a playful game of hide and seek in the woods he manages to tackle Francis, pinning him to the ground. And keeps him pinned for a longer than usual amount of time before hurriedly rushing away, an act that builds confidence in Francis’ perceived chances with Nicolas. A few scenes later, Francis finds out Nicolas has invited Marie to see a play together without even asking Francis which throws him into confusion about his possible suitor’s intentions. At first, our protagonists attempt to play things cooly and not truly acknowledging the competition at hand. By the end of the film, they have devolved into wrestling on the ground decked in clothing out of place in the rustic, cabin setting they have ended up in.

Dolan has a very deft hand at the awkward moment, particularly zeroing in the desperation people take on when they are incredibly attracted to an individual they see as “cooler” than them or “out of their league.” At one point, Francis makes a completely inappropriately expensive purchase for Nicolas’ birthday and, while this fact is only known to Francis and the audience, it adds tension to the informal gift competition that springs up between him and Marie. As an actor, Dolan has the most perfect uncomfortable, awkward smile. He’s left behind at Nicolas’ apartment and has to receive a monthly allowance being delivered by Nicolas’ mother (played by the remarkable Anne Dorval, who played Dolan’s mother in his previous film). Dorval dominates most of the conversation, revealing her career as an exotic dancer, her broken relationship with Nicolas’ father, and other TMI. Dolan doesn’t fade into the background, though, and through his face and his body language, the audience is reminded of all those intensely awkward conversations we’ve ended up in, and especially those with a friend’s parent or some other acquaintance who shares far too much information.

The new element in this film for me was Monia Chokri as Dolan’s rival. Chokri was fantastic and kept up with her co-star and director by exuding an awkward confidence. As the tension increases, her chill unaffected nature begins to show cracks culminating in a scene where she runs into Nicolas on the street that will elicit the strongest empathic cringe from anyone watching. The awkward humor is never to the intensity that something like Curb Your Enthusiasm produces, it is continually softened through a lens of romantic idealism. Chokri’s Marie is presented as a very composed and intentional person, bearing an early 1960s appearance in both hairstyle and clothing. Coincidentally Nicolas mentions his love of Audrey Hepburn and Marie begins adding accessories that emphasize those aspects of her appearance.

The film is about friendship and the silliness of “profound love” and romanticism. It evokes the visual style of Wong-Kar Wai’s In the Mood For Love in particular moments, but instead of using this imagery to evoke a sense of serious simmering passion, Dolan uses it to cultivate a sense of irony with the protagonist’s actions. This is yet another Dolan film that highlights a different talent than I Killed My Mother and Tom at the Farm. The former is a wonderfully bittersweet character study, and the latter is an exercise in tension and psychology. Heartbeats are Dolan’s take on a romantic comedy, a modern remix of Jules and Jim with his own personal visual flair.

Maybe Sundays – I’m Here



I’m Here (2010, dir. Spike Jonze)
Starring Andrew Garfield, Sienna Guillory

I’m Here is available to watch at http://www.imheremovie.com/
I would recommend you go here instead: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_TQuzRCbpsY

Brief note on the presentation of the film, before I get into my review: The film is sponsored by Absolut Vodka, who decided to offer the film to online audiences in one of the stupidest ways possible. The film has scheduled showings, forcing you to wait in a queue to watch it. There’s no reason why this should be, as plenty of other video media is offered on demand. This seems to have been a move on the marketing department, and who knows how many countless viewers they will lose because of this nonsensical wait time. Onto the review:

Spike Jonze knows how to work with very little, and create a lot. Here he employs his trademark marriage of low-tech and high tech to create a very fleshed out world in just about 30 minutes. The story is a science fiction one, but a sort of retro-futuristic Los Angeles. Humans and robots live together, the robots appear to be built of those unattractive beige computer cases from the 90s. The only CG employed are in the eyes and mouths of the characters, and that is done in a subtle way.

The story follows Sheldon, a librarian robot who is introverted and nervous, returning to his apartment every evening, plugging into the wall recharger and sitting alone. One day he happens to meet Francesca, a female robot who is driving a car, something robots are not allowed in this world. The two hit it off and a romance develops. During a concert, the crowd gets a little rough and Francesca loses her arm. In an act of love, Sheldon unscrews his own and gives it to her. As their relationship continues, it becomes apparent a larger sacrifice will be made. The film is an interesting mix of heartbreaking and unsettling. A lot of the choices made in this relationship appear to be one sided, and it can be read as an act of unconditional love or of a selfishness. Definitely worth a watch and a beautiful looking film from director Jonze.