Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Shape of Water: A Tale of Monsters, and a Creature Too

Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones in Guillermo del Toro's "The Shape of Water"
It’s tempting to call The Shape of Water a monster movie, given that it revolves around the mysterious arrival of an amphibious fish-man—an imposing humanoid creature with slimy, mottled skin, webbed hands, and a nasty temper. And indeed, this inspired whatsit from Guillermo del Toro is replete with disturbing images and ghoulish presences: severed, decomposing fingers; a mutilated housecat; nefarious Russian communists; Michael Shannon’s sneer. Yet while The Shape of Water is suitably invigorating—as he demonstrated in Crimson Peak, del Toro knows how to set a mood and build suspense—it isn’t really a fright flick. It isn’t really any single type of movie, in fact, preferring to hopscotch across genres with dexterous fluidity. The result is a delicate, beguiling film that’s simultaneously familiar and original; you’ve seen the various pieces before, but you’ve never seen them assembled quite like this.

Some of them fit together better than others. A playful and enthusiastic remodeler of classic movies, del Toro takes evident delight in braiding together seemingly conflicting strains of stories; his last feature, the robot-kaiju mash-up Pacific Rim, was basically $190 million worth of giant toys crashing against one another, an appealing idea marred by uncharacteristically poor execution. The Shape of Water is a gentler, more thoughtful picture, but it still shows some seams from where its director has stitched its disparate elements together. As an underdog caper and a spy thriller, it’s entertaining without being especially exciting. But as a romantic fantasy, it largely soars.

Friday, December 8, 2017

The Killing of a Sacred Deer: Revenge, Best Served at a Simmer, Then a Boil

Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell in "The Killing of a Sacred Deer"
Weirdness is Yorgos Lanthimos’ calling card. His breakout film, Dogtooth, was about three homeschooled adult children who were so shielded from the outside world, they didn’t understand the concept of names and they perceived housecats as deadly animals; that’s weird. His follow-up, Alps, tracked a troupe of performers who interrogated the critically injured as they died, then impersonated them for their families; that’s also weird. And his best movie, last year’s The Lobster, took place in a dystopian society where singles who failed to find romantic mates were transformed into animals; that’s very weird. So it’s something of a shock that The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Lanthimos’ punishing and baffling and routinely astonishing new film, arrives bearing no hallmarks of obvious strangeness.  It’s set in a Cincinnati suburb. It focuses on a happy and healthy nuclear family. Its characters attend casual barbecues and black-tie functions. Nobody kills a cat, and nobody gets turned into a dog. Has Lanthimos, our foremost purveyor of allegorical absurdity, lost his edge?

Hardly. Not that this movie, which is one of the more harrowing features I’ve seen in several years, is a sneaky bait-and-switch. Despite its ostensible banality—its tree-lined streets and sterile hospitals, its family dinners and choir practices—The Killing of a Sacred Deer isn’t trying to lull you into complacency. Lanthimos may be unsparing toward his characters, but he plays fair with his audience. He announces his severity with his strikingly grotesque opening shot: a close-up of a man’s open chest cavity, his heart thump-thumping like a ghastly metronome. The camera gradually pulls back, revealing the hands of a doctor snipping flesh, and as the horns of a Schubert oratorio blare on the soundtrack, Lanthimos makes plain that he’s out for blood.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Coco: The Music Is Lively, and So are the Dead

A young boy finds stardom and death in Pixar's "Coco"
Part ticking-clock thriller, part throwback musical, part family weepie, Pixar’s Coco strikes a smart balance between new-age innovation and old-fashioned storytelling. It lacks the creative virtuosity of the studio’s greatest works: the shimmering grandeur of Finding Nemo, the emotional sophistication of Inside Out, the bravura silence of Wall-E. But while Pixar may have previously set the bar for family-friendly entertainment to be unfathomably high, it’s unfair to measure each studio’s new release against its past triumphs. Judged on its own terms, Coco is an agile and rollicking children’s film, mingling spirited action and characteristically stunning technique with wholesome sentimentality. It’s tier-two Pixar, which is another way of saying it’s pretty damn good.

It’s also beautiful, which should go without saying. Visual magnificence is a quality that we take for granted in Pixar productions—it’s simply a matter of appreciating the newest details and the whimsical flourishes within the richly textured environments and limber animation. Coco conjures a world of dazzling luminosity and ceaseless invention: arcing bridges made of bright-orange flower petals; an electric-blue swimming pool in the shape of a guitar; a skylit district of pulsating buildings, threaded together by spiraling staircases and curved viaducts. The characters, meanwhile, move with exquisite dexterity, their wonderfully expressive faces matching the well-pitched vocal performances. The people in this movie look and sound decidedly alive, which is curious, given that most of them are also dead.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Lady Bird: Desperate to Leave the Nest, But Still Learning to Fly

Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf in "Lady Bird"
There is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment late in Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s funny and piercing and achingly humane directorial debut, that perfectly encapsulates the movie’s warmth and lucidity. Christine, the tempestuous teenager at the center of Lady Bird who insists that everyone refer to her by the film’s title, is repainting her bedroom. As a ribbon of white varnish rolls over the formerly pink wallpaper, it obliterates the printed names of two boys that Lady Bird had previously scrawled into the wall. Those names, which once filled Lady Bird with ardent longing, have been erased, the desires they inspired living on only as relics of her own memory. The implications are plain: Time passes. People change. And life—forgive me if you’ve heard this before—goes on.

Movies, however, must end. Yet when the final frame of Lady Bird cut to black, I was not ready to be done with it. I preferred to linger a few moments longer in the finely textured world that Gerwig had conjured with such candor, intelligence, and care. Perhaps I was simply overpowered—by the film’s sincerity, by its humor, by its grace—but I like to think that I was expressing fidelity to one of the clich├ęd-but-undeniable truths that this movie articulates with such heartbreaking clarity: When you love someone, it is hard to let them go.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Murder on the Orient Express: To Catch a Killer, with Instincts and Interviews

Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot in "Murder on the Orient Express"
The concept of a whodunit set on a train carries with it a tantalizing geometric contradiction. Trains are rigid vehicles, traveling robotically along a designated pathway with no room for deviation or improvisation. Mysteries, by contrast, zig and zag, circling around and doubling back along pronged avenues of key clues, red herrings, and dramatic twists. Murder on the Orient Express, Kenneth Branagh’s sleek but staid transliteration of Agatha Christie’s much-adapted novel, seeks to mine the tension inherent in this incongruity, lumping a dozen-odd suspects and one dead body inside the claustrophobic confines of an immobilized caravan. It’s a suspenseful setting, but it serves as scaffolding for a disappointingly bloodless and familiar story. You know the drill: Everyone is a suspect, nobody can be trusted, and freighted expository flashbacks are just around the bend.

Our conductor on this less-than-thrilling ride is Kenneth Branagh, the stately Irish actor who often moonlights as a mercurial director. (In addition to a number of Shakespeare productions, he has helmed a Marvel movie, a Tom Clancy adventure, and updates of both Frankenstein and Cinderella.) He pulls double duty here, showcasing his knack for filming panoramic vistas while also hamming it up as Hercule Poirot, Christie’s famous and ingenious detective. (Previously essayed on the big screen by both Albert Finney and Peter Ustinov, Poirot is probably most recognizable in the form of David Suchet, who played the sleuth for 24 years on British TV.) Donning a flamboyant Belgian accent and a mesmerizing handlebar mustache that a taxidermist must have pruned from Kurt Russell’s exhumed Hateful Eight corpse, Branagh’s Poirot is a savant who, much like Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes, is not especially modest about his own intellect. “I am probably the greatest detective in the world,” he declares to a roomful of gobsmacked observers; one suspects he added the adverb as a mere courtesy.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Thor: Ragnarok: God of Thunder, Bringer of Rain, Cracker of Jokes

Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston smirk and squabble in "Thor: Ragnarok"
Midway through Thor: Ragnarok, a creature called Korg—a soft-spoken gladiator whose body is composed entirely of lumpy blue rocks—informs the God of Thunder that the planet they’re currently inhabiting doesn’t really make sense. It may not be coincidental that Korg is voiced by Taika Waititi, the film’s director and impish guiding spirit. A New Zealand native best known for his fanciful comedies (What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople), Waititi may not seem an intuitive choice to helm Ragnarok, the third Thor-centric feature and the seventeenth(!) installment in the corporatized mushroom cloud that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Yet Waititi’s gift of whimsy proves perfectly suited for the MCU, thanks to a deceptively similar set of priorities. The Marvel movies, for all their lumbering technological clamor, have typically been better at dialogue and character than at action and story, and Waititi embraces that hierarchy with energy and savvy. He realizes that, if you’re going to make a senseless comic-book movie, you might as well make it fun.

And make no mistake: This movie is senseless. Perhaps comic-book aficionados can assemble its random artifacts and fantastical esoterica—fire demons and bi-frosts, eternal flames and infinity stones, cryptic prophecies and resurrected skeletons—into an intelligible map, but even an intimate understanding of Marvel mythology cannot provide Ragnarok with any narrative logic. Nor can it instill any legitimate stakes or tension into a product that is, in broad strokes, entirely predictable. (Given Marvel’s commitment to the perpetual expansion of its sequel-happy universe, it is hardly a spoiler to declare that no Avengers were harmed in the making of this film.) But unlike the first two Thor pictures—which felt leaden and lifeless, weighed down by their ostensible otherworldliness—Ragnarok seizes on its own silliness. When it comes to enjoying this frolicsome, jokey adventure, the plot’s lack of relevance proves irrelevant.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Thank You for Your Service: Back from War, Now Fighting Demons

Miles Teller and Beulah Koale struggle with PTSD in "Thank You for Your Service"
In the best scene in American Sniper, a one-legged veteran (Mindhunter’s Jonathan Groff) cautiously approaches Bradley Cooper’s titular Navy SEAL in an auto shop and warmly thanks him for saving his life during battle. It’s a moment that ordinarily would play as sweet and triumphant, but instead it’s awkward and tentative, as Cooper’s laconic soldier is utterly incapable of handling such direct gratitude. Now, Sniper screenwriter Jason Hall homes in on that discomfort with Thank You for Your Service, a humane and sober movie that tackles the war after the war.

Based on a book by David Finkel, Thank You for Your Service is a film of such unimpeachable decency—well-intentioned, understanding, respectful—that it’s virtually impossible to disapprove of. But those same qualities make it difficult to enjoy, or even really admire, as a piece of cinema. It’s more message than movie, and while the message—that post-traumatic stress disorder is a serious illness, and that many of our veterans need psychiatric help far more than they need banal platitudes—is undoubtedly worth conveying, the delivery system lacks oomph. It’s a movingly penned essay that just happens to unfold on screen.

Friday, October 27, 2017

The Florida Project: The Tragic Kingdom

Willem Dafoe and Brooklynn Kimberly Prince in "The Florida Project"
It’s a funny thing, how a movie can sneak up on you. Take The Florida Project, Sean Baker’s striking and incrementally devastating new film, which transpires over the course of a languid summer in a low-rent motel complex just outside of Orlando. An attentive humanist with a keen eye for illuminative details, Baker is committed to conveying the sweaty tedium that afflicts his hard-luck characters. In fact, he so convincingly captures the housing development’s collective lethargy—the sweltering heat, the pervasive boredom, the maddening feeling of having nothing to do—that he is almost too successful. For the first half hour that I spent watching these restless children scampering around bland parking lots and darting through paint-peeling hallways, I found myself stifling a yawn. So imagine my surprise when, as the movie barreled into its mesmerizing climax, tears welled in my eyes and my heart pounded in my chest. The Florida Project starts with a snooze. It ends with a sledgehammer.

Not that its beginning is entirely disposable. Even when the movie flirts with narrative monotony, it always offers something visually arresting. Baker’s last film was Tangerine, a day-in-the-life story that was notable not just because it starred two transgender actresses, but because it was shot entirely on an iPhone. The Florida Project, by contrast, is triumphantly widescreen, with a brilliantly vivid palette and elegantly composed frames that recall the formal mastery of Raise the Red Lantern. The opening act essentially functions as a tour of the neighborhood, a candy-colored district dotted with dopily themed motels, indistinguishable strip malls, and rinky-dink food stands. The pastels keep popping, from the cheery orange glow of a grocery to the powder blue of a gift shop to the gentle lavender of the titular housing complex, a bleak and raucous purgatory called The Magic Castle.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Meyerowitz Stories: The Kids Are All Wrong

Misery reigns in "The Meyerowitz Stories"
You might think, upon learning that The Meyerowitz Stories stars Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller—and that it includes a scene where the two slap-fight and wrestle pathetically on a university quad—that the movie is a stupid comedy. It isn’t, though it does feature a number of acrid laughs and a few displays of idiocy. Instead, The Meyerowitz Stories is another of writer-director Noah Baumbach’s incisive portraits of insecurity and indecision. As with many of his films, it’s sharply observed, making it more thoughtful than enjoyable; Baumbach’s talent for conjuring realistically flawed people is so pronounced that it becomes almost uncomfortable. Watching this astute, upsetting movie, you are likely to wince frequently, partly because its characters tend to behave terribly, and partly because you will recognize in them slivers of your friends, your family, and yourself.

Told in a seemingly patchwork fashion that’s deceptively coherent, The Meyerowitz Stories is in some ways a genealogical exercise, examining the strained relationships that form the branches of a cluttered family tree. The crusty patriarch is Harold (Dustin Hoffman), a sculptor of minor renown who is constantly explaining to polite listeners why his work is so underappreciated. He is more enamored of his art than of his three children, each of whom carries lingering scars and resentments from their childhood. Danny (Sandler) once had aspirations of being a musician, but he ended up a house husband, and he’s now crashing in his father’s Brooklyn brownstone after separating from his wife. His sister, Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), works a dull office job in Rochester but often drives down to the city to help keep the peace and laments that nobody pays attention to her. And their half-brother, Matthew (Stiller), long ago escaped the family’s suffocating New York vortex for LA, where he thrives as some sort of accountant (Baumbach is intentionally vague on the details) but battles marital woes and middle-age ennui.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Blade Runner 2049: A Dark Future, Bathed in Beauty and Sorrow

Ryan Gosling in Denis Villeneuve's "Blade Runner 2049"
Tears do indeed fall in rain in Blade Runner 2049, Denis Villeneuve’s grave and gorgeous sequel to Ridley Scott’s 35-year-old cult classic. Consider those tears an easter egg for the original’s ardent admirers. A vocal pocket of cinephilia can surely recite from memory the original Blade Runner’s “tears in rain” speech, delivered mournfully by Rutger Hauer on a desolate rooftop all those years ago. But while the passion of those fans doubtless drove the development of this follow-up, Villeneuve’s film does far more than simply pay homage to its predecessor. When I say that I’ve seen Blade Runner 2049, what I mean is—to quote the first line of Hauer’s soliloquy—I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.

The exquisite craftsmanship of Blade Runner 2049 is staggering, but it is not exactly surprising. Over the past several years—beginning with Prisoners, then continuing with Sicario and Arrival—Villeneuve has demonstrated his ability to deliver robust, stealthily provocative genre films inside striking and elegant packages. And his regular cinematographer, Roger Deakins (aka “the legendary Roger Deakins”), is responsible for some of this century’s most breathtaking images, most notably in works by the Coen Brothers and Sam Mendes. Blade Runner 2049 represents these two artists operating at the absolute peak of their visual powers. This is, quite simply, a movie of flabbergasting beauty. Scene after scene reveals new marvels: a cloaked figure venturing into a burnt-orange desert, clouds of dust swirling around him; a sepulchral, yellow-tinted palace, where light and shadow swim on the walls; a giant glowing hologram, backlit by the night sky, beckoning to her minuscule quarry, a mere man who—like the rest of us—can only gape upward in awe.