REVIEW: “The Shape of Water”

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No one can deny Guillermo del Toro’s willingness to utilize every trick in the cinematic playbook to create a magnificent visual experience. He has built worlds through several genres including dark fantasy, gothic horror, superhero, and even creature features. Yet despite his keen eye, vivid imagination, and a consistent backing from critics, “Pan’s Labyrinth” is his only film I would call truly great.

His latest movie “The Shape of Water” has generated a ton of awards buzz and is even being compared by some passionate del Toro fans to 2006’s “Pan’s Labyrinth”. Regardless of some things it does well, “The Shape of Water” is no “Pan’s”. But enough with counterproductive comparisons. The point is “The Shape of Water” has a big following and a ton of momentum heading into Oscar season.

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“The Shape of Water” could be called many things – an offbeat fairytale, a political fable, an unconventional love story, an allegory for del Toro’s view of the world today. All of those descriptions fit to some degree or another, and del Toro plays with them with varying levels of success.

Del Toro’s story, with its pulsating Cold War vibe, takes place in 1962 Baltimore. The wondrously expressive Sally Hawkins plays Elisa, mute since birth, who lives in an apartment above an old movie house. She and her next door neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) spend their time together watching old musicals and sharing their struggles. Both fit into one of del Toro’s more obvious themes – the plight of the marginalized.

Elisa works the night shift as a janitor at a secret government facility along with her close friend Zelda (a very good Octavia Spencer) who also fits within the marginalized theme. The facility has just acquired an “asset” pulled from a South American river – a tall, gilled amphibian-man accompanied by Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). He is there to oversee the study of the creature and he’s clearly the film’s chief antagonist. Shannon is great and it’s a role he could probably do in his sleep. And as you would expect he is completely committed.

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But while undeniably menacing, Shannon (of no fault of his own) is also terribly on the nose. Much of del Toro’s more cynical point of view is encapsulated in Shannon’s character. He’s written to fit the mean old-fashioned Red State stereotype and through him del Toro gets to comment on religion, race and a host of other topics. But there is no subtlety whatsoever. You can practically hear del Toro beating his pulpit through much of Shannon’s dialogue.

Elisa’s curiosity and empathy help her to form a bond with the creature (yet another among the marginalized). She sneaks in the labratory and shares her lunch with the creature and plays it music on a portable record player. How is she able to have so much unguarded access to what is called “the most sensitive asset to ever be housed in the facility” and something we find out the Russians are after? There’s not a good answer to that, but they form a bond nonetheless. And after Elisa overhears talk of dissection, she knows she needs to bust the creature out.

As you watch you can’t help but see allusions to “The Creature From the Black Lagoon”, “King Kong” and even “Beauty and the Beast”. But del Toro pushes his creature fantasy further than any of those pictures. For some the film is genuinely romantic but I never had that sensation. The pacing doesn’t give the relationship time to germinate. And there are other things that get in the way – del Toro’s weird use of sexuality; a brief but bizarre dance number (I’ll leave it at that); and one scene which some have called the most beautiful moment in the film yet I couldn’t get over the sheer absurdity of how it played out. For me all of this underserved the romance the movie is trying to establish.

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While it has it’s narrative imperfections you can’t help but love the world del Toro visualizes. Inside the laboratory has a cold, harsh, metallic look. But outside the film takes on a gorgeous glow. Many images stand out for their beauty. It may be a bead of water dancing down a bus window or a brief camera pan across a movie house marquee right after a rain. The creature itself (played by long-time del Toro collaborator Doug Jones) is a fantastic creation made from traditional effects over CGI. Then you have Alexandre Desplat’s lovely, waltzy, heart-warming score which may be the best of the year. And of course the performances which are top-to-bottom fabulous.

It’s tough to know where to land on “The Shape of Water”. On one side you have a world so beautifully visualized, an enchanting classic movie vibe, top-notch performances, and a score that swept me away. On the other hand you have some glaring storytelling issues – an underserved romance, heavy-handed messaging that spells out instead of engaging, peculiar injections of nudity and graphic violence (sorry kids), and key scenes undercut by their goofiness. Yes, I know this is a fantasy picture and maybe I should be more imaginative, but when I’m thinking about these things as the movie plays – that’s a bummer. But did I mention how pretty the world is?

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

REVIEW: “Midnight Special”

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For many, a new movie from an accomplished filmmaker can be a special occasion. Tarantino, Scorsese, and the Coen brothers all have fanbases who mark their calendars whenever these filmmakers have a new project hitting theaters. Jeff Nichols has become that guy for me. Now before I am called out for unduly thrusting him into the company of the greats, all I am saying is that with only four movies under his belt Nichols has a defined vision and sensibility that I absolutely love. Whenever a Nichols film arrives it is a must-see.

“Midnight Special” is his latest film and first since 2012’s “Mud”. For the first time it features Nichols playing within multiple genres but not without adding his own undeniable signature. It’s a science fiction picture with Spielbergian flavor, but at the same time it’s impossible to pigeonhole. Quite honestly I don’t know what to call “Midnight Special” other than one more example of Jeff Nichols’ brilliance as a filmmaker and storyteller.

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Armed with a humble $18 million budget, “Midnight Special” accomplishes many things that $200 million blockbusters rarely nail down. Most notably, a strong and compelling story that trumps an overload of special effects and thoughtful, interesting characters who are easy to invest in. The film looks great as Nichols knows how to shoot a scene and build a load of tension with his camera. But as with each of his other films, the characters are the core of the story.

Nichols favorite (and one of the most underappreciated actors in the business) Michael Shannon plays a man named Roy who is running from the law along with his childhood friend Lucas (played by the perfectly tuned Joel Edgerton). With them is Roy’s eight-year-old son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) in what appears to be an abduction. Amber Alerts spread across Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana. The story becomes a fixture on national TV news coverage. The FBI joins the state and local authorities to intensify the search.

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Here’s the thing, Alton mysteriously possesses otherworldly powers and different parties want him for their own selfish reasons. Roy just wants him as his son, and that gets to the true heart of the film. Nichols gradually lets us in on this father/son relationship that doesn’t always go in the directions you would expect. Another intriguing layer is added when Alton’s estranged mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) enters the picture. Adam Driver is excellent as an NSA analyst reluctantly thrown into the search and the always reliable is really good Sam Shepard playing a cult-like religious leader.

“Midnight Special” is undoubtedly science-fiction, but it also plays around in other genres and with several interesting ideas. It is very much a family drama. It’s a suspenseful thriller. It’s a chase movie. It dabbles in parenting, childhood, cultism, and government intervention among other things. Remarkably none of these things feel underserved. Nichols (who also wrote the story) brings all of these things together in a way that helps to strategically define the world his main characters are navigating.

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Perhaps my favorite thing about the film is that Nichols doesn’t hold our hands and walk us through every aspect of his story. He slowly grants us bits of information while allowing us the space to piece them together ourselves. Sometimes he leaves things wide open, but it is never ambiguity for the sake of ambiguity as we often see in movies. He simply doesn’t answer every single question he asks choosing to allow the open-ended plot point or character to remain a mystery. The vast majority of that works perfectly, but I must admit there were a couple of instances that I felt deserved a little more attention.

That aside, “Midnight Special” is such a satisfying experience from Nichols’ smart script and assured direction to the top-notch performances especially from Shannon. It is an unconventional concoction that doesn’t feed on a desire for mass appeal. Instead it is a unique yet surefooted project that pulled me in and kept me hooked all the way through. I love it when a movie can do that.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

5 Phenomenal Movie Storms

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Think about this, how many movies in some way, shape, or form use some type of storm in their story? I bet there are a lot more than you think. So just for fun I thought it would be cool to look five great movie storms. I’m going for variety here so there may be some you expect to see that didn’t make it. Still, I’m quite excited about these five movie storms and I have no problem calling them phenomenal.

#5 – “Hard Rain”

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In the cheesy but personal guilty pleasure “Hard Rain”, a small Indiana town is flooded during the midwest’s worst recorded rainstorm. Christian Slater is an armored truck driver tasked with getting the bank’s money out of the abandoned town. Little does he know that Morgan Freeman and his band of baddies have their eyes set on the loot. This starts a heated chase through flooded streets, flooded schools, flooded churches, you name it. The storms presence is there throughout the film and the filmmakers utilize it in some crafty and inventive ways. This isn’t the smartest of films but it is a lot of fun. It also features one of the most significant movie storms you’ll find. I just had to sneak it on this list.

#4 – “Take Shelter”

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In Jeff Nichols’ 2011 film “Take Shelter” Michael Shannon plays a man named Curtis who frequently experiences troubling dreams involving a massive approaching storm. This storm is unlike any of the others listed because it represents some important symbolism. These horrible visions impress upon him the need to spend what little savings he has to build a storm shelter for the tempest that’s on the way. There’s real danger approaching and Curtis must protect his family. But is the storm coming from the clouds or from him? Again, this isn’t a typical storm like the rest but it’s essential to this tremendous film.

#3 – “Shutter Island”

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In Martin Scorsese’s underappreciated gem “Shutter Island” there is a destructive storm that hits which changes the landscape of the island housing a hospital for the criminally insane. It also helps trigger several events which are key to this wonderful psychological thriller. Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo play federal marshals investigating the disappearance of patient. While there the storm hits preventing them from returning to the mainland. During the chaos of the storm’s aftermath they are able to sneak in and investigate parts of the hospital they were previously not allowed to see. This provides some key pieces to this twisted puzzle.

#2 – “Portrait of Jennie”

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In the 1948 fantasy drama “Portrait of Jennie” the great and underrated Joseph Cotten plays a struggling painter who is hungry for inspiration. He finds it in a mysterious young girl named Jennie and I’ll leave it at that. In one scene the artist heads out to sea to find her but encounters a violent storm that smashes his boat on a rocky shore. What really makes this storm special are the tremendous ahead-of-its-time special effects. There are sweeping shots of almost mythical cloud formations and stunningly realistic scenes showing the storm tossing the boat around. We also get clever uses of color tints and sound. The amazing visuals won the Academy award that year and the storm plays a good part in this fantastic movie.

#1 – “Key Largo”

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Humphrey Bogart and director John Huston teamed up several times and one of their best collaborations was the 1948 classic “Key Largo”. Bogie arrives at a hotel in Key Largo, Florida and finds it occupied by a group of gangsters posing as fisherman. After a tropical storm hits he ends up trapped inside with the mob boss, his henchmen, and the owners. The storm is key to framing the narrative. It’s buildup, the moment it hits, and the aftermath all play big roles in the film. It’s ominous and menacing and it provides a perfect setting for this compelling story. I’m a huge Bogie fan and “Key Largo” is a favorite of mine.

So what do you think of my list? So many other great movie storms come to mind. “The Wizard of Oz”, “Cast Away” just to name a couple. I’d love to hear your thoughts or picks. Please share them in the comments section below.

REVIEW: “Take Shelter”

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“Take Shelter” is a beautiful and tender yet painful and unsettling drama written and directed by Jeff Nichols. It’s a near flawless exercise in enigmatic but measured filmmaking anchored by an unforgettable Oscar worthy performance from Michael Shannon. Nichols brings a haunting realism to his examination of mental illness and it’s because of our genuine relatability to his believable and organic characters that the journey is so heart-wrenching.

Shannon plays Curtis LaForche, a loving husband and father who begins to experience disturbing dreams and hallucinations. His dreams always start with an approaching storm and as he teeters on the edge of insanity, the storm becomes more and more of a reality to him. Curtis is different than so many of these characters we have seen before. He’s not an bad man. While he does struggle to keep his grasp on reality, he also recognizes it and takes several sensible measures to curb it. He genuinely loves his family and his greatest fear is that the same mental illness that effected his mother will effect him and those closest to him. As the storm from his dreams melds more into Curtis’ reality, he begins working on an old tornado shelter in the backyard. It’s this project that brings his troubles to the surface and it’s the family he desperately hopes to protect that may pay the ultimate price.

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Shannon is simply brilliant in this film. There was no other performance that year that grabbed me and moved me the way he did in “Take Shelter”. There are so many elements to his character and Shannon sells them all. In some scenes you hurt with him as he fights the coming storm. Other times you can’t help but fear him as he loses ground in the war for his sanity. The entire film hinges on Curtis’ character and without Shannon’s captivating work the movie would have flat-lined.

Jessica Chastain beautifully portrays Curtis’ wife Samantha. She’s given much more to do here than in her earlier film “The Tree of Life” but she’s just as mesmerizing. Samantha is a loyal and devoted wife and mother. She’s a woman of faith with an unwavering love for her husband even as things get more complicated. In many ways she is the more sympathetic character in the film. Not only is she the gentle voice of reason, but she must deal with the changes in her husband while taking care of their hearing impaired daughter. She truly is a remarkable woman and Chastain is magnetic in every scene she is in. It’s impossible not to be drawn in by her authentic and subtle performance.

“Take Shelter” moves at a very deliberate pace, slowly developing the story but never getting weighted down by the subject matter. The main characters are so well written and their unfolding relationship keeps things grounded while also raising the stakes. Nichols also does a fantastic job capturing the details and nuances of small town middle America. It’s little things like embroidered pillows and Lion’s Club luncheons that stand out for those like me who are familiar with this part of the country.

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My one problem with “Take Shelter” is its vague and ambiguous ending. Sure it leaves things open for all sorts of interpretations but I’m not sure that’s the best approach for this type of story. I can think of a couple of places close to the end that would have made for a stronger and more moving finish if only Nichols could put down his pen. It’s not that it’s a terrible conclusion to an otherwise great film, but it’s confusing and I would be lying if I said I knew exactly what took place.

“Take Shelter” paints an intriguing picture of an embattled man losing a war within himself. It presents such an authentic family dynamic that makes the consequences of Curtis’ potential fall so much more devastating. It can sometimes be a difficult film to watch but it’s thoroughly rewarding. Shannon and Chastain both deserved Oscar nominations for their work in what is one of my favorite movies of the past few years.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

“Premium Rush” – 2 STARS

premium_rush_posterI really like Joseph Gordon-Levitt and its been fun watching him deservedly bloom into a full-fledged movie star. I’m a huge fan of Michael Shannon and I firmly believe he’s one of the most underappreciated actors in film today. So these two coming together to star in a movie together should be pretty great, right? Well not exactly. “Premium Rush” isn’t a terrible movie by any stretch but it’s also far from being a great one. In fact if you measure the thrilling and entertaining moments against its several flaws, the result is a painfully average film with little to no staying power.

JGL plays Wilee, an energetic free spirit who skipped the bar exam to go to work as a New York City bicycle courier. He flies through the city at breakneck speeds, weaving through traffic and pedestrians on his brakeless bike, for small pay but a huge adrenaline rush. Apparently there is an entire subculture of bicycle couriers who are competitive but who party together and stand up for each other. Wilee’s ex-girlfriend Vanessa (Dania Ramirez) is also a courier as is Manny (WolĂ© Parks), his chief rival for both jobs and Vanessa.

Things turn bad for Wilee after he’s given what seems to be an easy pickup and delivery. The envelope, given to him by Vanessa’s roommate Nima (Jaime Chung), ends up containing a ticket worth $50,000. Corrupt cop and gambling addict Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon) gets wind of the envelope and sets out to intercept it. After getting in deep with the Chinese mob and some loan sharks, Monday is willing to do anything to pay off his debts. He chases Wilee through New York City using his badge as a weapon to get the money.

Ok, I have to admit I had a hard time buying into a lot of this. First off, the grungy bicycle messenger community never interested me at all. Sure it was different but it didn’t even come across as believable. It’s laughable how many laws they break yet they’re able to stay in business. Wilee himself runs red lights, causes car accidents, hurts pedestrians, resists arrest, steals a police vehicle. I could go on but I suppose there is a good reason why they get away with it. The police are some of the most idiotic bumblers I’ve ever seen in a movie. There ineptitude is crucial to moving the story along but that doesn’t make it any less ridiculous.

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There were also issues I had with the characters and some of the performances. JGL is solid as always even though the material gets a little goofy. For example, his character has a corny time-stopping biker ESP ability that allows him to stop time and see all the available routes around a highly congested area. The first time it’s used it’s pretty cool, but after the fifth time I was shaking my head. Then there are the flimsy supporting characters and performances specifically from his fellow bikers. Ramirez ranges from flat to over-the-top. Chung is wooden and seems to resort to line reading instead of acting. Then there’s Parks’ role, a common cookie-cutter character except this time he rides a bike. Perhaps the best work comes from Michael Shannon, an actor whose got ‘off your rocker’ down perfectly. But I even felt his performance was too big and showy. But I don’t put that squarely on him.

But enough of the bad. “Premium Rush” features many hair-raising scenes of bikes zipping in, out, and over New York City traffic at insane speeds. What’s really impressive is that it’s said that most of the footage is real riding and not CGI. In fact, while filming JGL was injured after slamming his bike into the back of a taxi and being thrown into the rear window. There’s an actual shot of his injury shown during the end credits. Some incredible camerawork captures all this with great technique. I also appreciate how the movie doesn’t overextend the material. The film runs a tight and concise 90 minutes which is perfect for the story it’s telling.

As I mentioned earlier, “Premium Rush” isn’t a terrible movie even though my review may make it sound otherwise. It’s impossible not to love the bike scenes as well as the way the camera captures New York City. Unfortunately the movie is plagued by mediocre performances, paper-thin characters, and an overload of head-scratching silliness. Regardless of how exciting the movie can sometimes be, it just doesn’t have enough pop to overcome its flaws. That’s a shame because I was expecting a lot more and there is a better movie lying somewhere underneath the shortcomings.

REVIEW: “Shotgun Stories”

I was a huge fan of the 2011 movie “Take Shelter”. In fact, it was easily one of my top five favorite movies of the year and it featured two of the very best performances of the year. “Take Shelter” was written and directed by Arkansas filmmaker Jeff Nichols and it was only his second feature film. Since I loved the movie so much, I thought it would be worth it to check out Nichols’ first film “Shotgun Stories”. Boy am I glad that I did.  Like “Take Shelter”, “Shotgun Stories” stars Michael Shannon, an actor who is perfect for the type of rural, working class movies that Nichols is drawn to making. It also shows the amazing writing ability of a director who is clearly passionate about his material.

“Shotgun Stories” is set in the small rural town of England, Arkansas. It’s a part of the country that Nichols obviously knows well and that familiarity really shows itself on screen. Michael Shannon plays Son Hayes, a husband, father, and the oldest of three brothers. Son works at a local fish farm with his youngest brother Kid (Barlow Jacobs). Kid has no house or vehicle and lives in a tent in Son’s backyard. Having her fill of Kid’s presence and of Son’s gambling, his wife Annie (wonderfully played by Glenda Pannell) leaves with their young son and moves in with her mother. While she’s gone, Son has his other brother Boy (Douglas Ligon) temporarily move in to give him a break from living in his van. We quickly are introduced to the three brothers and Nichols does a fantastic job of showing us each of their personalities, shortcomings, and quirks.

One day while the brothers are hanging out at Son’s house, their estranged mother shows up to notify them that their estranged father has died. We learn that when they were young their father left them to be raised by a mother who Son described as “hateful”. Their father remarried and started a new family completely leaving Son, Boy, and Kid behind. The boys crash their father’s graveside funeral service which infuriates their half brothers, especially Mark (Travis Smith), the oldest. Mark swears payback and this sets off a series of encounters, some violent, between the two sets of brothers.

“Shotgun Stories” has a pretty drastic change of tone close to half way into the picture. But where many movies have handled it in a clunky and jarring fashion, Jeff Nichols makes a near flawless transition. During the first part of the film there are some genuinely funny, laugh out loud moments. Nichols’ region-specific dialogue is perfectly done with a clever mix of humor that would work for those completely foreign to the rural Arkansas area or to those who are very familiar with the local nuances that Nichols plays with. The movie generates several understated laughs through the brother’s southern banter and peculiar circumstances. I found it to be quite funny at times.

By the tone changes when we see the friction between the two sets of brothers. Nichols shows us a deep-seated resentment that’s been hidden in the hearts of the brothers, especially Son. “Shotgun Stories” really builds a sense of tension and suspense and as you watch you just expect the pot to boil over at any second. The change in tone feels natural and appropriate and I was completely caught up in Nichols’ cleverly structured story which revolves around Michael Shannon’s performance. While some of the supporting performers aren’t all that good, Shannon is nothing short of brilliant and much like in “Take Shelter”, I was blown away by what he was doing on the screen.

With “Shotgun Stories”, Jeff Nichols shows that with the right skills in writing and filmmaking and with a phenomenal lead actor, you can make a strong movie even with a minuscule budget. This may be a movie that many have missed and some may not have even heard of it. But it, combined with “Take Shelter”, solidifies my position as a bonafide fan of Nichols and Shannon. “Shotgun Stories” is wonderfully written, brilliantly conceived, and cleverly crafted. Is that enough overused adjectives to prove that I really liked this film? You should check it out.

VERDICT – 4.5 Stars