The Shape of Water
Dir. Guillermo del Toro
Whether a fairy tale like Beauty and the Beast or a creature feature like King Kong, there has been an ongoing thread of romantic longing between "outsider" humans and non-humans in fantasy movies for decades. But where those films only dipped their toe in the water regarding lady-on-monster love affairs, with The Shape of Water Guillermo del Toro dives in headfirst. Telling a love story between a mute woman and an amphibious man, this movie could only work with Guillermo's wonderfully mystical, grotesque, and melodramatic sense of filmmaking. Its main concept may lose a few people, but if, like me, you connect with del Toro's sensibilities, you'll find that this may very well be the most enchanting fish romance ever caught on film.
The story is set against the backdrop of Cold War America, where a mute janitor, Elisa (Sally Hawkins), works in a hidden, high-security government facility. Quiet and curious, Elisa sneaks into a lab and forms a relationship with one of the test subjects, known as "The Asset" (Doug Jones), a creature from the wild of South America. Entranced by this fish-man, Elisa continues to sneak into the lab whenever she can, playing music and teaching him sign language, connecting with the creature on a deeply personal level. Unlike her other friends Zelda (Octavia Spencer), her cleaning partner, or her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), who are both "Chatty Cathy" types, she's able to embrace her true self with the Amphibian. They both feel like "fish out of water" - though one more literally than the other.
The performances across the board are fantastic. Sally Hawkins is delightful in this movie, conveying a complex character with no dialogue. Doug Jones' entirely physical performance harks back to the days of the classic Universal monster movies like Frankenstein. Spencer and Jenkins are warm, funny, supportive, and a joy to watch as well. Then there's Michael Shannon, intimidatingly playing the cattle prod-wielding villain. Though his character is the most "broad" of the bunch, I love how the movie continually undermines his menacing qualities with humor. One macabre running gag (literally) involves his fingers, two of which were dismembered; they were sewn back on, but they fail to heal, slowly turning blacker and more disgusting as the movie goes on.
The art direction in this movie, like in all Guillermo del Toro's works, is magical. Everything from the set designs to the costumes to the colors and make-up are incredible, especially considering its $19.5 million budget (del Toro's last film, Crimson Peak cost $55 million). There's a limited amount of CGI involved as well - "The Asset" is an incredible feat of practical effects, looking like a living, breathing creature in a way that even the creatures in Avatar don't fully achieve. Del Toro's heightened aesthetics perfectly blend an early 1960s aesthetic with Gothic horror that feels so fresh and different - like The Iron Giant meets Gotham City.
The Shape of Water at times feels a little too broad for its own good, making its good and bad characters very black and white, and hitting you over the head with its themes of prejudice/abuse of power. But those complaints are hard to hold on to when just about everything else about this movie is so meticulously great. I think Universal may as well give up on a Creature from the Black Lagoon remake, because I doubt it'll get much better than this. The Shape of Water is a gorgeous love letter to cinema and to "outsiders" everywhere who just want to find love, in whatever shape it takes.
Dir. Woody Allen
I guess I have to say up top that it feels awkward watching a Woody Allen movie in today's cultural climate. So many of his movies, from 1979's Manhattan to 2015's Irrational Man, feature young women in relationships with older men, mirroring his own questionable real life relationships (just Google that whole story if you don't know about it). Despite switching the genders, Wonder Wheel also features an old-young relationship, and one has to wonder what's up with Allen's subconscious that he can't help but return to this same story over and over. But despite all that, I've remained a cautious fan of his over the years, and I was able to separate the art from the artist yet again with Wonder Wheel, which I found to be a great addition to the famous Hollywood perv's filmography.
The story follows the intertwined lives of four people living near the Coney Island amusement park in the 1950s. Ginny (Kate Winslet) is an emotionally unstable housewife who's working a dead-end job at a clam house; Humpty (Jim Belushi) is Ginny's beer-gutted, alcoholic carousel-operator husband; Mickey (Justin Timberlake) is a handsome lifeguard who dreams of becoming a playwright and starts an affair with Ginny; and Carolina (Juno Temple) is Humpty's long-estranged daughter, who's come back home to hide from gangsters thanks to her ex-boyfriend. These four people, under the hustle and bustle of Coney Island, all feel isolated and trapped in their own lives. It's a tragic story that shows how life doesn't always result in our own personal islands of paradise.
Wonder Wheel features some of the best cinematography and use of color I've seen in a film this year - directly evoking the characters' moods and distress. The juxtaposition of the family's drama with the "happy" setting is delightfully ironic, and the location is made to feel oppressive and overbearing, with the park's sounds and sights a source of Ginny's migraines. The performances for the most part are fantastic as well. Jim Belushi seems like he was born for this role - he reminded me a bit of Rodney Dangerfield in Natural Born Killers. Kate Winslet likewise plays her descent into a jealous rage perfectly as Mickey starts to exchange flirtations with her step-daughter Carolina. There's something about these "Tennessee Williams" toxic family dynamics that's so watchable.
The weakest link of the movie is Justin Timberlake. Because he's the narrator he sort of brings the whole movie down a peg, unfortunately. He's far less naturalistic than everyone else, with stilted dialogue and over-the-top monologues (there's a cringe-worthy moment where he gives Carolina a ride and says her "face looks beautiful in the rain"). But other than JT, Wonder Wheel is an enjoyable "actors acting" movie that would fit right at home as a Broadway play.
Last Flag Flying
Dir. Richard Linklater
Richard Linklater is the king of the "hang out" movie, which is a tricky genre. It's tough because if you don't like the people you're hanging out with, there's nothing else for the movie to get you on board. Luckily, Last Flag Flying features Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, and Laurence Fishburne as our main crew, and I can't think of three better dudes to chill out with for 2 hours.
The film follows three men who have reunited thirty years after serving together in the Vietnam War: the quiet, lonely Larry "Doc" Shepherd (Carell), the rough and tumble barkeep Sal Nealon (Cranston), and the wild man-turned-reverend Richard Mueller (Fishburne). They get together to bury Doc's son, a young Marine who died in Iraq. Cynical about the military and how it treated his son, Doc decides to forgo a burial at the National Arlington Cemetery and his old buddies help take the casket on a bittersweet trip to New Hampshire. Along the way, the three men reminisce about the past and come to terms with their shared experiences of war.
Despite being played by three of the biggest movie stars today, the conversations in this movie feel incredibly natural, and the three work really well off each other. The characters are all so perfectly distinct, yet together they are able to bond over the pointless, endless cycle of war and violence that pervades our world. Like life, this movie can be moving, sad, hilarious, and heartfelt from moment to moment. I don't know how he does it, but Richard Linklater is fantastic at capturing "humanity," and making even the smallest moments seem important. Last Flag Flying is yet another great movie from one of the best living directors!
Dir. Nora Twomey
From Cartoon Saloon, the Irish animation studio that made The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, comes something completely outside their typical fare. The Breadwinner follows an 11-year-old girl, Parvana (Saara Chaudry), living under Taliban rule in Afghanistan in 2001. After the wrongful arrest of her father, she cuts off her hair, pretending to be a boy in order to provide for her mother and two siblings.
Though animated, this is most definitely not a kids movie. The city is filled with oppressive gun-toting men eagerly looking for opportunities to showcase their dominance. It's a terrifying, dangerous place to live, let alone grow up or raise a family in, but it's the reality that Parvana lives every day. For some reason, I think it's easier to sympathize with an animated character than a live-action actor, and the simple, striking style of The Breadwinner puts you right in Parvana's shoes. Interwoven with the main plot are also some fantasy "storytelling" segments, told through a "cut out" style similar to South Park (only less crass), which showcases not only some beautiful animation but also the importance of stories to help us learn from the past.
The story was a bit simple, and, while gorgeous, I wasn't a huge fan of how the "cut out" storytelling device connected with Parvana's story, but overall The Breadwinner is yet another strong outing from Cartoon Saloon.