Tag Archives | Scott Holleran’s movie reviews

Movie Review: The Shape of Water

The Shape of Water by director Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy, Crimson PeakPan’s Labyrinth) stylizes horror, mixes it with romance and comedy and wraps it with anti-Americanism. For all the visual flourishes, fancy trappings and stylization, however, Fox Searchlight’s film is distinctly repetitive, dull and predictable. This amounts to a lavish diatribe against America, humanity and life.

The highly praised Del Toro’s as gory, lush and death-obsessed as ever and his hybrid of a sequel to and remake of the Fifties’ B-movie horror classic Creature from the Black Lagoon knits too many sections and themes and comes up dry. In another fine performance, this time as a villain, for a change, Michael Shannon (Midnight Special, Mud, Take Shelter) is the heavy-handed movie’s only major conflict, portraying a racist, sexist boor who reels in a gill-man from an Amazonian river in 1962 and proceeds to torture, taunt and house the water-man or fish-man (Shape never explains what it is). With so many reasons to hate this monster, the blatant metaphor Shape keeps hitting the audience with, you almost want to look deeper for what motivates Shannon’s evil Mad Men-type, a white male sexual predator in case you miss that he’s evil. But The Shape of Water keeps characters plain, simple and obvious. Like Call Me By Your Name and Moonlight, sensory immersion trumps character, plot and theme.

Shannon’s skill, gorgeous photography, production design and Alexandre Desplat‘s ethereal musical score are almost enough to divert attention from the fact that this slow-moving episode hasn’t much to say or show other than that ignorance is bliss, men are monsters and America was never great, let alone the greatest. Sally Hawkins (Godzilla) plays a mysterious facility’s custodian, Eliza Esposito, an absent-minded woman with a disability who falls in love with the gill-man for no apparent reason, except that she’s terribly lonely. This piece of condescending character development, is, if you think about it, ignorant in its own way.

The mute woman lives alone above a grand Baltimore movie palace in an equally grand apartment next door to her best friend, an unemployed artist who’s homosexual (Richard Jenkins, trying not to be a stereotype with some success). That a cleaning woman or an out-of-work painter can afford such a pad in 1962 tips that this is an absurdist or surrealistic story, pure fantasy, further established by the fact that the custodian’s such an other-worldly person as to barely be functional. She chronically shows up late for work, at other workers’ expense, hardly does her job and listens to co-worker and pal Zelda (Octavia Spencer, Gifted, Black or White, Hidden Figures) kvetch about her husband. All you know about this plain woman is that she masturbates, rides the bus and feels separate from the rest of the world. Yet she never really makes an attempt to connect or align with it.

And she was orphaned and left by the river as a child, one of several water signs that run incessantly throughout The Shape of Water. If there were some sense of how the janitor Esposito ended up as kind and non-compliant, this film might have been more involving. Doug Jones as the creature is mostly a computer-generated, performance captured role, without the technical touches of, say, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, so fish-man is confined to reactions, instincts and urges.

This appears to be central to The Shape of Water‘s point that humans are ultimately most human in the silence of dreams and underwater, the sort of detachment from this world, un-reality or anti-reality that Del Toro depicts as a matter of course. Sure, he includes a clip of Shirley Temple tap dancing with Bill Robinson, puts on old records for romance and makes sure that the silent, lonely woman is surrounded by nice things in her home. But The Shape of Water, like Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, always comes back to blood, water and body parts. It exists to horrify.

What’s intended to pull this horror off is the straight, white, American male villain, the most hackneyed, predictable Hollywood villain besides the businessman, minus the mustache-twirling. The character’s a stand-in for the vulgar, uncouth president. Shannon’s villain even uses the word pussy.

In a deeper sense, Del Toro’s movie’s a preachy visual critique of America, complete with the tidbit that Kellogg’s Corn Flakes was created as an antidote to masturbation. The only nuclear family is depicted as cartoonish. They even watch cartoons, such as Mr. Magoo. Everything American circa 1962, from missionary position sex and a happy, middle class family to the U.S. military, is portrayed as meaningless, malicious or worse. Every presumably straight, white, American male character is depicted as daft, incompetent, sadistic, racist or monstrous.

The character that comes closest to meeting that description who isn’t undignified or malignant is a devoted Soviet spy (Michael Stuhlbarg, Call Me By Your Name). Depicting Soviet Russians as capable of humanism is certainly one way to acknowledge the centenary of the bloodiest dictatorship on earth.

Besides the creature, The Shape of Water‘s angelic character is Hawkins’ lonely, lustful custodian, who tempts the gill-man Eve-like with an egg, fantasizing before teaching him sign language, Benny Goodman and sex (again, without regard for others). The Shape of Water is a polished jumble of themes and genres which deliberately never takes, let alone holds, a shape.

Movie Review: Star Wars: The Last Jedi

The eighth Star Wars picture, The Last Jedi, underwhelms. This begins to become apparent with the lackluster three-paragraph opening crawl, a series staple. It thins and flattens out from there, though readers should note that I do not regard any of these films as great motion pictures.

That said, I gave 2015’s entry, The Force Awakens, a positive review (as well as a tepid recommendation of last year’s Star Wars-themed Rogue One). Nearly everything about The Last Jedi is mediocre, formulaic and, frankly, as fresh and exciting as waiting in line at a government checkpoint for permission to travel.

Written and directed by Rian Johnson (Looper), characters return, picking up after the end of The Force Awakens. This means that Han Solo’s son, Ben (Adam Driver), spunky Rey (Daisy Ridley), dastardly Hux (Domnhall Gleeson), plucky Poe (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), Luke (Mark Hamill), Leia (the late Carrie Fisher) and the usual creatures and droids are back (with new ones, too). Isaac and Driver fare best this time out.

Most of the cast have cardboard roles with dreadful lines. Luke delivers at least three lines referencing the island where he lives and they all stick out without support or exposition. This is not necessarily Hamill’s fault. But the screenwriting impairs what ought to be his command performance as Luke Skywalker.

Each cast member seems directed to act out each role with sameness, which is not to be confused with consistency. There’s no range here. For example, Rey’s composed and very 21st century in dialogue while gallivanting on Luke’s island one minute, but she’s an emotional New Age wreck the next. Whether Rey’s crying, hugging, holding hands, mind-melding or jabbing with her lightsaber, she’s too on her mark, pat and scripted. In action scenes, for instance, she’s always screaming, moaning and breathing heavily like it’s a command she’s executing rather than an experience she’s having.

It’s not just Rey. Even Oscar Isaac (Ex Machina, Agora), looking thinner and noticeably trying to breathe life into the role, stiffens. Boyega’s Finn fares worst, not merely because the already-underdeveloped character has the least to do that matters to the plot, other than as a prop for a new Asian tomboy character (Kelly Marie Tran). Only Driver owns his role, physically imposing himself extremely well, making sensitively dark, tormented Ben/Kylo Ren the most interesting part of The Last Jedi. The less said about the late Miss Fisher as Leia, the better.

Snappy comebacks are gone. So, largely, is any sense of fun. Even a segment of the picture set in a galactic Monte Carlo-like getaway lacks playfulness and stamina, existing strictly to serve The Last Jedi‘s theme that the “downtrodden” are inherently noble and the upscale are inherently not. It’s as though everything’s deployed to serve a specific plot or marketing function. The stilted quality pervades The Last Jedi. The sameness suctions both its sense of life and nostalgia. What are probably final scenes of iconic characters with other iconic characters amount to lost cinematic opportunities.

Add multiple plot points pushing a kamikaze-sacrifice morality, several scenes which seem to have been storyboarded solely to please PETA, as against adding, alleviating or advancing action and a bombastic score and The Last Jedi underperforms. Potentially interesting scenes, such as a spearfishing moment when two of the good guys appear to prepare for a bite to eat, are cut, lost or mangled. Remember when Yoda trained Luke on Dagobah? Scenes lingered and the extended sequence added depth, danger and mystery to both characters and enhanced The Empire Strikes Back. Here, such bonding moments are pushed away, sacrificed as quickly as characters’ lives. A ghostly space float scene stops all motion and takes the audience out of the movie.

Long and choppy, dragging for stretches without action, Star Wars: The Last Jedi too easily makes the audience want to affirm one character’s declaration that “it’s time for the Jedi to end.” Creator George Lucas has said he made nine stories in his space saga. This laborious eighth is a mediocrity.

Movie Review: I, Tonya

I, Tonya by writer Steven Rogers (P.S. I Love You, Stepmom) and director Craig Gillespie (The Finest Hours, Lars and the Real Girl) is a scathing indictment of American culture. Starring Margot Robbie (The Legend of Tarzan, Goodbye Christopher Robin) as U.S. figure skater Tonya Harding, the film satirizes today’s lynch mob-media culture, tracing it back to its surge in the nasty 1990s, climaxing in the year 1994, when Harding’s winter Olympics contest with teammate Nancy Kerrigan took the country by storm after Kerrigan was brutally downed in an attack.

Of course, 1994 was the year the butcher of Brentwood, O.J. Simpson, took the media by storm, too. One of the best and undersold aspects of I, Tonya is its ability to turn sarcasm and satire upon the audience, public and nation, morphing the movie into a proper reflection of this rotting America. Simpson is a perfect counterpoint to Harding in terms of measuring the injustice of trial by public opinion.

This is a fictionalized movie based on fact, not a documentary, and titles clearly mark the source material. But Gillespie, whose movies tend to take intense interest in the roots of human action, and writer Rogers, whose scripts tend to portray women as intellectually strong and rational, combine their talents with Robbie’s outstanding performance (she’s a producer here as well). The result is an entirely absorbing satire which trims its humor until what’s left is the raw, bitter truth about a victim who is prejudged as a caricature and sent down the media grinder. Bobby Cannavale plays a Hard Copy tabloid type who rightly observes that his tawdry show was disowned by mainstream media — before the media aped trash media and became just like it.

Indeed, trash — the exact term the media and skating subculture tagged to Harding — describes what became of American culture in the Nineties. Hard Copy and CBS hosting the Olympics leading the way, the New York Times and New Yorker now traffic in the same unsubstantiated smut, smearing and insinuation. As Harding, Robbie is simply amazing. She captures every bit of the young athlete’s harsh exterior and wounded interior, qualities which were always apparent and made Harding’s skating and melodramatic behavior so involving to the public. Robbie portrays every physical, mental and psychological development in the Pacific Northwest-based Tonya Harding story; the muscular, frizzy-haired, foul-mouthed skater with braces who tried too hard, ruthlessly schemed and competed and reeked of ordinary insecurities.

Harding also skated a triple axel, which I, Tonya doesn’t diminish. It lets this achievement sneak up and sit there, in front of you, over and over. Eventually, as various characters break the wall in first-person narratives after the facts, the audience realizes they’re laughing at the expense of someone’s ability or attempt to acquire knowledge and develop her ability, to the extent figure skating is and/or should be considered a sport (and one of the issues the movie raises is how Harding’s hard athleticism is subjugated to poise, frills and beauty).

If she’s always spouting lines such as “it’s not my fault”, and she is, her mother (Allison Janney, arch as ever in a butch bowl haircut) explains why. This woman is an example of the worst type of parent. She embodies horrible ideas — self-sacrifice as a virtue, man-hating via feminism, brute strength over rational thought — and she means it. Janney’s terrific as always, and it’s not her fault if critics and audiences find her characterization fundamentally funny. Watch her character from frame to frame for a portrayal of pure evil. Even her musical cue, Cliff Richard’s “Devil Woman”, one of many on-target pop song choices in I, Tonya, warns the discriminating audience of what’s to come.

“Kiss yer muther goodbye,” Janney’s working class mother seethes to her daughter early in the picture in another clue about why she hovers over the child. How could Tonya Harding not be drawn to a wife-beater like the man she marries (Sebastian Stan, Captain America, Winter Soldier, Civil War, The Martian)? In scene after scene, Harding is tossed between the two like a punching bag between boxers, ending up as bruised, nasty and embittered as you’d expect. When she spits a vulgarity at a judge, you wonder how she’s kept the anger in check for so long.

But, on some level, with her coach Diane (Julianne Nicholson nailing every scene) as the most rational person in the movie, Tonya Harding loves to skate as sport. Despite the monstrosities of the irrational motivations instilled in her, and the delusions that burrow around her rise to fame and lead to the assault on Kerrigan, this much comes through, complete with end titles and scenes that let the audience decide for themselves what to make of the damaged athlete who did her best.

More than anything, I, Tonya casts doubt upon today’s Me, Too culture of prejudice, rash, snap judgments and high and mighty moralism. It makes you look at a 23-year-old skater based on facts, transcripts and performance. With a David Letterman Top Ten bit as bait, complete with Letterman’s own brand of vulgar humor at the expense of someone’s race, I, Tonya does so through the lens of your own tendency to fall for sarcasm, cynicism and lynch media-driven mobs.

Is what happens funny when it happens to you? Tellingly, the jaded, young audience I saw this with in hardened Hollywood went from tipsy sneers and snickers to tears during the show.

The movie doesn’t exonerate Tonya Harding and it doesn’t pretend to try. Instead, to the tune of Siouxsie and the Banshees’ version of “The Passenger” as an angry, weary cry against the status quo, I, Tonya depicts the byproduct of bloodlust in realistic terms. What’s left is a downtrodden woman cast out, putting on a mask, with too much rouge, a vulgar mouth and a harsh shade of lipstick. The skater branded a tough tart may have had a hand in doing something very wrong and she certainly accomplished something exceptionally good. I, Tonya shows what making fun of everything costs everyone, especially someone with skill and the desire to be the best.


Movie Review: Call Me By Your Name

The long, slow and pseudo-sensual Call Me By Your Name has some lovely moments and persuasive performances but its charms are lost amid an obvious and heavy-handed Dionysian theme.

Written by James Ivory (Maurice), director Luca Guadagnino lays evocative scenes on Call Me By Your Name over and over. For many, this prolonged foreplay toward a bisexual coming of age, with emphasis on the same sex affair, may press one’s buttons. But I found Call Me By Your Name too light and leisurely and, ultimately, like the moody Moonlight, too neat and contrived. Timothée Chalamet is convincing as the boy and Armie Hammer is equally convincing as the man. Neither role is especially layered or deep.

Neither, by my estimate, is Call Me By Your Name, which takes place in the early Eighties and plays like an extended travelogue with pretty pictures of a drunken, naked paganism or Dionysian fantasy ala 1982’s menage a trois movie Summer Lovers, which this movie resembles, down to 1982’s androgynous pop hit “Love My Way”. This affords the film one of its less blatant, most insightful scenes. Scenes of Hammer’s young scholar being playful, then drifting into a dance alone, as others make the hypnotic, propellant tune their own in movement, advance the plot. Otherwise, looks, actions and lines too carefully signal anything-goes hedonism such as “our home is yours” and gestures such as one in which the hostess offers her seat to the houseguest. At one point, Hammer’s antiquities scholar, visiting “somewhere in northern Italy” to study with the boy’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg, Arrival, Steve Jobs), starts to prove to the boy that he gets his clues and drift when the man matter-of-factly affirms that he’s listened to the boy explain that the man’s sleeping in his room.

Message received.

Most of the movie is like this, which is to say it goes on and on, over and over, with peaches, cherries and apricots (forbidden fruit, get it?), bicycle rides, the boy’s mother really wrapping her lips around her cigarettes and the boy’s father going on about nudes and everything’s rather clear until the boy watches the young man immerse himself in heterosexual, then solitary, expressionism. Flush with lounging around with constant cigarette smoking, female temptresses and riding bikes, man and boy steal away to the Italian countryside, where more happens. At some point, the man reveals that he thinks he might be infected, though this is left dangling.

Pain, with that clue and others, emerges as the theme in Call Me By Your Name, which takes suffering — nosebleeds, masochistic footrubs and other hints — for romantic love. By the time the twist comes into play, as much of a twist as it is, the jerky shots, crotch grabbing and out of focus dreams combine with fluttering pigeons, dripping peaches and neglectful parents to end up at an all too familiar destination.

Call Me By Your Name indulges the beauty of nature, with sleepy meadows and waterfalls, to express the view that true love means enduring pain and suffering. The movie’s meaning redounds to exalted love being impossible to achieve at any age or sexual orientation.

But its sadistic hedonism goes deeper. In Call Me By Your Name, civilization marks the end of sexual bliss, which is portrayed as possible only with ignorance of reality in the Garden of Eden, complete with a classic train farewell. With additional religious tie-ins — both males are Jews, which further cues endless suffering — in comes Hanukkah, headphones and, curiously, houseflies in wintertime, as exit pop vocals wail the question: “Is it a video?”

In spite of its heartfelt moments, this question rings most truthful in Call Me By Your Name, which is neither as moving or original as it believes itself to be. The answer is yes, this film plays too much like a music video, and music plays a role in the plot, too, if not really in character development. It is adept in depicting certain moments of natural sex between man and woman and man and man but, because it is too blatantly intent upon breaching sexual bliss with suffering, Call Me By Your Name cannot honestly or exactly be called a gay romantic love story.

Movie Review: Darkest Hour

If director Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, Anna Karenina) wanted to burnish his cinematic credentials and establish himself as a filmmaker capable of making movies with substance, he’s succeeded with Darkest Hour. If, however, Wright, who answered audience questions following the ArcLight Hollywood screening I attended this week (see my notes below), sought to make a great movie, his picture about Prime Minister Winston Churchill falls short.

The problem with Darkest Hour is not its leading actor, Gary Oldman, an outstanding performer in nearly every movie in which he appears. Despite uneven directing and questionable makeup, Oldman (Book of Eli, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Batman Begins, The Professional, JFK) often shines. As his resilient secretary, Lily James (Baby Driver, Cinderella) also stands out. Kristin Scott Thomas (The English Patient, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) is less fortunate as Mrs. Churchill in an underdeveloped role. The problem with Darkest Hour is its lack of depth. Wright underplays the leader’s greatness and overplays his fallibility, leaving a lighter impression of a heavyweight leader who single-handedly rallied a great Western state to save itself from annihilation.

Churchill’s part of the story barely grazing this year’s Dunkirk is a remarkable tale of courage, grit and mastery of facts, resolve and history. Wright’s emphasis on Churchill’s idiosyncrasies and doubting, as against the confidence, knowledge and principles he used to guide Britain to defeat Nazi Germany, leaves too much that’s essential offscreen and too much of what is not essential on screen.

Close-up shots and scenes of Churchill in doubt, deep thought and consternation, which Wright takes as fundamental to Churchill’s greatest decisions, contrast with the grand scale of his extraordinary call to glory. Of course, it’s legitimate to portray this British prime minister as mired in doubt. But in portraying Churchill’s doubt, and suggesting that how he eased or alleviated it by means of the approval of others, drawing strength from encounters with those some might refer to as commoners, Darkest Hour minimizes the scale and brilliance of the achievements.

Screenwriter Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything) delivers the lines for a clear and coherent case of soaring heroism with realism. The story’s so involving thanks to his script that you can’t stop watching Churchill gallivant with his port, brandy and cigars, citing Cicero and military maps. Oldman depicts with relish Winston Churchill’s eccentricities such as his aversion to the noise of typing keys, his dread of single-spaced copy and his penchant for enunciation and working with young women in his bedroom while naked or half-naked. The stirring words stir — he stresses “buoyancy”, insists that “France must be saved” and plainly asserts that, against Hitler, Britain must reject living in “a slave state”, “wage war” against Germany and that “nothing less than victory will do” “if necessary alone” — while he’s fully self-aware, thanks to his wife.

“Never surrender to servitude and shame,” Oldman’s Churchill says with thunderous conviction.

A man with such forethought, wisdom and rationality needs more than doubt to galvanize an empire to unite against a tyrant and defend itself. Darkest Hour, more than the movie about a similarly inspiring British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, The Iron Lady, misses the depth. It is not enough to see that Winston Churchill experienced self-doubt as a way toward accomplishing his greatest moments. Portraying how and why he marshaled optimism and put it toward putting down doubts would have accounted for moments in full. As such, Darkest Hour ends up being too slight, despite Gary Oldman’s finest efforts, for a proper account of the undaunted British hero. The score by Dario Marianelli (Agora, Atonement, A Long Way Down) accentuates the film at its best.

Director Q & A Notes

Director Joe Wright discussed his film Darkest Hour with one of those fawning press types at the ArcLight Hollywood this week.

The director’s comments explain a lot. Wright said that his commercially and critically panned movie Pan lead to his own self-doubt, from which he gained an appreciation for a historical figure that he said he really didn’t see as having much practical relevance to his own life. He also told a heartbreaking story about the late John Hurt being cast in Darkest Hour as Neville Chamberlain (played by Ronald Pickup). Hurt, Wright told the audience, had been diagnosed with cancer. During the first day of rehearsals, Wright explained, John Hurt (V for Vendetta, Contact) got out of bed, slipped and crushed his hip. Sadly, he was unable to perform thereafter.

Wright also entertained the audience with tales of Gravity director Alfonso Cuaron providing crucial career guidance, Wright’s admiration of movies by Bergman, Fellini, Bertolucci and, for his economy and “precise storytelling”, Hitchcock, and, tellingly, given his preference for playing with scale and characters playing God, Wright’s parents both being puppeteers. He said puppetry gave them as artists a great sense of autonomy. His next project, he said, is a movie adaptation of a novel titled Stoner.