movie reviews January 2018

Three Billboards outside ebbing, missourithe shape of watercall me by your namewonder wheel

Ratings range from "0" (watch TV instead) to "5" (a must-see).

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Wonder Wheel
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

While on stage at the London Film Critics’ Circle Awards, actor Kate Winslet tearfully confessed to "bitter regrets" about working with "men of power" who have been accused of sexual abuse. The actor didn't name names, but she's appeared in Roman Polanski’s 2011 film Carnage and Woody Allen’s latest theatrical release, which could also be his last, considering the rumors regarding the cancelled distribution of his next film.

Before contrition overtook Winslet, she played Ginny, a migraine-prone waitress in a post-war Coney Island clam house who pines for her days on the stage. Ginny is now unhappily married to Humpty (Jim Belushi), a loud but soft-hearted slob who when he's not fishing with his buddies off the pier doesn't quite scrape together a living as the ticket-taker for the park's carousel, the Wonder Wheel of the film's title. Neither pays much attention to Richie (Jack Gore), Ginny's redheaded juvenile delinquent son from a previous marriage to a handsome actor.

With the 2013 release of Blue Jasmine, starring Cate Blanchett, some thought Allen had finally exhausted his obsession with tragic Blanche DuBois-like female characters. But this time, instead of a modern interpretation — Anjelica Huston's turn as the inconvenient mistress in Crimes and Misdemeanors is a further example — Allen employs cinematographer Vittorio Storaro's claustrophobic framing and colorist Anthony Raffaele's contrast and shadows and highlights to channel the Technicolor melodramatics of mid-century Tennessee Williams adaptations.

Nevertheless, it's to dramatist Eugene O’Neill that lifeguard Mickey (Justin Timberlake), an aspiring playwright, pledges an affinity, interrupting his summer affair with Ginny to introduce her to one of O'Neill's books and lecture her on the concept of self-deception for survival. It's a schoolish lesson redundant for someone so practiced in delusion (Ginny pretended to like fishing with Humpty just so she could start pretending to be a waitress on the boardwalk).

Such is the fundamental deficiency of Allen's storytelling. From the opening scene, he relies on the narration of Mickey, a nebbish interloper, for the moral supervision of the film. For any role more substantial than a two-minute comedy sketch, Timberlake's acting abilities are limited to a stiff impersonation. When Mickey throws Ginny over for the pretty Carolina (Juno Temple), Humpty’s prodigal daughter being tracked by the mob because she "knows where the bodies are buried," it's hard to believe in the sincerity of the feeling or to care about the consequences. Perhaps this failure could signal the need for Allen to take a closer, clearer look at himself. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted on 1/31/2018)

Call Me By Your Name
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

Based on André Aciman's 2007 novel and adapted for the screen by James Ivory, the acclaimed director of literary adaptations such as A Room With a View and Howard's End, Call Me By Your Name plays like an idealized, haut monde inversion of last year's justifiably celebrated gay coming-of-age drama Moonlight.

Like Moonlight, Call Me By Your Name follows a young boy's discovery of his sexuality. But while Moonlight is set in the real world (in this case, a contemporary poverty-stricken Miami suburb), Call unfolds during the summer of '83 amid the pastoral hills of northern Italy. And as directed by director Luca Guadagnino, the proceedings never shake the feel of a fondly bittersweet reminiscence, all rough edges softened by the intervening years.

Seventeen year-old Jewish-American Elio Perlman (Franco-American Timothée Chalamet) is summering with his parents in the Italian countryside as his father (Michael Stuhlbarg), an American professor, studies ancient artifacts and his Italian mother (Amira Casar) happily cooks, cleans and reads stories to her near-adult son as he curls up on her lap.

Elio may be approaching eighteen, but Chalamet’s gangly physique, peach fuzz, and mama's-boy demeanor convey a stubbornly persistent pubescence. Intellectually, however, he’s a wiz: multi-lingual and a musical prodigy who transcribes Schoenberg and extemporaneously arranges Bach in the styles of other composers.

Often approaching something akin to status-porn, Guadagnino and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom lovingly portray this entitled lifestyle with dreamy shots of the sun-drenched Italian countryside, ancient sculptures, and lusciously sensual food.

Into this familial haven enters Oliver (Armie Hammer), a Jewish-American grad student Professor Perlman has invited to stay at the family villa to help organize his papers. Introspective Elio grudgingly vacates his room for the interloper, initially wary (or jealous) of the newcomer’s confidence (or is it arrogance?). Although Oliver is identified as 24 years old, as portrayed by the 31-year old Hammer, he appears significantly older.

Elio’s initial resentment softens to curiosity and, eventually, to sexual attraction for the hunky houseguest. While Oliver feigns resistance, his passive-aggressive flirtations have already been established, and the two are inevitably drawn to act on their mutual attraction.

For Guadagnino, Oliver seems to embody some sort of male ideal: white, blond, ripped, educated, and cavalier in his attitude toward everyone and everything around him. His education is established in laughably crib-note images of the shirtless Oliver lying about reading Stendhal and Heraclitus. His employment, equally sketchy, is established by an impromptu etymology of the word, "apricot" and an afternoon spent hauling bronze statuary out of the sea.

In fact, Oliver is barely a character, and for two voracious intellects, he and Elio have precious little to say to one another, certainly nothing resembling real intimacy.

Still, one might assume that a gay relationship in the early eighties between an adolescent and an adult twice his age, carried on beneath the roof of the child's parents, by whom he is being paid and sheltered, both of whom happen to be Jews vacationing within the Catholic environs of Italy, would present obstacles. Yet Guadagnino and Ivory rigorously sidestep such concerns, undermining any sense of something being at stake here.

Early on, for instance, much is made of the family’s — and Oliver’s — Jewish identity, yet there is no suggestion that the nearby villagers have concerns about the Jews, let alone the budding homosexual relationship, in their midst. Likewise, Elio abruptly dumps the girl he has been sleeping with, but the action comes with no more consequence than a resigned frown.

The film saves its ultimate deflection for a scene near the end of the film in which Professor Perlman not only acknowledges Elio’s relationship with his assistant, but condones, even envies, it. While Stuhlberg’s preposterous monologue is clearly Oscar-bait, it does finally make sense of the long-suffering Mrs. Perlman, who, like the other women in this contrived world, is content to selflessly indulge a never-ending parade of entitled males.

Like the statuary and the countryside Guadagnino so admires, these characters are ultimately all surface. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 1/31/2018)

The Shape of Water
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

The phrase "movie magic" is too easily bandied about these days to compliment indulgent special effects.

With The Shape of Water, director Guillermo del Toro, who has made a career out of monster movies (Hellboy, Pan's Labyrinth) and ghost stories (The Devil's Backbone, Crimson Peak), has tapped into something that truly warrants the phrase.

Embracing magical realism as well as personal obsessions with horror, history and myth, co-writer and director del Toro has conjured a film that is simple like a fairy tale yet unfolds into surprisingly relevant commentary on an increasingly intolerant culture, our glorification of the "good old days" (when America was "great"), and the importance of fantasy (on screen, on the radio, in books) in our lives. All of which is presented in the cinematic language of a filmmaker at the height of his powers.

At its core, The Shape of Water is a Hollywood B-movie. A remake, even. The script, by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, draws heavily from The Creature from the Black Lagoon and its second sequel, The Creature Walks Among Us. But like the best fables, del Toro transports viewers into a world both fantastic and familiar.

In true storybook fashion, the film's antagonist, Elisa (Sally Hawkins), is an outsider, an orphan and a mute, introduced in a prologue voiceover by neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) as “the princess without a voice.”

In the early sixties, with the Cold War still raging, Elisa works night shift as a janitor for a top-secret US laboratory. At home and at work, she finds support and solace in other outsiders: co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), a black woman in a workplace dominated by white males; and gay neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), who is attempting to revive his career as a commercial artist in an industry that has turned to photography. The world around them is consistently cruel and dismissive.

When an important "asset" is delivered to the lab, Elisa is at first curious then strangely attracted. In a fairytale, he'd be a merman or a frog; here, he is the quintessential outsider, an amphibious bipedal humanoid (Doug Jones) torn from his home, family, and prior existence in a South American river basin

The US military are unsure what to do with the creature but are by-God determined to exploit or destroy it rather than allow it to fall into Soviet hands. While scientists run tests, supervision of the asset is left to Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), who prefers to chain and torture what he considers a dumb animal.

The relationship between the two outsiders moves from that of kindred spirits to romantic partners as Elisa brings the creature food, then introduces him sign language and music.

How far does del Toro take this romance? In modern parlance, all the way.

del Toro's biggest challenge, as it is for any storyteller, is making us believe. To that end, the film relies on the silent performances of its two leads. Sally Hawkins's (Happy-Go-Lucky, Blue Jasmine) brings to Elise a strength, a sly intelligence, and a sensuality that ground the fantastic elements in an emotional reality. Doug Jones, too, beneath practical and computer-generated effects, breathes life into what should be a severely limiting role.

And with, perhaps, one exception (a rare instance of Shannon overacting), what are essentially stock B-movie roles — the Girl, the Creature, the Scientist, the government Agent, the Spy ‑ are so animated by screenplay detail and compelling performances that caricature is transformed to archetype, as befits a fairy tale.

Frequent del Toro collaborator, Danish cinematography Dan Laustsen (Mimic, Crimson Peak) provides a sumptuous palette of aquatic greens and noirish shadows for the ensuing tale of Cold War intrigue and escape; but it’s Hawkins’ embodiment of the indomitable urge for connection that elevates this far beyond a genre exercise. (R ) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 01/03/18)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

In the latest film from writer/director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths), Frances McDormand plays grieving mother Mildred Hayes. Determined to resuscitate the investigation into the case of who raped and killed her daughter, Mildred hires out three billboards near the scene of the crime off a lonesome highway. “Raped While Dying,” “And Still No Arrests?” and “How Come, Chief Willoughby?” the billboards demand.

Notwithstanding McDormand's considerable range — which unfortunately seems to be reduced to a flippant irascibility as she ages — Mildred's sole emotional reaction to her guilt-ridden bereavement (the source of which is revealed in a heavy-handed flashback) is a strident tenacity, intensified by the baffling mechanics overalls she stubbornly wears throughout the entire movie — even while on a date with a man (Peter Dinklage) who has just done her a substantial favor ‑ and over the coat she wears while stocking shelves at the gift shop where she works. McDormand gives an undeniably powerful performance but the role is not dynamic.

Woody Harrelson plays Chief Willoughby, the man the final billboard calls to account by name. Short of violating the civil rights of every man in America, Willoughby has performed a competent investigation based on the DNA sample found on the burned body of Mildred's daughter. Willoughby expects the case to break in the same way all small-town crime gets solved — when someone overhears the perpetrator bragging about committing the crime at the local bar.

But before that can happen, McDonagh, who in his last movie proved to be a fan of a meta narrative, plays tricks with the story. Not since Alfred Hitchcock's sleight of hand, forcing viewers to switch identification, if not allegiance, from Marion Crane to Norman Bates in 1960's Psycho, has a MacGuffin been used so audaciously in place of plot. Viewers hoping for a showdown between McDormand and Harrelson must instead make do with one between Mildred and Willoughby's hotheaded deputy Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell.

Bullied by an overbearing mother (Sandy Martin) and stupid enough to answer "What?" when Mildred addresses him as “Hey, f**khead," Dixon is forced to make leaps in intelligence and integrity, spurred on only by a few kind words in a letter from his former boss. Where Mildred's personality is uniformly outraged throughout, Dixon's is miraculously, unbelievably transformed.

There's more than a clue to the overall feeling of the film in the opening sequence. When Mildred approaches Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones), the young media-marketing tycoon in the town, about his terms for renting the billboards, he's reading a paperback of Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Later, after a brutal encounter with Dixon, Red repeats the sentiment: life has "no pleasure but meanness." (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 01/03/18)




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