THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017)

December 8, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Recent release JUSTICE LEAGUE is filled with superheroes, but filmmaker-extraordinaire Guillermo del Toro finds his league of misfits and outcasts to be much more interesting – as do I. The numerous possible descriptions of this movie are all accurate, yet alone, each falls short: a fairy tale, fable, monster movie, unconventional romance, sci-fi, cold war saga, and commentary on societal misfits. What is also true is that it’s a gorgeous film with terrific performances, and it pays lovely tribute to the classics.

A government research facility in 1962 Baltimore is the setting, and “The Asset” being secured and studied is an amphibian man that was captured in South America by a sadistic Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) and his electric cattle prod. Now the military, and a 5-star General played by Nick Searcy, is in charge. The lead scientist played by Michael Stuhlbarg certainly has a different agenda than the military, whose focus seems to be more on preventing the Russians (closer than you think) from stealing the asset than in actually seizing the rare scientific opportunity for advancement.

While all the ominous and clandestine government operations are being conducted, a member of the nighttime cleaning crew – a mute woman named Elisa (Sally Hawkins) – makes a very personal connection with the fish man through nutritious snacks, Big Band music and sign language. This is the enchanting portion of the story and is admittedly (by del Toro) inspired by the 1954 classic CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (a personal favorite of mine). Elisa and the amphibian man experience a romantic courtship not unlike what we have seen in many other love stories … that is, if you overlook the amphibious being that makes up half of this couple. In fact, “going with” the story is crucial to one’s enjoyment. Sit back and let the magic and wonder and fantastical nature of del Toro’s imagination sweep you away – just as it has done for Elisa.

There are many elements of the film worth exploring, and it’s likely to take another viewing to capture many of them. The band of misfits is comprised of the fish man (Doug Jones), Elisa (Ms. Hawkins), Elisa’s wise and wise-cracking co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and Elisa’s neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a closeted gay graphics design artist. These are the nice folks/beings who make up the world that seems to be run by bullies and predators (sound familiar?). There is even a religious debate here as it’s mentioned that the creature was treated by a God in his natural environment, and a brief discussion is had over what might a God look like. All of the actors are superb, and Miss Hawkins delivers her second knockout performance of the year (the other being MAUDIE).

“The future” is a central theme of the story, though Elisa is most focused on now – how to find some happiness in a world that has been so challenging. Elisa realizes she and the creature are more similar than not, and she feels his pain each time the power-hungry Strickland (Shannon) pops him with the electric cattle prod. There is an ethereal beauty (and yes, sensuality) to the scenes with Elisa and the amphibian man, and it even leads to a terrific song (“You’ll Never Know” by Renee Fleming) and dance dream sequence. In addition, you’ll notice many nods and tributes to classics such as Mr. Ed, Dobie Gillis, Betty Grable, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Shirley Temple, and Carmen Miranda singing “Chica Chica Boom Chic”. It’s also no accident that the apartments of Elisa and Giles are located directly above a palatial old movie theatre that is struggling to make ends meet. All of these pieces are tied together as Mr. del Toro honors the art forms he so adores.

For those who enjoy such detail, it should be noted that the color green plays a huge role throughout the film … the water, the creature, the uniforms, the furniture, the walls – even the Jello, the pie and Strickland’s (teal) Cadillac. The use of color ties in the ever-present mythology, and the theme of meanness and power versus kindness and love.

Cinematographer Dan Laustsen adds to the magical feel with his camera work and lighting that perfectly complements the characters and tone. Oscar winning composer Alexandre Desplat delivers yet another spot on score that not only syncs with story, but also the numerous classic songs included. Guillermo del Toro is one of the most creative and inventive contemporary filmmakers, and though this one may fall a tick below his masterpiece PAN’S LABRYNTH, it is sure to dazzle and mesmerize those who give it a chance … and let’s hope there are many who do!

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DARKEST HOUR (2017)

December 7, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Cinematic historical dramas, by definition, face the challenge of overcoming a known and documented outcome. Director Joe Wright (ATONEMENT) and writer Anthony McCarten (Oscar nominated for THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING) attempt to re-create the tension-packed few days that literally changed the course of history and the free world.

It’s May 9, 1940 and the film takes us through the next 3 weeks of political wrangling that begins with Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) being named Prime Minister almost by default, as he’s the only candidate acceptable to both parties to replace an ill and weak war time leader Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup). Even King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) is skeptical of Churchill and prefers Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), his friend who is likely better suited as Churchill’s adversary and a contrarian than as the actual decision-maker in this crucial time.

Uncertainty abounds within the government and the top priority of debate is whether to negotiate a peace treaty with Hitler and Nazi Germany, or fight on against seemingly impossible odds in hope of maintaining the nation’s freedom. Perspective is required here, as at this point, Germany was viewed as an unstoppable military force with Hitler as the leader. The war atrocities and his despicable vision were not yet fully understood. FDR and the United States declined to help and Churchill had few allies inside or outside his country.

We can talk all you’d like about history, but more than anything, this is a showcase for the best working actor who has never won an Oscar, Gary Oldman. This is an actor who has played Lee Harvey Oswald and Sid Vicious, and probably should have won the award in 2012 for TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY. Earlier this year, I was impressed with Brian Cox as the lead in CHURCHILL (which was set four years later), but Oldman’s Churchill looks, sounds and moves like the real thing. We see the familiar profile and silhouette in numerous shots, and it’s actually kind of thrilling.

The always great Kristin Scott Thomas plays wife Clementine, and she shines in her too few scenes. Lily James plays Elizabeth Layton, Churchill’s bright-eyed secretary and confidant, and she has a couple of nice exchanges with Winston – especially the one explaining the “V” hand gesture. Another favorite line has a character state, “I love to listen to him. He has 100 ideas every day … 4 of which are good … 96 of which are dangerous.” It’s this type of writing that emphasizes the opposite approaches between this film and Christopher Nolan’s DUNKIRK, which utilized minimal dialogue as opposed to the emphasis on words taken by Mr. Wright’s film.

We go inside the House of Commons to experience real political gamesmanship, and see the hectic activities inside the war room as typewriters are being pounded while strategies and alliances are being formed. It’s an example of politics driven by a fear of action (by most) while there is a touch of hero worship as Churchill stands alone for much of the film. Some creative license is taken as Churchill rides the Underground (subway) in order to connect with citizens and take their pulse on war … despite most having no clue just how desperate things are. We see tremendous and tragic shots of Calais, and the wide range of camera work really stands out thanks to cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, who also masters the indoor lighting and shading.

Operation Dynamo at Dunkirk is discussed briefly (this would be the perfect companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece from earlier this year), but mostly this is the personalization of those who politicize war. The good and bad of history is made up of people, good and bad. Yes, there are a few too many Hollywood moments here, but Oldman does capture the pressure, isolation and belief of the historical figure who helped save a country, and perhaps the world. We hear two of Churchill’s most famous speeches: the “Never Surrender” speech to Parliament and “We shall fight them on the beaches …” prompted by the red glow of the “on air” radio light. There are many published books that provide more detail, but Oldman’s performance does guide us through what the Prime Minister must have gone through … and that’s worth a ticket and a gold statue.

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WONDER WHEEL (2017)

December 7, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s worth saying again – Woody Allen (age 82), regardless of what you think of him personally, is remarkable in his ability to create, write and direct a new movie each and every year. That being said, after watching his latest, it should be noted that he is the one filmmaker who really shouldn’t ever write a story with a step-daughter as a character … especially if romance is involved. Sometimes we just can’t separate the art from the artist, no matter how hard we try.

The setting is Coney Island in the 1950’s, and our narrator is a charming lifeguard recounting the ‘one summer’ story of a carousel operator, his beaten-down (and beaten-up) wife, and a surprise visit from the husband’s adult daughter. The lifeguard is Mickey, a dreamer and would-be writer played by Justin Timberlake. The carousel operator is known as Humpty and is an alcoholic lout played by Jim Belushi, while his wife Ginny, disillusioned that life has crushed her dreams, is played by Kate Winslet. Humpty’s daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) is on the run from her mobster husband, and seems to cause trouble without really trying. Ginny’s young son Richie (Jack Gore) also lives with them. He is a pyromaniac and movie fanatic – two pastimes effective at avoiding school.

Director Allen utilizes a beautiful color palette combined with nostalgic sounds and music to create a look that he then blends with a story and performances that seem to intentionally knock-off Tennessee Williams. Belushi, Timblerake and Winslet in particular come across as overly-theatrical in their approach to heavy dialogue – these characters are defined more by what they say than what they do.

Ginny plots to keep Humpty off the booze so he doesn’t hit her; all the while, she is sneaking off to enjoy the talents of the young lifeguard who lacks the fortitude to prevent her from falling too hard. Humpty is thrilled for a do-over with Carolina and reverts to treating her as his little girl … despite the mob contract lingering over her head. It’s impossible to miss the similarities between the redheaded Richie and young Alvy from Mr. Allen’s classic ANNIE HALL (who described living under the Cyclone).

As Ginny half-efforts parenting her troubled young son, she also juggles the guilt she carries from cheating on her first husband. Simultaneously, Mickey the lifeguard starts falling for Carolina, as the mobsters close in. Periodically Woody flashes his writing brilliance, as in this exchange between Carolina and Mickey: She says, “You’ve been around the world”, and he responds, “Yeah, but you’ve been around the block.” So despite the look and feel of nostalgia, the themes are timeless … cheating and abusive spouse, disillusioned adults, and youngsters rebelling in hopes of attracting attention.

The too-often blustery dialogue syncs with the too-often over-acting, yet cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (winner of 3 Oscars – APOCALYPSE NOW, REDS, THE LAST EMPEROR) keeps things visually appealing throughout. The only “quiet” moments occur as Richie is lighting yet another fire. Recurring issues of migraines, booze, stress, moodiness, and rain are prevalent, and perhaps the saving grace is that we are left singing Jo Stafford’s “You Belong to Me”.

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DR. SEUSS’ HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS! THE MUSICAL

December 7, 2017

Opening Night December 5, 2017

Winspear Opera House – Dallas, TX

 

 It’s pretty easy to tell if a stage production is “working”. For a tragedy, we hear sniffles emanating from the audience, and for a comedy we hear laughter. When it comes to the re-telling of a family Christmas classic, we watch to see if the kids are engaged. Near the end of this touring version of “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical”, most every kid in the theatre is yelling “Christmas” at the stage in a desperate attempt to feed the floundering Grinch the correct line. Of course, Philip Bryan as The Grinch knows exactly what he’s doing, and it’s a brilliant gesture to allow the kids in the audience to believe they are participating … just as we believe The Grinch’s heart has grown as he learns the true meaning of Christmas.

The Dr. Seuss book was first published in 1957, and the iconic animated TV short first aired in 1966. In 2000, director Ron Howard delivered his live-action feature film, and Broadway was home to a hit run in both 2006 and 2007. Since then, there have been numerous tours of the hit stage musical, and many kids and families have been entertained by seeing The Grinch, his dog Max and the Whoville residents brought to life on stage.

“Welcome, Christmas” and “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” are the two songs familiar from the TV show, and both were written by Albert Hague and Dr. Seuss. There are new elements to the story, and seven new songs with music by Mel Marvin and Timothy Mason (book and lyrics), including “Who Likes Christmas?”, “One of a Kind”, and “It’s the Thought that Counts”. All the songs contribute to the story-telling, but none are especially memorable on their own. There is a twist in approach, as we first meet Max the dog … a much older Max. He acts as our narrator recalling his days with The Grinch, as they are acted out around him. Bob Lauder stars as Old Max, and has a wonderful voice for narration and singing.

Little Cindy-Lou Who and the rest of the Whoville folks are decked out in a pink, red, and white color scheme compounding the chaotic feel created by the holiday season and by having Christmas stolen while they sleep. The Whoville songs are often difficult to understand, despite being performed energetically. The sets (designed by John Lee Beatty) remain true to the original Dr. Seuss book and the centerpiece Christmas tree is especially wonderful.

Of course, what everyone comes to see is The Grinch. His green costume (designed by Robert Morgan) with creepy long fingers is a sight to behold, and Mr. Bryan takes full advantage of the spotlight, both with his physicality and his wide-ranging voice. At various times he reminds of Michael Keaton in BEETLEJUICE (1988), Jim Carrey from the 2000 film, and even The Joker from THE DARK NIGHT (2008). The kids are especially attentive while The Grinch is on stage, as are the much older kids (known as adults) in the audience.

Any production of The Grinch is challenged to overcome the iconic voices of Boris Karloff and Thurl Ravenscroft from the TV version, as these men possessed two of the most recognizable and iconic voices in entertainment history. Director Matt August has been behind both Broadway productions and numerous national tours, and he certainly puts on an entertaining show – assisted here by the live orchestra conducted by Peter Nilson, and some contemporary touches including a laugh-inducing belch, and a hashtag for the milennials. It’s been 60 years since the book was published, and the mean old Grinch and his dog Max can still entertain us.


KALEIDOSCOPE (2017)

December 7, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Why is it that estranged mothers always seem to show up when we are frantically trying to clean up all evidence of a murder that took place in our apartment? OK, maybe that’s not really a common occurrence, but it’s certainly at the heart of this Hitchcockian psychological mind-bender from writer/director Rupert Jones. His brother, the very talented and always interesting Toby Jones, stars as the quiet ex-con attempting to get his life on track.

A pre-credit opening scene has Carl (Toby Jones) borrowing an uncharacteristically flashy (and quite hideous) shirt from a helpful neighbor for his date which was arranged online. After passing out on the sofa, Carl discovers his date Abby (Sinead Matthews) dead in the bathroom and flashes back to a brief moment of violence. Both Carl and we viewers are disoriented – a sensation that sticks with us until the end credits roll.

An ominous voicemail leads to a visit from Carl’s mother, played by Anne Reid. What follows are Mommy issues galore (on par with PSYCHO in this department). Mother and son have irreconcilable differences over something in the past, but she clearly understands his ‘tendencies’ better than he does – especially those related to women, alcohol and violence.

Director Jones has a very interesting visual style, as well as a unique approach to story-telling. He expects commitment and attention from viewers, and rewards those who play along. Despite the claustrophobic feel of Carl’s apartment, there are some creative camera angles to go with the imposing nighttime shots of the building’s exterior.

The three main actors are all excellent. Ms. Reid is a screen veteran who has spent most of her career on British projects, and she excels as the slightly creepy, domineering figure in Carl’s life. While the dialogue is minimal, Mr. Jones and Ms. Matthews, as Carl and Abby, have one exchange that really stands out.

Abby: “You’re a sneaky snake

Carl: “What do you think that makes you?”

Abby: “Nasty

It’s such a raw moment, and a turning point (along with the voicemail) in their evening. Much of our effort goes into slowly assembling the pieces and clues that are doled out along the way, and it takes a sharp eye to catch some of them … while we are challenged by others to determine if they are dreams, or actual memories. A kaleidoscope changes color, shape and perception as it’s twisted – just like this movie. It’s a fun ride if you enjoy the twists and turns of determining which parts of a nightmare are reality and which parts are something else.

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LIVING ON SOUL (2017, doc)

December 3, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Barely a year after the 1969 Woodstock festival, both Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin were dead. Fortunately, the movie cameras were rolling to capture their electrifying performances for generations to come. A few years later, director Martin Scorsese (an assistant director on WOODSTOCK) was there to capture on film the final live performance of The Band (and many famous friends) in THE LAST WALTZ. Jump ahead to 2014 and co-directors Cory Bailey and Jeff Broadway were at the historic Apollo Theater to capture the 3 night sold out shows honoring Daptone Records.

The Harlem venue and stage has seen many memorable performances from icons such as James Brown, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holliday, but even according to historian Billy “Mr. Apollo” Mitchell, this was an event for the ages. Among those delivering the highest level of soul, funk, gospel and R&B music were The Dap-Kings, Charles Bradley, Naomi Shelton, Como Mamas, Antibalas, The Budos Band, and of course, the great Sharon Jones.

In addition to the energetic and energizing performances, the film mixes in some back story for many of the artists, plus insight from Daptone Records co-founders Gabe Roth (aka Bosco Mann) and Neal Sugarman (they know plenty about funk!). If the on stage dynamics weren’t so amazing to watch, we might wish for even more history being told, but not much can compete with Sharon Jones kicking off her shoes for a rousing rendition of “Get Up and Get Out”.

I promise you’ve never heard a cancer-free proclamation like the one from Ms. Jones, who was also front and center in the 2015 documentary MISS SHARON JONES!. Unfortunately, the cancer returned and she passed away a year after the Apollo shows. It should also be mentioned that Charles Bradley, a centerpiece of Daptone Records passed away just a couple of months ago (September 2017). We can celebrate their performances just as much as the mixture of black and white who perform together on stage, while the cheering and dancing in the crowd comes from a surprising blend of the same. It’s a stark reminder of how music can unify even while most of society fragments.

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THE TRIBES OF PALOS VERDES (2017)

November 30, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Since there is always “trouble in paradise”, perhaps living in paradise shouldn’t even be a life goal. There are certainly less expensive ways to enjoy a nice view than relocating the family from the frozen Midwestern leisure of Michigan to the ultra-rich, keeping-up-with-the-Joneses hypocrisy of Palos Verdes. Joy Nicholson’s 1997 book has been adapted for the screen by writer Karen Croner. Brothers Brendan Malloy and Emmett Malloy co-direct in what appears to be their feature film debut after 15 plus years of music-related videos, shorts and documentaries.

The Masons move into a cliff-side mansion in Palos Verdes. The breathtaking Pacific Ocean view is supposed to offset the homogenized exclusive suburbia punctuated with manicured lawns, freshly painted homes, and close-minded wealthy folks. That works for Phil (Justin Kirk), the cardiologist who does see this as paradise and hopes his family will feel the same. His wife Sandy (Jennifer Garner) is struggling with depression, and their twin 16 year old kids Medina (Maika Monroe) and Jim (Cody Fern) are personality opposites … he being the popular kid, while she is a loner.

Since we all know new curtains don’t fix a broken window, the fractured family is soon on full display. The dysfunction came along as part of their relocation and much of this can be traced to Sandy’s manic-depressive state. The stress-related fallout is ugly. Phil finds comfort in the arms of their Realtor (Alicia Silverstone), who scores a doctor to go along with her commission. This sends Sandy spiraling down the rabbit hole, as Jim starts experimenting with drugs, and Medina seeks peace on a surfboard that she procured through a most unusual negotiation.

Most of the story is told from Medina’s perspective, and Ms. Monroe excels. Her breakout role was a couple of years ago in IT FOLLOWS, and though she’s a bit too old to play a 16 year old, she is so talented and relatable that to whatever extent the movie works for you, it’s likely to be because of her. The way she handles the cold distance between she and her mother is heartbreaking, yet her sadness and frustration at being the only one recognizing the fall of brother Jim is truly devastating.

The ultra-angst is sometimes a bit too heavy, as is the over-use of slow-motion and the overbearing indie music (as you might expect from music video directors). Many will hail Jennifer Garner’s performance since it is so far removed from her usual grinning and lovable type, but I found her a bit too extreme and trying too hard. Despite these issues, the mystic draw of the sea makes perfect sense as Medina literally surfs the choppy waves of life. A threat of disaster is always on the cusp, and the filmmakers take full advantage of the contrasting beautiful setting. Finding our tribe is a key to life and we are privileged to follow along with rising star Maika Monroe’s fabulous performance.

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