Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Winter 2017 Roundup, Part 3

And now for things which are in some ways other than anticipated previously.

I promised myself that this year, 2018, I was going to finally break with the tradition of 2017 and actually catch up with my reviews, and despite a sudden bout of death-flu, that is what I am going to do.  So let's have a look at the last movies we saw in the calendar year of 2017, and look ahead to the year to come.

The General's Post Winter Roundup, Part 3

The Shape of Water

Alternate Title:  Fishfucking

One sentence synopsis:    A mute custodian at a top secret research clinic gets to know a strange, magical fish-creature brought there from the Amazon at the height of the Cold War.

The Verdict:  No, I don't think the alt-title is at all inappropriate, given what this move is about. You go see an R-Rated Guillermo del Toro movie, and you're gonna see some strange shit, man.

I'm a movie critic, and therefore I'm more or less contractually obligated to sing the praises of Mexican fantasist Guillermo del Toro, and to discourse windily whenever his name comes up about how much of a visionary he is relative to the studio hacks that populate Hollywood, etc etc etc... Unfortunately, I've always been hamstrung by the fact that I've disliked more of his movies than I've liked. Yes, Pan's Labyrinth was a masterpiece. Yes, the Hellboy series is awesome. But absent those two, we're left with crap like Mimic, Crimson Peak, Blade II, and Pacific Rim (yes, Pacific Rim was crap. Fight me!). He's a fantastic visual director, one of the few imagesmiths in Hollywood who really understands the soul behind B-movie genres like splatter-horror and Kaiju, but he also brings a real lack of narrative and structural polish to the proceedings, which ultimately result in most of his films turning out to be average creature features with excellent art design. I was consequently nervous about this new features of his, a send-up to Creature from the Black Lagoon, but was somewhat re-assured by the strength of the cast.

So who's in it? Well Michael Shannon, for one, an absolutely stellar character actor who has been in bad movies but never been bad in them, and who here is playing to type as a tightly-wound G-man in charge of a project to capture a fish-man thing from the Amazon jungle and bring it to the United States for testing. Shannon is in his element here, menacing and fragile and awkward and creepy all at the same time, a pastiche of 50s stoicism asked to loom about as only he can. His nemesis, this time around, is English indie actress Sally Hawkins. I've yet to have an opportunity to speak of Hawkins in these reviews, as she's always been firmly lodged in the independent film circuit (she's been in several recent Woody Allen films, and won a slew of awards for a 2008 Mike Leigh comedy). Nevertheless, I now have cause to regret the lack for she is fantastic in this movie, pulling off one of the hardest tricks in the world by creating a comprehensive, three-dimensional character, complete with goals, desires, aspirations, and libido (it's astounding how often the scriptwriters forget that part), all without speaking a word. Her character, Elisa, is a mute, communicating only by sign language and expression, a useful characteristic when dealing with fish-men who do not possess vocal chords. The movie does not infantalize her, which is a rarety for characters with disabilities, and her performance is the best thing here.

The rest of the cast is equally stellar, from Boardwalk Empire's Michael Stuhlbarg as a concerned scientist (movies like this require one), to Olivia Spencer, who is basically playing the sassy black friend, but is really damn good at it, so who am I to complain, to Richard Jenkins as a closeted gay artist who lives next to Eliza, and who, due to his co-star being mute, gets to steal all the best lines in the film. The creature itself, meanwhile (played, of course, by long-time del Toro collaborator Doug Jones), while it isn't the phantasmagorical nightmare-beast of some of del Toro's other creations (the fucking Pale Man has everyone beat there), is toned down into something more humanizable and evocative, which is a good thing, given that the movie requires it not to be terrifying to be pitied, studied, and, eventually, screwed. Yes, screwed. The movie is explicit about this, so if you ever wanted to see a scene where the mother from Paddington Bear has sex with a fish-man, boy, have I got a film for you. I'm not sure if this aspect adds to the movie or not, to be honest, the sequences are fine but it brings up certain unavoidably uncomfortable questions (of consent, for one thing). Then again, this is a fairy tale, and del Toro a modern fantabulist who does not shy away from the adult materials therein, so I suppose I should not complain. The film makes the most of its early-cold-war setting, with everything taking place inside massive ferrocrete bunkers, gargantuan brutalist laboratories, enormous industrial plants, or spiraling, Victorian buildings. Always, the aesthetic seems to be elegant corners carved out of enormous facilities, like the upstairs lofts that Eliza and her neighbor inhabit above a richly-appointed movie palace. None of this is all that uncommon for del Toro, consider where Hellboy took place, but it works with the paranoid structure of Shannon's character, and as a space for Eliza and her friends to scoot about in unseen.

Ultimately, The Shape of Water isn't a great movie, it's a bit too pedestrian a retelling of Creature from the Black Lagoon for that, despite the fish-sex, but it is a good one, in parts a very good one. Del Toro's command of space and aesthetic is entirely intact, and despite the absurdities on-offer, the movie does not embarrass itself at any point. It does seem to think that there's more hay to be made from its central conceit of "look how uptight the 50s were" than there is, given that every film since 1966 has had the same, but that doesn't hurt it overmuch. As such, if creature features are your thing, this film will be an excellent choice. And if not, then give it a shot anyway. Where else are you likely to encounter a sign language explanation of the proper functioning of fish-man sexual organs?

... you know what, I don't actually want to know the answer to that.

Final Score:  7/10


Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

Alternate Title:  Jumanji: GOTY Edition

One sentence synopsis:   Four high school students discover a video game that transports them into a fantastic adventure world.

The Verdict:  The original Jumanji, a 1995 movie by pulp-master-general Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer, Captain America), was not a great movie, but it was a good one, a Robin Williams vehicle that was funny and adventurous when it needed to be, didn't take itself tremendously seriously, and did everything it needed to do in order to be remembered fondly as a landmark of 90s nostalgia. As we presently live in the era when 90s nostalgia is regarded as a lode to be mined by every film studio on the planet, of course we wound up with a sequel, and I probably would have given it not a second thought, save that the trailers... intrigued me. They promised a movie that was fun and funny, starring multiple comedians of note, and placing, front and center, one of my favorite actors working, and the highest-paid man in Hollywood at the moment, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. Dwayne Johnson is a man hewed directly out of calcified charisma, who has been in bad movies but always manages to elevate them at least somewhat, and so I went to see this movie, expecting that The Rock would headline a cavalcade of adventure-comedy and bring a smile to my face.

What I did not expect was for the film to remind me how much I have missed Kevin Hart, and Jack Black.

Kevin Hart is a comedian who rides a very thin line between funny and annoying, and who has fallen off of it before. He generally appears in awful-looking films that I have no interest in seeing, and so I have not had much to do with him in the last several years. And now I regret this lack, because Hart is riotously funny in this movie, easily the best thing in it. With the premise being that four high schoolers are transported into video game archetypes in the world of Jumanji, Hart plays a football star who finds himself now in the diminutive body of... well... Kevin Hart, and is not happy about it in the slightest. The sequences where he tries to exert his will physically against The Rock are exactly as hilarious as you would expect, as both men are skilled physical comedians, and are in their element here. Almost as good is Jack Black, who often plays a caricature of himself, but this time does a brilliant job as an Instagram-obsessed popular girl/airhead shunted into the body of an overweight, middle-aged man. In lesser hands, or with a lesser script, this could all have been played as nothing but a Gay Panic joke, but Black plays the material sermon-straight, which is manifestly the right choice. Perhaps the best sequence in the movie is one where he, as the popular girl, must teach Karen Gillian, a bookish nerd-girl transported into the body of Lara-Croft-style sex bomb, how to be sexy and flirtatious. As to Gillian herself, I've not known her from much beyond certain seasons of Doctor Who, but she's excellent here, playing a semi-genre-savvy high school revolutionary who abruptly finds herself stuck in a crop top and short shorts, and given the ability to dance-fight with armed men. Ironically, the only main character who doesn't pop off the screen the way the rest of them do is The Rock himself, not from any lack of charisma (God no), but because his character arc (the nerdy hero who gets transported into Superman's body, and must discover his inner bravery) doesn't allow for much. There's moments, of course, any movie with The Rock is likely to have those, but overall, the movie puts The Rock in a back-seat position when it comes to the best lines and sequences. It's a weird decision, narratively.

Unfortunately, it's also the only at-all weird decision that the filmmakers made. The new Jumanji is the brainchild of Jake Kasdan, son of the renowned Laurence Kasdan, one of the very greatest genre scriptwriters to ever work in Hollywood (his resume includes Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and four separate Oscar nominations. This may be unfair, but his son has a lot of catching up to do. There's nothing tremendously wrong with the structure of Jumanji or with its direction, but that's only because the movie is as formula as you can get, a structure-obsessed piece of Hollywood fluff, with action setpieces parceled out at precise intervals, between which lie beats of character "drama" so obvious that one knows which way the film is going with them before they even begin. I certainly wasn't looking to a Jumanji sequel to revolutionize my understanding of narrative storytelling, certainly, but it's disappointing that nothing was done to spice the material up beyond hiring comic actors with charisma and giving them license to improvise. And even that doesn't extend to everyone. Bobby Cannavale, a fine character actor whom I know best from various television dramas, has basically nothing to do, playing a one-note video game boss (literally) whose biggest character attribute is the ability to spit centipedes from his mouth. More importantly, a fifth member of the troupe, un-announced by the trailers, turns out to be portrayed by one of the Jonas Brothers of all people (Nick, for those who can tell them apart). The best thing that can be said about Nick Jonas in this film is that he does not embarrass himself. The worst thing that can be said is that the previous sentence was the best thing.

So... Jumanji is not some kind of epochal story, destined to be remembered for all time, nor even a side-splitting classic of modern comedy, but for all that, it is not without its charms. I mean what I say when I praise all four of the leads, even The Rock, who may not have much to do, but mugs for the camera regardless in the best Rockian fashion. I won't pretend that I loved the film, but it's a decent enough little diversion, enjoyable on its own terms, and one that doesn't take itself seriously enough to ruin the proceedings. I can't pretend it will be remembered as a classic, nor that it will be featuring strong in my memory, but for what it is, it's an entertaining film, and one should never become too cynical to appreciate that.

Final Score:  6/10


Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

Alternate Title:  Metastory

One sentence synopsis:    As the First Order attempts to eradicate the last remnants of the resistance, Rey seeks to unravel her destiny as a wielder of the Force with the help of Luke Skywalker.

The Verdict: So, here we are.

It's a new year now, and every movie critic alive, from myself to the professionals, is presently engaged in looking back over the year just ended to see what sense can be pulled from it. Personally, I've been trying to catch up for the first time all year so that I can start 2018 with no review backlog (be still, my beating heart!), but as a result, I feel like I've come a bit late to the discussion of Star Wars, by which I mean that everyone has already commenced calling one another Nazis over their opinion of the film, and I feel sad to have missed my chance to be so-labelled. All joking aside, The Last Jedi has been one of the most polarizing movies that even recent history records. Though it has, thus far, made a billion dollars worldwide, there are those who still see those numbers as somewhat disappointing, given the scale of the all-out global media offensive that has accompanied it (has anyone seen a car ad that didn't feature Star Wars in the last couple months?). More importantly, the responses to the movie from critics and audience-goers alike has been decidedly mixed, with the obvious result that everyone has begun calling one another cucks, libtards, Nazis, racists and citing Donald Trump. Boy do I love the internet.

It's unlikely, given everything, that this review is going to be the deciding factor as to whether any of you reading it go see the movie, indeed its unlikely, given everything, that any of you haven't seen it already. As such, my purpose here must be a bit different than the standard review tenet of "tell the people whether they should see the film", but rather a retrospective of what I, an experienced filmgoer and fan of Star Wars, thought of the proceedings. And the answer? Well... it's complicated.

Let's get some basic elements out of the way. The Last Jedi is, above everything else, heartrendingly beautiful, shot and framed like a work of fine art, with a richness and eye for visual detail that stands alongside any of the great genre works of yesteryear. Certain sequences reference visually the classic shots of the old trilogy, while others showcase the universe of Star Wars in a way that we've never before seen. The soundtrack is spectacular, because of course it is, rousing and classical, and though it lacks any of the singular touchstone leitmotifs like the Imperial March or Duel of the Fates, it still buttresses the action tremendously well. The acting is superb across the board, something not always the case with Star Wars movies, with the standouts being Daisy Ridley (Rey), and Adam Driver (Kylo Ren), both of whom get the best and juiciest material as they both struggle with their place in the universe, with responsibility and duty, with their respective pasts, and with what place they wish to have in the new universe being created. Both of these actors took a while to grow on me in the first movie, but both of them are stand-out amazing here, and feature in several of the best sequences in the film, including a lightsaber combat (I shall speak no more of who is fighting what) that is the hands-down highlight of the entire affair. They are not, however, alone in this, as the returning characters from the original trilogy are just as good, with Carrie Fisher turning in her best performance in the entire series (as is fitting) as the world-weary, but still struggling on, figurehead of the entire resistance, a figure of almost mythical reverence to her crew and officers, and who gets several of the funniest lines in the movie. Mark Hamill, meanwhile, is absolutely on fire this time, playing Luke Skywalker not as simply Yoda to Rey's Luke, but as a bitter, defeated hermit, who has lived now long enough to see the cycles that perpetuate across the galaxy with the choices he and others have made, and wants to be done with it all. The story is consequently less Rey learning the ways of the Force from a wise old master, than it is Luke facing down what demons and flaws he had within him all along, trying to make a younger force sensitive see the larger picture to the mythic events of the day, and trying to provide not only guidance for Rey, but closure for himself. Finally, I'm just gonna come out and say it: The Porgs are cute and awesome. Come at me.

But let's be honest here, all of you already knew all of this before opening this review. Of course the visuals were amazing, they cost over half a billion dollars to produce. Of course the score is excellent, John Williams is a God. Of course the lead actors are great, we found that out from the previous movie. So what do I have to tell you about this film, as a Star Wars film, and its qualities or lack thereof? Well, simply put, this is probably the most daring Star Wars film I've ever seen, one of the most daring major franchise films of all time, purely because of the decisions that it makes concerning what the movie is actually about, both in terms of theme and tone, and in terms of simple plot mechanics. This is commendable, hell in some ways it's downright revolutionary. But it's also the source of a lot of problems, as some of the decisions the film makes, ballsy as they are, just aren't good.

What do I mean? Well, it's mostly a matter of structure and narrative. The concern prior to the film being released was that as Force Awakens was basically a clone of A New Hope, that Last Jedi would basically be a retread of Empire Strikes Back. It is very, very much not that, which is a positive overall, but it also makes the choice of sending my favorite character from the new series, former-stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) down a plot cul-de-sac for the first hour of the movie for no real purpose beyond tendentious gestures at the wider universe that never really pay off to anything. It's not that Finn gets no screentime, for he does, nor that he is unenjoyable to watch during this time, for he is, but the whole sequence is awkwardly-placed, features the worst writing of the entire film, and sticks Finn next to an additional character, new to the series, named Rose. Again, there's nothing wrong with the concept here, Rose is the sort of below-decks, non-fantastical character that we don't get to see a lot of in Star Wars, nor does her actress (newcomer Kelly Marie Tran) do a poor job of portraying her. But the character feels shoehorned into the proceedings, given an immediate importance well beyond the scope of what her position in the narrative would appear to warrant, to the point where I seriously considered the possibility that this was a character introduced in some ancillary related media (a book, comic, or TV episode) with which I was simply expected to be familiar. A similar fate befalls Laura Dern's newly-introduced Admiral Holdo, brought into the narrative with the cinematic equivalent of trumpets to announce her advent, only for her entire plot arc to be a massive contrivance bordering on an idiot plot, wherein many large-scale problems could easily have been resolved with a single word to the right person, and were not solely so that Poe Dameron (still ably played by Oscar Isaac) has something to do for the first half of the film. Yes, Laura Dern is excellent overall. Yes her character arc is resolved in the most excellent manner possible (and with one of the coolest visuals I've ever seen), but all that Admiral Holdo does throughout the film is highlight the enormous pacing problems bedeviling most of the film as characters get shot off in different directions in pursuit of objectives that make little sense within the plot and less sense outside of it. On top of all that, is a massive tonal fault line running through the entire movie, as the earnest, pulpy line delivery clashes spectacularly with more snark-laden comedic lines designed to "take the piss" as it were out of the self-seriousness of Star Wars. It's not that I have anything against Star Wars playing things a little less Buck Rogers once in a while, but you can't match up dialogue from an Edgar Wright film directly next to something out of the Joseph Campbell stable and expect everything to come up shining, as the "let's not take this too seriously" material prevents people from taking seriously the material that comes directly after, begging the audience to take it seriously.

These are all serious problems with the film as a whole, not merely the sour grapes of various retrograde scum whom we imagine to comprise all forms of opposition to our opinions. And yet, I do not see them as "flaws" so much as "unavoidable complications" that arise when you take great risks as a storyteller, and director Rian Johnson, whom I have previously seen very little of, has swallowed enormous risk this time around, to the point where I have to stand in awe, for The Last Jedi is a movie that knows what it is to be a Star Wars movie, a film that plays with every aspect of audience expectation as to theme and narrative and meta-narrative and character, in the service of trying to create something that is truly "about" Star Wars as much as it is of Star Wars. Not all of these attempts work. Some blow up violently in the film's face. But when the movie threads that narrow passage, it produces sequences and character moments that we simply haven't seen before in any context within Star Wars, and precious few in any massive, multi-billion-dollar entertainment franchise. The character arcs for Rey and Kylo Ren, though they are the focal points of the film, work nothing like what I or anyone else would have anticipated, answering questions posed by the previous film(s) in ways that comment on our expectations as much as the characters involved themselves, and diverts the entire narrative theme of Star Wars into directions that it previously has not seen. Things as simple as what Kylo Ren's motivation actually is, what he desires and why he desires it, are fascinating, not so much because of the implications they line up for later films, but because we have simply never explored Star Wars before from these perspectives, and are now getting to do so. The entire plot arc of Rey and Luke on the hermetic island is less a retread of the Dagobah sequence from Empire Strikes Back than it is a metaphysical analysis of what Star Wars is on a narrative level, what sorts of stories it has told us in the past and what stories it might be able to tell us in the future. As much as this matters to Rey, and moreso to Luke, the person actually being addressed through most of it is us, the fans of Star Wars, we who find the series compelling and worthwhile, even if we don't necessarily know (or care) why. There are explosions in this movie. Dogfights and battles reminiscent of the greatest periodicals of WWII (including a bombing-run sequence that has few analogues in sci-fi in any context, mostly because the physics are stupid even by Star Wars standards). There are lightsabers and the use of the Force, and old mentors confronting fallen students on several sides of several coins. There is even comic relief, some of it good and some less so. But The Last Jedi is less a Star Wars movie than it is a movie about Star Wars movies, about legends and stories and what they mean to all of us, here and elsewhere. If A New Hope was a retelling of Joseph Campbell's Hero-with-a-Thousand-Faces theory, then The Last Jedi is a movie that asks us, sincerely, and without necessarily knowing the answer, what it is about that archetypical story that appeals to us so much, and what role such a tale plays in our lives, as imagined above the circumstances that we live in.

So, yes, I would have changed things in The Last Jedi. I would have reduced the presence of characters like Admiral Holdo and Rose and other characters we are told to care about for no reason other than the movie says so, and increased in turn the presence of previously-established, and interesting characters like Captain Fasma and Maz Kanata. I would have junked about a fifth of the dialogue overall, in an attempt to smooth out the cracks between the "Star Wars" writing and the "modern" writing. I would have restructured the plot in a number of major and minor ways. But given the film as it stands, warts and all, I am deeply impressed by it. It's a movie that does not play things safe, as the previous film did, seeking to prove that modern Star Wars films are possible, but instead seeks to show what is possible within Star Wars' framework, not necessarily by telling strange new stories, but by broadening the horizons of what Star Wars means as a franchise and a concept. It's a metanarrative gambit that could only have been spectacularly difficult to pull off, but that the director manages, somehow to execute upon, even if it leaves the film itself lacking polish that one might normally, and with reason, expect from a multimedia extravaganza like this one.

I enjoyed The Last Jedi very much, despite my reservations, and I respect the achievement of creating it even more. What it augurs for future Star Wars movies, I cannot say, as the film's purpose is not really to augur specific things, but to instead instill within us the sense that anything is possible. Perhaps Episode XI will be nothing but a return to the beats and themes of Return of the Jedi. Perhaps the new Han Solo movie will suck. Or perhaps none of these things will be the case, because this is Star Wars, and ultimately, there is a reason we gravitated towards it in the first place. This film doesn't always know what that reason is. But it does know that the reason is there, buried within ourselves and the stories we tell, waiting for the slightest spark of imagination to spring triumphantly to life.

Final Score:  7.5/10

Next Time: The Film Calendar doesn't end with the New Year, I'm afraid.  Next time we get to turn our heads to the Oscar-contenders that came out at the very end of the year, particularly for a primer on how to deal with Nazis.

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