Hot Take: The Shape of Water

I can’t stop thinking about The Shape of Water

The newly crowned Best Picture of 2017 is by far the strangest movie I can remember winning that prize, but moreover I can’t think of a movie in the past that has been as well regardShape of watered and yet so…odd.

Called by some “an adult fairy tale” Guillermo del Toro’s film about a mute woman who falls in love with a literal sea monster (Doug Jones) is a really strange journey of a movie. All of the performances are stellar, it’s beautifully made and has all of the hallmarks of a good movie. Until the plot starts and it becomes this fantastical story about hard boiled eggs and inter-species love.

I genuinely don’t understand why this movie resonated the way it did. Sally Hawkins’ Elisa is interesting, and her line to Giles (Richard Jenkins) that the fish-man doesn’t know that she is incomplete is affecting enough. And Giles’ entire story as a closeted man in the 50s is heartbreaking- especially when juxtaposed with the main plot, but none of it really goes anywhere.

The film never really becomes more special or interesting than its core premise- and that premise is honestly not interesting so much as it’s weird. del Toro trades in the fantastical, and I can usually get into that fantasy world. And, the idea of a romance between beings from different worlds is not bothersome to me- I get that can be a commentary on identity and how love transcends barriers. It’s the fact that this fantastical story takes place in this otherwise wholly mundane universe that feels so jarring. And the fact that none of the other characters really questions it is really odd. If you were living in this world and your co-worker told you that she was having an emotional and sexual relationship with a fish man, you would have far more questions and concerns than these people ever express. It’s entirely “Ok, you do you” from these people which adds to the general wrongness of this movie.

All this is not even mentioning the completely useless and unnecessary spy subplot that fully goes nowhere.

Look, The Shape of Water

is a fine movie. It’s a great example of “Magical realism” breaking through to the mainstream, and if this film winning an Oscar is what it takes to make more niche and genre films gain wider regard then I guess it’s a win on a lot of levels.  But I just don’t understand why this was the one, why did this hit. What appealed to people, critics, and most confusingly Oscar voters – a group of people who rarely make decisions that are outside the box? I don’t get it.

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Review: Trainwreck

Every so often a movie comes along that redefines a genre. A few years ago, Bridesmaids redefined the female-centered comedy and showed people that women can be just as funny as men while being raunchy. With Trainwreck comedian Amy Schumer tries to do the same thing to the romantic comedy by focusing on the comedy and letting the romance just happen.

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I mean, she looks totally put together to me.

Trainwreck should be a romantic comedy by definition. It hits all the tropes and is in general pretty paint by numbers in its execution. But, what makes it special, and why it has been getting such great press, is that Schumer plays the movie so close to reality.

Romantic comedies have always been the world of women. But not just women, a very specific idea of women and what women want. It’s a rather antiquated viewpoint. Women in these movies are traditionally soft, demure, and so in want of a man that marriage is their primary motivating factor while the men are generally hard-drinking, womanizing, anti-love, overgrown children. In the 90s this formula changed somewhat to allow women to be more like the men giving us films that portray women as single-mindedly career focused until a man melts her heart. While entertaining in a formulaic way, neither of these attitudes were particularly progressive nor positive in their portrayal of women.

Trainwreck on the other hand is portrays both sexes as flawed and just looking to be happy. Writer/Star Amy Schumer takes her stand-up persona to the extreme as a woman who drinks to excess and sleeps around only to be surprised by the possibility of love with Bill Hader, a sports doctor who is the subject of an article she’s writing. The relationship is treated as a slow evolution as opposed to the typical meet-cute format that has become so tired. And, the relationship is not shown to “save” her or “fix” her in any way, simply as a thing that makes her happy.

It’s not a perfect movie though. It is very slow moving. Some of the humor seems forced if still funny. Schumer’s subplot with her father (Colin Quinn) is over long and doesn’t really add anything to either the movie or to the characters. In general I found the movie to be very thin- like a good idea that hadn’t been fleshed out enough.

That said, I think this movie does a lot of good for the genre.  Romcoms get a really bad rap for how they portray…everything. Trainwreck does a lot to try to show a modern relationship as relationships really are – confusing, messy, and a melding of two disparate people’s lives. And, while Schumer is not exactly a feminist hero, this is the first movie in this genre that doesn’t go to any extremes in its characterizations and ideas. Everyone is simply who they are and if the relationship works out, great, if not, that’s ok too. The plot of the movie doesn’t really force you to root for either outcome too strongly it only asks that you think everyone gets what they want. Which is why I think this movie is being lauded so highly as- despite its trappings- it’s not even a romantic comedy, it’s a comedy first. It also happens to feature a romance and that is the most refreshing part of this movie. B-

Depths of OnDemand: Hot Pursuit

Continuing our look at some of the worst of cinema in 2015  we have Hot Pursuit a movie that has no idea what it wants to be, which is fine because it also has no idea what it’s doing.

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And now, fancy pageant walking!

See, Hot Pursuit is ostensibly a buddy road movie starring Reese Witherspoon as the bumbling by the book cop and Sofia Vergara as the witness she must protect. And, for a portion of the movie it plays out like you would expect. Then there is a turn and suddenly there is a far reaching conspiracy in which you don’t know who to trust! Neither aspect of the movie are particularly entertaining, but at around the halfway mark it goes from sort of non-offensive brainless to off the wall ridiculous.

This film is so ineptly made that every joke is forced, underlined, telegraphed, and lampshaded within an inch of its life. Nothing is given a chance to breathe or grow, and all lines are delivered by screaming. Vergara especially comes off poorly here given that she usually has pretty solid timing. Worse, Witherspoon is playing a pretty standard character for her and can’t manage to land a single joke.

The rest of the cast are non-events save only to mention Rob Kazinsky faking the worst southern accent ever while being shoved into a flirtation with Witherspoon that comes out of nowhere.

I have to give them credit for one thing, this is the type of movie where you would expect the easy joke to be slams against Latinos. Shockingly we get none of that as the largely Latino cast is treated pretty well (Ok, they’re gangsters and there is a quincenara but it’s not played for laughs). No, the easy joke they go for is lesbians. See, 2 women travelling around together must be lesbians. This joke is made and/or alluded to at least 3 times and is not even slightly funny for any of them.

I’m pretty sure this move was made to capitalize on Vergara’s Modern Family fame and launch her into movie stardom. This will 100% not do that. In fact, Vergara should fire whomever on her team found this for her and pay to have it stricken from her resume. Witherspoon is an actress that can come back from this kind of misstep, but Vergara is still building her credibility with the audience.

Hot Pursuit is a terrible movie. To be honest, there was no way it was going to be anything but awful. But, it’s not even enjoyably bad as everyone in it is taking it so seriously. It’s not worth watching, or frankly even thinking about. F

 

Depths of OnDemand: Let’s Be Cops

Every so often I am forced to watch some truly dreadful movies. I don’t know if the person inflicting these movies on me just enjoys watching me squirm or if there is some part of them that thinks maybe I’ll enjoy these slices of cinema that I am not usually predisposed to watching. Either way, I find it difficult to stop watching a movie once it’s begun so I usually end up seeing the garbage through to the end, knowing no good will come from it. This is the reason I even saw Let’s Be Cops.

To be clear Let’s Be Cops, while being almost aggressively terrible, is a movie I would

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They just read the script

consider watching based solely on the cast. I already have a predisposition for TV actors jumping to Film (TV was and always will be my first love and I have a deeper “relationship” with those actors than the relatively larger stars of the cinema world) and I also have a deep and abiding love for the world of comedy (stand-up, sketch, improv, and the “alternative” performers thereof). Based solely on the cast list, this move should be firmly on my sweet spot. Add to that that the fact that I work in law enforcement in some capacity and I should be all in for this one.

But, then I saw a trailer. A trailer is supposed to be the advertisement that makes you want to see a movie, and if this was the best they could come up with to cut a trailer from, this movie must be terrible. Nothing worked and it felt like a sophomoric mess that should never have been made.

Seeing the movie, I can tell you that if nothing else that the advertising was accurate. Those trailer editors should be very proud of themselves.  This movie is a pile of hot garbage and keeps finding new depths to sink to. It’s stupid, ridiculous, racist, homophobic, spectacularly violent, and worst of all pointless. Not that all movies need to have a message, but this seems to take the stance that lying is bad, until it’s good but still it’s bad. Unless it lets you bang Nina Dobrev, then it’s fine. Speaking of, if this is why Dobrev left Vampire Diaries to “try new things in her career” or whatever, then she radically misjudged the cultural impact of this role.

The plot, such as it is, involves 2 friends who’s lives haven’t turned out the way they expected, who dress up like cops and then begin acting as if they were cops until they get involved in a cartoonishly insane arms dealing plot. I’m not kidding, this is what happens in this movie. Why, once they get the initial thrill of pretending to be cops, they don’t apply to be actual police officers and take us through a Police Academy retread I don’t know. Maybe they didn’t want the comparison to that far better movie. Whatever the reason, Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans, Jr. scream, mug, pratfall, and shot through this mess. Neither actor is engaging, or seemingly even interested in the film as a whole. Wayans, Jr. particularly seems like he just gave up on this movie about 20 minutes in.

I don’t have words for how bad this movie is. Especially when it becomes over long and boring. Then, even a last-minute, manic Keegan-Michael Key performance can salvage anything other than a bemused chuckle from the viewer who has been beaten down by this turd. F

Review: St. Vincent

One of the more difficult aspects of my love of reviewing media is realizing that sometimes, simply by the nature of what I choose to write about, that I will have to explain the plot of the thing I am talking about. Usually, this only leads me to wondering for a few minutes how to accomplish that without enraging the dreaded spoiler police. Then I am faced with a movie like St. Vincent and I am faced with a whole new conundrum, explaining the plot of a film that doesn’t even pretend to really have one.

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Like, I understand that they’re all stars (and the holy trinity aspect of the composition) but Lieberher really needs to be in this shot.

 St Vincent strives to be one of those “slice of life” movies, a movie that shows the audience a window into a person’s life over a period of time without really having any kind of plot per se. In this case we have Vincent (Bill Murray) bonding with new neighbor Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) and how that friendship affects both of their lives. Vincent is a hard drinking, gambling, womanizing, general terrible person while Oliver is a 10-year-old kid. Everything about their friendship is wrong and shouldn’t work, but they (as often happen with these types of films) really impact each other’s lives in surprising ways.

Murray plays a man that you are supposed to hate. He is disgusting, conniving, and basically terrible. He plays the part so convincingly that you almost believe that he isn’t acting – the mark of a brilliant performance, believability. Murray has grown into a brilliant actor in the last 12 years. While his comedic talent has never been in doubt, 2003’s Lost in Translation really cemented him as force to be reckoned with in other genres. Lieberher is already a veteran actor at his young age but has the rare ability to act against powerhouses and not only hold his own but use his performance to add layers to his scene partner’s portrayal. These 2 together are magnetic, and their relationship is a joy to watch.

So good are their scenes that Melissa McCarthy, as Oliver’s mom, Naomi Watts, as Murray’s regular hooker, and Chris O’Dowd, as Oliver’s teacher, are given little to nothing to really do in this movie other than act as set pieces for the other two. As an aside, Watts’ character, Daka, is a Russian (or Russian-esque) character for no reason other than making an accomplished actress fake a terrible accent. Watts is already Australian, and there is no reason in the script that Daka needed to be Eastern European (Ukrainian maybe?) she could have just as easily been Australian for as much as her culture impacts her character.  Actors being forced to fake accents for no logical reason is a pet peeve of mine. The United States is a diverse place and people in all walks of life in all corners of the country have all sorts of accents. Unless there is a compelling script reason that the character must be from “country x” let them use their real voice.

ANYWAY

It’s hard to say anything bad about this movie. Yes, the pacing lags in spots and maybe it takes a little too long to make the point it tries to make. But, that doesn’t really run the enjoyment of the fantastic performances by Murray and Lieberher. A

Review: The Good Dinosaur

Pixar excels in their ability to make you feel things during their movies. They create worlds so elaborate and realistic that viewers will fall in love with anything. Sad toys (Toy Story), a garbage collecting robot (Wall-E), and even the common garden bug (A bug’s life) have all benefitted from Pixar’s emotional manipulation. Then there’s the times that Pixar has…well not failed exactly but not really captured the public’s imagination. The Cars series for example. Movies that, while fine, are not exactly appointment viewing ripe with nostalgia. Earlier this year Pixar released Inside Out which is widely considered to be one of their masterpieces and anything that followed was going to pale in comparison. That dubious honor has fallen to The Good Dinosaur which is a movie that in any other year would have been would have been perfectly nice and charming, but this year feels so flat and lifeless that it makes me long for the days of Cars 2.

Exploring the idea of what if the dinosaurs had never gone extinct, The

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This is a gorgeous poster. That doesn’t make a lot of impact. Sensing a theme?

Good Dinosaur follows Arlo (Raymond Ochoa) the youngest in a family of Apatosaur farmers. See, had the dinosaurs never died out they would have developed agriculture. Arlo is the runt of the litter and constantly tries to live up to the example set by his father (Jeffrey Wright).  After an accident separates Arlo from his family he must make his way home with a human toddler, Spot (Jack Bright), as his companion/pet. It’s all very sweet.

And, that’s it really. It’s sweet. Arlo is a likable enough protagonist, Spot is cute, and there are some nice action/emotional moments throughout. But overall this is a very small movie that makes very little impact. As much as it pains me to say this, the whole thing is just very bland.

Arlo is a perfectly fine character, as are all of the rest. But, Pixar leans too far into standard Disney tropes which never allows this movie to really come into its own. It’s beautifully animated, of course, but seems to lack any sort of real substance.

Is it Inside Out hangover? Was that movie just so brilliant that the only thing that will save another movie is distance? Yes, and no. While Inside Out was undoubtedly brilliant, even that movie has some problems of its own. It’s just that The Good Dinosaur doesn’t have problems so much as it doesn’t have much of anything. And while the movie is fun, cute, and entertaining, it’s not enough to really leave much of an impression.

Even the title, The Good Dinosaur is strange. There aren’t any “bad” dinosaurs in the film per se. The closest we get is when the movie take a bizarre detour into an extended City Slickers homage and Arlo and Spot meet 3 Tyrannosaurs… ranchers (Sam Elliott, Anna Paquin, and A.J. Buckley)? And they aren’t actually bad just grizzled. The antagonists of the piece, as much as anyone is, are a trio a prehistoric vultures names Thunderclap (Steve Zahn), Downpour (Mandy Freund), and Coldfront (Steven Clay Hunter) who worship a menacing stormfront as a God.  See? Strange movie.

Where The Good Dinosaur will fall in the history of Pixar films is a discussion for another time. But, suffice it to say, I doubt you’ll ever meet anyone who says that this is their favorite Pixar film. It’s perfectly fine, but it packs none of the punch of their usual fare. It’s bland and unassuming but also cute in a general way. If you’re a Pixar completest then it’s on your list and you’ll find it to be totally average. But if you’re not, missing this film won’t really affect you in any way. And that is probably the cruelest thing I could say about a studio that usually makes movies that live in your imagination forever, this one just barely makes a dent. C+

Review: Bad Words

It’s hard to judge a writer by their first film. On the one hand, you’d expect it to be the best it can be because it got made at all. But, on the other hand, some scripts seem to get produced on the promise of the writer as opposed to the strength of the piece. I really hope that Bad Words is the latter case, because if this is the best that screenwriter Andrew Dodge can do… while there are good bits I’d hate to thinks this is someone’s best work.

Bad_Words_Poster

The face of triumph in the face of who gives a crap?

Jason Bateman stars in and directs this mean-spirited black comedy about a middle aged man who enters a spelling bee for 5th graders.  If that didn’t sound ridiculous enough, Bateman’s Guy Trilby not only revels in how he is destroying the system but also has a blog supporting his entry and sponsoring him (Kathryn Hahn plays the blog representative/suffering sidekick) in his efforts.

Everything about this man is odious. He is crude, cruel, and so obsessed with his nebulous plan that he ruins the lives of several children in his single minded quest. And, what is his ultimate goal? Without spoiling the only barely compelling motivation, Trilby is guided by a convoluted revenge plot that only plays out over the closing minutes of the movie.

The true power of the film, and why I think Dodge was able to secure a greenlight, is the friendship that develops between Trilby and fellow contestant Chaitanya (Rohan Chand). Bateman and the 10-year old form an uneasy friendship through their mutual desire to win as Trilby slowly becomes a (deeply inappropriate) role model for the boy. Chand is the best thing about this movie by a wide margin. He is brilliantly emotive and exhibits a comic timing that rivals actors years older than him. He is as charming as Bateman is disgusting and really holds his own in all of his scenes.

Other than that, this is a massively boring film. Spelling Bees, despite what ESPN would have you believe, are not that exciting. About a third of this movie is watching Bateman and Chand spelling and or asking for definitions of words to spell. It’s hardly riveting. The non-spelling portions are spent showing us why the Trilby character is a monster and watching his heart soften for Chaitanya while never actually acting like an adult in any recognizable way.

Dodge does a fine job writing the slow burn of the surrogate father relationship between Trilby and Chaitanya. While the future of their relationship is telegraphed early on, quite how Trilby positively impacts the young boy’s life is probably the best part of the movie. Yeah, he a horrible person, but he’s also Jason Bateman so he’s a little likable no matter what.

Bad Words is an ok movie by a fine writer about a terrible person in a boring environment. It really shouldn’t work on any level and yet it does have a certain heart to it. If you can get through all of the ways this movie should fail, you’ll find a sweet movie. But getting through all of that is such a slog, it’s doubtful you’ll find the journey worth the work. C