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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FOX’s 9–1–1 is crazypants cukoo

I mean…

I was just going to ignore it. I wasn’t even going to watch it. And now, after 5 episodes, I am obsessed with how much I hate FOX’s 9–1–1.

Honestly, I could write an entire post on just how embarrassingly bad the second episode was. But, I want to be fair, and episode 1 was an unbelievable (in every sense of that word) pile of garbage too. 3–5 have ranged from eye-rollingly stupid to infuriating. This show really runs the gamut

Full disclosure, I am a 911 dispatcher. My agency is smaller than LA but the principals are the same- or would be if this show depicted any dispatching besides the magical mapping of the pilot. There is however very little dispatching seen on the show and Connie Britton’s dispatcher character Abby spends most of her time with her ailing mother or, when at work, staring sort of dumbfounded at a computer screen. That is not even a dig, by the way, that is literally all that she is given to do and it is infuriating. She literally does not appear on screen with any of the of main credits cast members until episode 5.

Backing up a bit, the show is ostensibly about “first responders” from the initial dispatch to the units on scene at (increasingly insane) incidents. That said, the 4 firefighters/paramedics/jacks of all trades have been the most fully established. Capt. Billy (Peter Krause) is the recovering alcoholic/emotionally distant psuedopatriarch with secrets, Hen (Aisha Hinds) is the veteran who is there for everyone, Buck (Oliver Stark) is the new guy/sex fiend and Chimney (Kenneth Choi) is the sad sack desperate to be taken seriously. Each of these characters have been given backstories, current stories, and a lot to play while also being the main responders being tracked.

Police Sargent Athena Grant (Angela Bassett) has been given a story- her family is falling apart because her husband (Rockmond Dunbar) is newly out and her daughter is being bullied- but is mostly shown grossly abusing her police power while giving speeches filled with righteous indignation (that are delivered wonderfully, I mean it is Angela Bassett!)

And, as mentioned above, poor Connie Britton’s Abby is mostly seen dealing with her mother’s (Mariette Hartley) Alzheimer’s and her nurse/best character on the show Carla (Cocoa Brown) or staring at computer screens and voice-overing her dispatch calls. Her work life and the police work life have been sadly underrepresented and the more we see of the firefighter’s inner demons the more glaring that becomes. And, again, more Carla please because she is a delight.

But, what makes this show so watchable and so totally insane is the emergencies. Bounce houses blown off cliffs, collapsing dance floors, electrified pools, snake chokings, toilet babies, at least 2 jumpers, rollercoaster deaths (see poster), this show has it all. It’s all dealt with in a deadly serious manner which makes the whole thing all the more hilarious. And, while I am sure that the procedures demonstrated are as real as they can feasibly make them, there are things every episode where I find myself screaming “WHAT?????” at the TV. Yet, I cannot look away.

The show is so poorly written in its embarrassing platitudes. The situations and character reactions are over the top on another level and the some of the stuff we have seen has been either totally nuts (firefighter shooting escaping bad guy with fire hose to stop him), deeply ironic (Billy’s tortured past), or somehow sweetly gross (Abby and Buck’s…everything).

I will never stop watching this show. And hating myself for it. It’s already been renewed for a 2nd season, thank God/how dare you, and my body is ready. It is campy, silly, bad, crazy, probably not great for the reputations of any of these professions if I am being honest, and delightful. It’s also so emotionally manipulative that it’s practically art. The beats are predictable, the characters spout faux intellectual garbage about life regularly and if you let yourself drown in the insanity your giggles, screams, and cheers will give you life.

Marvel’s The Defenders: Season in Review

80’s new wave band promotional poster from an off-brand Rolling Stone

All of Nexflix’s Marvel shows have been building to Marvel’s The Defenders when all of the “street level heroes” will join up and fight a common enemy. But, while that does in fact occur, the series feels less like an epic culmination and more like a forced team up.

The series focuses on the battle with The Hand, a shadowy ancient ninja cult that had been set up as an international drug cartel (Daredevil season 1), an ancient cult of magic (Daredevil season 2), and a shadow organization bent on world domination/ninja training school (Iron Fist season 1). Defenders introduces new characters to bring the casts of Luke Cage and Jessica Jones into the mix and the team up begins.

At the end of the third hour.

Defenders, unlike the previous series, is only 8 episodes* which means that it should have been even more important to get to the point faster. Instead, they sacrifice emotional beats and character moments in favor of getting to the action in a way that feels backed into a corner. The heroes themselves seem spend almost as much time squabbling with each other about why they need to fight as they do fighting. And, with episode 4 being basically the “explain the plot” episode half of the series run is spent an inciting action.

My problem with the series would have been fixable had this series been planned out. While the showrunners of all the series knew that this was coming, the series all existed in their own spaces which really hurts the crossover show. Had they been able to really map out what Defenders was going to be before they had even written Daredevil they would have been able to layer in more necessary plot points (Hand “mini-bosses” like Madame Gao (Wai Ching Ho) and Bakuto (Ramon Rodriguez) for example) throughout Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist in a way that would have made the events of Defenders personal to the entire cast and allowed them to hit the ground running. As it stands, Daredevil and Iron Fist are really the only relevant series to Defenders as a whole, with Jones and Cage providing mostly character backgrounds. But to have a 4-series mega crossover series in which half of your parent series are completely skipable is a missed opportunity.

All that said, they do what they can to both blend 4 disparate casts (or, most of 4 casts) into an ensemble as well as laying ground work for future seasons of each series and even manage to advance Easter-Eggy plots. It is very fun to watch Luke (Mike Colter) and Danny (Finn Jones) bond as in the comics they are the best of friends. And, while I love Luke and Claire (Rosario Dawson) together (since Luke Cage) seeing him interacting with Jessica (Krysten Ritter), his comics wife, again was a nice treat. But, I do wish that room had been found for the tertiary characters from the series, save Misty (Simone Missick) and Colleen (Jessica Henwick) who are well integrated into the narrative, to have some more to do.

Visually, they decided that each character’s “signature color” (red, blue, yellow, green) would be heavily represented in each scene. This leads to scenes that are Jessica focused to be shot with a blue filter and Danny scenes have oversaturated greens. Once you notice it, and it’s made incredibly apparent, it becomes pretty annoying. And, when characters meet up, their colors are all heavily represented in in ways that range from interesting to gaudy. This choice, along with the most jarring music cue I have ever heard in my life (episode 8, in the final battle for those that have seen the series)- seriously I thought my Netflix had suddenly switched audio tracks to some sort of hip-hop concert film for about 2 minutes- make for a viewing experience that feels a lot like the writing feels: too many voices trying to be heard.

Defenders does bring us a new villain the person of Alexandra (Sigourney Weaver) who has maybe the best wardrobe on television and to say anything else about her would be a spoiler. Alexandra is one of the best parts of the series as Weaver is clearly having a great time playing her. And, an actress of Weaver’s caliber brings a whole new level of performance to every scene she’s in. And not in a scenery chewing way like Alfre Woodard or Mahershala Ali in Luke Cage either, just a great actress playing every note perfectly.

Marvel’s The Defenders is far from a perfect show, and considering it was planned from the beginning- and was in fact the entire “goal” of this whole Netflix deal, it feels rushed and slapped together. While it does hang together internally and does honor the characters involved, it uses too much of its 8-episode run to justify these characters interacting. And then justifying the fight. It suffers from everyone involved trying to do too much so they cut too many corners. If nothing else, the fact that these characters were always meant to exist in the same world, it is really nice to see them occupying that world. Netflix’s personal Marvel universe now has a lot of story possibilities to explore (assuming these shows stay on Netflix after the Disney deal expires) in future seasons. B-

*8 episodes by the way is a perfect run. The Netflix model has shown that shows shouldn’t be forced into a specific episode limits or runtimes. They should do what is needed to serve the story. I hope more Netflix shows- and network shows- will follow this example instead of artificially extending their runs to fill a set time. If your story can only support 6 45-minute episodes then so be it. The time of required 13- or 22-episode seasons is past.

Let’s talk about Hairspray live


NBC started a trend with Sound of Music Live in 2013, fully produced network musical in December. They have been really inconsistent in quality (*cough* Peter Pan Live *cough*), but their ratings have been enough that FOX copied the idea with Grease Live in January, which was immediately miles better than any of NBC’s efforts. Which brings us to this year’s Hairspray Live, which tried to improve on the mistakes of the past and show FOX that they are still the masters of the format.

Right off, Hairspray Live addressed the biggest criticism to last year’s otherwise sublime The Wiz Live by including a live audience. By using Grease’s indoor and outdoor staging idea, a live audience was able to be both present and at times incorporated into the show and it really energized the performance. Also stolen from Grease, having Darren Criss intermittently send us to commercial live from the set while the actors ran to their next scenes was a great way of keeping the audience engaged and minimizing the awkward transition to commercial after each production number. Add to that the inclusion of themed commercials- including a live one from Derek Hough- was a wonderful idea that really worked with the motif of the show.

Tragically, almost everything else missed.

The casting was largely fine. On the plus side Hough (who knew he could sing?), Jennifer Hudson, and Harvey Fierstein were great. Fierstein originated the role of Edna Turnblad on Broadway and killed it here as expected and Hudson… my God that woman is incredible. But the rest of the cast was meh at best.

Martin Short did the best he could with the role of Wilbur, a small role at best, and Ariana Grande was pretty strong comedically as Penny. But the leads, oof. Newcomer Maddie Baillio was a Tracy without energy. She is obviously talented, but whether it was nerves or the various technical snafus (which we’ll get to) that killed any momentum that she built throughout the show she just never really got there. And Garrett Clayton’s Link was a plastic and superficial bore. And the less said about Dove Cameron’s Amber the better.

Shockingly, Kristen Chenoweth also suffered pretty mightily throughout as she couldn’t seem to catch her breath during her one big number “The Legend of Miss Baltimore Crabs” and overall was operating about a 7 the whole time. Additionally both Clayton and Ephraim Sykes (Seaweed) both either flubbed lyrics or seemed to lose their breath control.

Or, maybe they were plagued by technical issues.

Ultimately, directors Kenny Leon and Alex Rudzinski staged this really poorly. Whether that contributed to the sound team not being able to properly mic anyone, especially in the outdoor scenes, throughout the entire production I can’t say. Weirdly, Leon directed The Wiz Live beautifully and Rudzinski marshaled the technical challenge of directing Grease Live so I can’t figure out why this was such a huge mess in staging. Nothing worked all the way. Just look at the sad curtain call; most of the cast didn’t even get a bow where they were centered in frame, Hudson and Grande were drowned out by background noise/ensemble vocals which caused 90% of their song (“Come so far” from the film) to be nearly unintelligible; and since this was blocked so poorly that you could barely tell that the cast was doing The Madison- in homage to the original film- on the sides of the stage.

It was still a fun show. I will always love Hairspray in all of its many forms and this was a fun way to spend a couple of hours. But the various problems, particularly the incredibly spotty sound/lead mics not being turned up high enough, were jarring enough that it became the story of the whole production.

Next year’s NBC musical, Bye Bye Birdie Live starring Jennifer Lopez, will be the 5th “holiday” musical in NBC’s new tradition. Hopefully, the the year long run up is enough time to figure out how this show, that had so much going for it, came up so very short.

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.

trainwreck

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-

Maiden Voyage: DC’s Legends of Tomorrow

I love this shot. But as with the show, that is a lot happening

The CW has cornered the market on the televised DC Universe (DCU). With Arrow and The Flash pulling in big numbers (and Supergirl [same production team] doing great for their parent company CBS) it makes sense that they would want to try to beat Marvel at their own game by creating their own crossover series featuring characters from each parent show. That show is DC’s Legends of Tomorrow.

Pulling established characters from Arrow (Ray Palmer/The A.T.O.M. [Brandon Routh] & Sara Lance/White Canary [Caity Lotz]) and The Flash (Martin Stein [Victor Garber], Jefferson “Jax” Jackson [Franz Drameh]/Firestorm, Mick Rory/Heatwave [Dominic Purcell], Captain Cold [Wentworth Miller]) along with crossover characters (Carter Hall/Hawkman [Falk Hentschel], Kendra Saunders/Hawkgirl [Ciara Renée], and Vandal Savage [Casper Crump]) and pairing all of them with new character Rip Hunter (Arthur Darvill) is a risky move. This is like a television version of what Marvel did with Marvel’s The Avengers (and what they plan on doing on Netflix with The Defenders). And, with 9 series regulars this could’ve proved a costly mistake had it failed.

But, I think it’s going to be fine.

The pilot episode requires a little bit of pre-knowledge of the universe but even new viewers should be able to jump right into the action as the cast is assembled to begin their time travelling journey to stop a super villain. Little but perfunctory lip-service is paid the to parent shows and the action kicks up pretty quickly as the team makes their way to 1975. The time travel conceit allows the show to go anywhere and do anything. Established DCU characters can show up ant any point along their time lines (current Arrow baddie Damian Dahrk (Neal McDonough) is already confirmed to be appearing in some younger incarnation) and new characters can be brought on from DC’s vast character inventory (Jonah Hex (Jonathan Schaech) has already been announced and the future Green Arrow, Connor Hawke, could also show up).

The action is well done, in that CW way that we’re used to, and even the battle with the villain of the episode is fun. And the effects, especially the design of the time ship (The Waverider) is pretty great (although the interior halls look like redresses of The Flash’s pipeline).

The only bad I even find is that with 9 series regulars, the pilot kind of bows under the weight of trying to give each character their own moment. That and the fact that the bulk of the pilot hinges on ties to the least known of the cast makes the initial emotional impact of the story less weighty than I think it cold have been. But, the show was picked up to series before a pilot was even shot so I think The CW has enough faith in this show to let it grow as needed.

DC’s Legends of Tomorrow is probably going to be a fun show. Tonally it seems to be the action hybrid of it’s Dark and/or Wacky parents. If The CW believes in it as strongly as they seem to it should have a nice long road ahead of it. But, it will need to balance out it’s enormous cast and time-hopping premise before they can really take off. B

Maiden Voyage: Shadowhunters: The Mortal Instruments

ABC Family, which is now known as Freeform (Seriously. This is what they went with. That’s almost as dumb as “Syfy”), has always been home to all manner of programming aimed squarely at the “teen girl wish fulfillment” genre. They’re basically the YA-on-TV network given that their most popular show, Pretty Little Liars, is based on a popular book series. Now, with Shadowhunters: The Mortal Instruments they’re hoping for another adaptation hit with supernatural flair.

Shadowhunters: The Mortal Instruments is based on the wildly successful Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra

shadowhunters

This poster is basically perfect.

Clare. While the books provided the basis for a little remembered 2013 film, the series seems to be planning on going all out in the world Clare created. That world, a melange of myths, legends, religious icons, and magic has a huge amount of groundwork laid out by Clare. Obviously, I hope they leave some of the more unseemly aspects of Clare’s narrative firmly on the cutting room floor, but the characters were already well drawn in the books.

Our lead Clary Fray (Katherine McNamara) is brash and brave. McNamara is playing the character as less terrified of this new world around but more sort of bitterly bemused. Clary is the POV character for the majority of the books so her character is the most filled out and McNamara is bringing a lot of that to the screen. In the books, it takes a while for Clary to do much beyond whine, and while McNamara is given a lot of emotion to play, she is never too over the top.

The rest of the cast on the other hand has taken their roles to the extreme. Dominic Sherwood’s Jace particularly is played as a magic football jock with the emotional range of a cup of coffee. The Lightwood siblings, Alec (Matthew Daddario) and Isabelle (Emeraude Toubia) are playing exactly one aspect of their characters: uptight and horny respectively, and are holding onto that one bit like a dog with a bone. And Clary’s best friend, Simon (Alberto Rosende) – by far my favorite character from the book – is given standard nerd/unrequited crush stuff to play (It should be noted that while Jace is the love interest, and built like an underwear model/greek god, the pilot’s sole male eye candy shot goes to a completely unmotivated bit of Simon shirtlessness which I found to be an interesting and not unpleasant choice.) but turned up to 11. It all worked with the genre but it all felt very forced to me.

The pilot seems determined to lay as much ground work as possible while leaving a lot to still be explained. The exposition never feels clunky or over the top, and even the flashbacks are well-timed and not overlong.

I wanted to hate this. The books have left me increasingly soured on the universe (I have not seen the film, nor read past book 5) and I only decided to watch the series in hopes of them righting the ship. I will say that with some of the narrative changes they’ve made to the beginning of the story, it really helps Clary – and by extension the viewer – get into the meat of the story faster and more efficiently. I feel like this is a great series for Freeform to launch on as it’s an established property with a built in fanbase. But, with a subject matter that hews maybe a little to close to The CW’s Supernatural and MTV’s Teen Wolf, pulling viewers away from those already well entrenched shows might be hard for the new network. And, holding up a series with so much going on, so many effects, and 8 series regulars might be too much to bear. B