Monday, February 19, 2018

The Shape of Water

“If I spoke about it – If I did – what would I tell you, I wonder? Would I tell you about the time...? It happened a long time ago – in the last days of a fair Prince’s reign... Or would I tell you about the place? A small city near the coast but far from everything else... Or would I tell you about her? The princess without voice...”

These are the opening lines to Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, and they seem to promise us a traditional fairy tale, but the director very quickly disabuses us of any notion that this is a film for all the family. Within minutes of being introduced to her, we see Eliza (Sally Hawkins) masturbating in the bathtub – a daily morning ritual, it seems – and later there are many gruesomely violent sights in store for us, from one man’s nearly severed fingers growing black and pungent with infection to someone being dragged across the ground by a finger hooked through the bloody hole in his cheek. No, The Shape of Water is definitely not for kids.

And yet, there is something inherently childish about del Toro’s film. Perhaps the director believes that he is making a mature work by filling it with sex, violence and swearing, but I’d rather see some maturity in his storytelling, some hint of moral shading or ambiguity. The Shape of Water exists almost entirely on the surface; a high-concept premise executed in the most basic way. The film asks us to buy into a fantastical romance but it doesn't put in the ground work required to give that relationship a genuine emotional resonance, and del Toro relies too heavily on his extremely talented cast to transcend the one-dimensional characterisations he has given them and invest the film with something that feels real. To their credit, they almost get it there.

A lot of that weight rests on Sally Hawkins' slender shoulders. As the mute heroine, who dances around in private moments with images of classic films swimming in her mind, it would have been easy for Hawkins to overplay the winsome innocence and become cloying, but there's a quiet determination and a vital flintiness in her performance. When the villainous Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon) attempts to intimidate her, she responds with a knowing smile before signing F-U-C-K-Y-O-U to score a silent victory over this tyrant. Hawkins can't really sell her attraction to the fish/man creature that's at the heart of The Shape of Water, though. She might have been capable of this feat given ample time, but del Toro rushes through the various stages in the relationship with indecent haste. Within the first 45 minutes of the movie she has moved from wanting to feed the merman eggs and communicate with it, to taking it home and having sex with it. Where exactly does this desire spring from? Doesn't she feel any trepidation, despite seeing it sever a man's fingers and eat a cat?

Everyone in The Shape of Water moves on straight lines, clearly delineated as good guys and bad guys. Michael Shannon is an actor capable of nuance but del Toro doesn't ask him to provide any. He and his superior General Hoyt (Nick Searcy) are the real monsters of the film, representing American authority figures terrorising the band of outsiders (a freak of nature, a mute woman, a black woman and a gay man) whom we are encouraged to cheer for. The one character who alters in our perception is Michael Stuhlbarg, as an initially shifty scientist who is subsequently revealed to be on the side of the angels, but he’s stuck in a useless Soviet subplot that has little to do with the main narrative. The lurking Red Menace just feels like another ‘60s Americana trope that del Toro is adding to the background of his film like it's just another piece of production design; like the handsome, smiling guy in a diner who is revealed to be both homophobic and racist in the space of 30 seconds in a laughable scene.

Del Toro’s scripts often feel like they are lagging some distance behind his direction. The Shape of Water is as lovingly designed as you'd expect it to be (even if I found the insistent green/red colour scheme to be a little drab and tiring), and he pulls off some beautiful individual moments. I loved the bookending shots of Eliza floating in water, and the charming, intimate scenes in which she and her neighbour Giles (a wonderful Richard Jenkins) are captivated by old movies on TV, but these are just isolated moments of inspiration in a film that often feels pedestrian and frustratingly sloppy in its storytelling. I couldn’t watch Eliza fill her bathroom with water without wondering why the floor didn’t give way, or pondering the damage caused to the cinema downstairs, and I couldn’t overlook the character inconsistencies and logical leaps necessitated by the film’s plotting in the final stages. I’m not asking for a fantasy movie to be watertight, but The Shape of Water is too easy, too complacent and too obvious to achieve the emotional force that I wanted to be swept away by.

Monday, February 12, 2018

The 15:17 to Paris

The 15:17 to Paris forms a loose thematic trilogy with Clint Eastwood's American Sniper and Sully, being another exploration of American duty and heroism, but it's quite unlike the two films that preceded it. In fact, The 15:17 to Paris is quite unlike anything Clint Eastwood has made, or any other major studio release in recent memory. While Sniper and Sully were anchored by commanding central performances by Bradley Cooper and Tom Hanks, Eastwood has rolled the dice on this film by casting the three real-life heroes as themselves. It's an old maxim that the true test of a movie star is that we're happy to watch them doing nothing, but The 15:17 to Paris is asking us to watch three ordinary men recreating scenes from their mostly ordinary lives. When we are presented with a long montage of them enjoying their European holiday, we're basically just watching three selfie-taking dudes enjoying their European holiday, with the director making little attempt to juice up these scenes dramatically in any way. Clint Eastwood surely could have had his pick of every young actor in Hollywood for this film, so why make this choice?

It's not like this kind of thing has never been done in Hollywood before. Stars such as Muhammad Ali and Howard Stern have played themselves in biopics, but that's because they were larger-than-life personalities, and while the case of Audie Murphy might seem analogous here, he had already attained years of acting experience before reliving his World War II experiences in To Hell and Back in 1955. Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler, the three young men starring in The 15:17 to Paris, don’t possess the ego, the charisma or the experience to justify their casting, but their very averageness seems to be the point. While Eastwood squeezed great drama out of an incident that lasted just a few minutes in Sully by digging into the aftermath and exploring the psychological toll that being in the spotlight took on Chesley Sullenberger, he and his screenwriter Dorothy Blyskal have taken a different approach here. The attempted terrorist attack that changed the lives of these men takes place in the final twenty minutes, with the build-up consisting of a lot of foreshadowing and an attempt to place these people in context.

That context is Sacramento in the early 21st century, where these three characters are raised in an environment of faith and duty. They meet as rebellious children at a pious Christian school, and bond through their fascination with warfare, playing with toy guns in the woods and poring over WWII battle plans. Their paths in life seem set until Sadler announces his desire to move to a secular school, one where he might have a chance of meeting girls and going to a prom. He was the only one of the three protagonists to not later sign up for the military, and this casual scene is presented as a turning point, one of many that led these three men to board the train to Paris a decade later.

With Sadler gone, the film focuses primarily on Stone and Skarlatos, now played by their adult selves. Both of them join the military and are fuelled by dreams of making a difference and serving their country, but they can’t stop bungling every opportunity that's handed to them. Stone’s hopes of joining the air force are dashed by an eye condition, and he fails in his SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) training after screwing up every practical task and missing an exam by oversleeping. Skarlatos does actually make it to Afghanistan, but he manages to leave his kit behind in a village forcing his unit to turn around to retrieve it. And yet, both men maintain a sense that fate is somehow guiding them. “Do you ever feel like life is pushing us toward something, some greater purpose?” Stone ponders at a couple of points in the film, and The 15:17 to Paris is structured as a chronicle of moments and decisions that could have gone one way, but fortunately went another. The decision to visit Amsterdam on the advice of an old man met in a bar; the decision to keep to their schedule and take the train to Paris despite their raging hangovers. One way or another, these men were meant to be on that train.

Is that vague sense of divine providence enough for a movie? I’m not entirely sure. The 15:17 to Paris is, undeniably, a very weird film to watch. Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler actually acquit themselves quite well. There’s a little awkwardness in some of their interactions – mostly in the laid-back scenes where they are just watching a football game or making holiday plans over Skype – but they aren’t egregiously stiff or self-conscious, and they have a natural chemistry. I found the film mostly engaging once it had moved past the draggy childhood section, which actually suffers a little for the distracting presence of recognisable faces in minor roles (Tony Hale and Thomas Lennon as teachers, for example, or the perennially underused Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer as the boys’ mothers). The film moves in a functional way, with Blyskal’s script laying out the events in a straightforward and unimaginative fashion and Eastwood – of course – simply taking the screenplay and shooting it with minimum fuss. The avoidance of traditional cinematic and dramatic tropes is admirable, but it also gives the film a weird, lumpy sense of pacing and a number of scenes that just feel dead on the screen.

The exception to this is the climactic assault on the train, in which Eastwood builds tension through shots of Ayoub El Khazzani (played by professional actor Ray Corasani) boarding the train and preparing his attack in the train toilet, and using dramatic camera angles and close-ups as the terrified passengers flee and Stone springs into action, closely followed by his friends. The ensuing tussle is frantic, bloody and gripping, and watching all of these ordinary people recreating the most dramatic and horrifying moment in their lives gives the film an added emotional force that is remarkable and unique. Perhaps Eastwood’s gamble does pay off after all. I was particularly moved by the presence of Mark Moogalian, who was shot in the neck when he fought with the attacker and is here reliving the time he almost died, as Stone attempts to stem the blood gushing from his wound. Moogalian also gets the movie's best line, when Stone asks him if he’d like to say a prayer and he responds with a gurgled, “No thank you.” I’m not sure any of these guys have a future in movies, but at least one of them has impeccable comic timing.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Phantom Thread

The first film Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis made together, 2007's monumental There Will be Blood, brilliantly gave us a vivid sense of who its protagonist was in the opening minutes. A prospector in the late 19th century, Daniel Plainview was introduced working silently, doggedly and alone as he mined for silver. When he broke his leg in a calamitous fall, he dragged himself across the desolate landscape to stake his claim before giving a thought to medical attention. We instantly understood something fundamental about this man, and we could see that he had what it took to build an empire and to destroy anyone who dared to get in his way.

The pair achieve a similar trick at the start of Phantom Thread. When we see Reynolds Woodcock dressing and preparing for the day – pulling on his socks, combing his hair, buffing his shoes – his every move is fastidious and rehearsed; this is clearly a morning ritual that has been in place for a very long time. Reynolds is a renowned dressmaker and, like many artists, he needs everything to be in place, the atmosphere to be just so, in order to create. At the breakfast table he sits and works quietly with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) and the current woman in his life Johanna, (Camilla Rutherford), who has had enough of these stifling breakfasts and dares to say so, puncturing the solemn air. Shortly afterwards, the decision is made to get rid of her. “She's lovely,” Cyril advises him, “but the time has come.” There have been many women before Johanna, and there will surely be more.

You might think we're back in Plainview territory here, with another fiercely selfish character driven by an obsessive desire to dominate in his field, a man who will use up and throw away whoever he needs and won't brook any obstruction or dissent. You might think you know where Phantom Thread is going, but you'd be wrong. When a young waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps) literally stumbles into Reynolds' view, the whole movie seems to trip along with her. She's a little awkward and hesitant, and her initial conversations with him are punctuated by odd pauses. “If you want to have a staring contest with me,” she playfully tells him after one such period of silence, “you will lose.” Reynolds is smitten, if for no other reason than because her body is his ideal shape, but she is not the type to play the quiet muse. “No one can stand as long as I can,” she proudly boasts. An ideal trait for a model, of course, but also indicative of a steely determination that may exceed the master's own.

Phantom Thread is, in many ways, new territory for Anderson. It's the first film he had made outside of the United States and the first on which he has acted as his own cinematographer (not taking a credit, but doing astonishingly elegant and evocative work); but the central relationship makes it feel like a kind of companion piece to The Master. That 2012 film is Anderson's most evasive and oblique, but Phantom Thread is utterly captivating from the opening frames, moving with a briskness and verve that I found irresistible, and finding so much unexpected humour  in the shifting power dynamic between Reynolds, Alma and Cyril. While films such as Rebecca and The Red Shoes and directors like Max Ophüls and David Lean are obvious references points for this film, Reynolds' growing unease with his new wife put me in mind of Elaine May's The Heartbreak Kid, and during one of their breakfasts together the aggravating sound effects  as Alma butters her toast or pours her tea  are ramped up to absurd levels. Reynold and Alma's romantic bond is sealed during a late-night heist, when they attempt to reclaim one of his dresses from a drunken socialite, and Reynolds is prone to shouting things like “No one gives a tinker's fucking curse about Mrs. Vaughn's satisfaction!” when he flies off the handle. Phantom Thread is a film about a perverse, toxic relationship that plays gloriously as a wry and raucous romantic comedy.

Anderson's judgement of tone throughout Phantom Thread is remarkable. The comedy never undermines the complex emotional battles and psychological gamesmanship inside these central relationships, and the director succeeds in laying out a straightforward and utterly engaging narrative while constantly taking surprising detours and keeping aspects of his characters shrouded in mystery – like secrets sewn into the lining of his film. He has always drawn wonderful work from his actors, of course, but what is striking here is the discipline and refinement that he brings to his direction of his cast. As the two women working around the fragile but demanding male ego at the film's centre, Lesley Manville and Vicky Krieps have so many moments when a simple glance of a pointed silence can communicate volumes about their innermost thoughts. When they push back against Reynolds we believe in their quiet determination, and he looks completely dumbfounded when faced with two such formidable adversaries. For the very first time, he is not the master of his domain.

And what of Daniel Day-Lewis? The recent announcement of his retirement has inevitably cast a different light on this final appearance, and it does feel like a valedictory work, as well as being perhaps his most nakedly personal performance. There is no accent or extravagant facial hair here; there is no great physical transformation. There is just this unbelievably compelling and charismatic actor inhabiting the role of an artist and artisan in a film about the toll that the pursuit of perfection takes on the mind, body and spirit, and the occasional need to break the cycle. The star worked closely with Anderson as he developed the script and it almost feels like a tacit autobiography. Maybe he feels exhausted after this experience, understandably so, or maybe he simply feels like there is nothing left to say. Daniel Day-Lewis has given us many indelible performances, but in Phantom Thread it feels like he's giving us himself.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Downsizing

Paul Safranek is a very typical Alexander Payne protagonist. As personified by Matt Damon in Downsizing, Paul is a doughy, middle-aged guy from Omaha who feels that his life has somehow stalled. When we first meet him he is visiting his sick mother, and when we catch up with him ten years later we discover that he is still living in his late mother's house, now with his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig). They both yearn to trade up for a bigger home, but their combined incomes from doing jobs they find repetitive and unfulfilling won't allow them to do so. Paul once had dreams of being a surgeon and a meeting with a former classmate who made it as a successful anaesthetist stings his pride. Maybe there is a way for Paul and Audrey to transform their fortunes? Paul may be a typical Alexander Payne protagonist, but fortunately for him, he is not in a typical Alexander Payne film.

The title Downsizing refers to a scientific process dreamed up by Norwegian boffins that will shrink people to roughly five inches in height and – in theory – ease the problems caused by overpopulation and our rapacious use of the earth's resources. That's the PR-friendly pitch, anyway. The attraction for ordinary Americans like Paul and Audrey is much more basic. “You mean all that crap about saving the planet?” Paul's shrunken friend Dave (Jason Sudeikis) scoffs. “Downsizing is about saving yourself.” When Paul and Audrey attend a glitzy sales seminar, they are told that that the $150,000 they currently have to their name will translate into $12.5 million in the tiny town of Leisureland. Neil Patrick Harris seduces them with the promise of an opulent mansion and Laura Dern cameos to show off the diamonds she bought for a song. This is the life, and nobody has much to say about saving the world.

There are many things a filmmaker could do with Downsizing's high-concept premise. Payne's choices are, to say the least, unexpected, and they will undoubtedly be unsatisfying for those expecting a lot more comic mileage from the contrast between little people and large objects. Instead, when Paul eventually ends up living alone in Leisureland, he finds that his life hasn't changed that much at all; he feels just as stuck and just as lacking in purpose in this world as he did outside. It might feel that Payne has inexplicably abandoned the sci-fi uniqueness of his film's opening third in order to focus on the mundane middle-aged concerns that have been the focus for much of his cinema, but that is part of the film's gag. Given the opportunity to build a whole new society, these microscopic Americans revert to type, living a life of abundant material wealth and thoughtless waste, with neither a thought nor a care for whoever will be cleaning up their mess.

A brief but telling shot in Downsizing occurs early in the film when a still-unconscious Paul has just gone through the shrinking procedure and is collected on the other side of the Leisureland divide by a group of orderlies, most of whom are black. When a team of cleaners turn up at the apartment owned by the hard-partying racketeer Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz, enjoyably smug), we notice that they are all Asian women or Latinas. It seems the social hierarchies and racial divides of the big world have been imposed on the little one too, and when Paul befriends one of the cleaners, a one-legged Vietnamese refugee named Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau), he gets to see how the other half live – in a tiny slum on the outskirts of Leisureland, invisible to its mostly white citizens.

Being largely selfish, passive and clueless, Paul is not a great central character for a movie, so it's a relief when Ngoc Lan hobbles into view and finally gives us someone worth rooting for. Ngoc Lan was smuggled into the US in a TV box (consumer goods having replaced trucks as a potential route for tiny refugees) and she was the only survivor of that ordeal, although her left leg didn't survive with her. A devout Christian, she never bemoans her lot or dwells on the hardships of her past. She simply works tirelessly and spends the rest of her time caring for the sick and poor in the slum. “When you know death come soon, you look around things more close,” she tells Paul in her broken English, and her clear-eyed perspective on life and death helps open Paul's eyes to an existence beyond his own.

There are a lot of fascinating ideas in play here and, in truth, I'm not sure Payne really knows how to strike the right balance or follow through on most of them. When Paul embarks on a third act voyage with Ngoc Lan, Dusan and Dusan's seafaring buddy Konrad (a hilariously deadpan Udo Kier), the film begins to feel particularly unwieldy, introducing a potentially cataclysmic plot twist that doesn't have time to settle. But I was happy to stick with Downsizing all the way to the end of its odd journey, which came as something of a surprise given how much I disliked Alexander Payne's last two features Nebraska and The Descendants. Both of those movies felt inert, bitter and condescending, whereas Downsizing feels like something genuinely and refreshingly new. It's a film that looks outwards and reaches for something beyond the territory Payne normally operates in, possessing a strain of optimism and – thanks to Chau's remarkable performance – empathy that I found very moving. Downsizing is far from a perfect film, but it's a thoughtful and ambitious one, and it deserves more than the dismissive response it has received thus far. Perhaps it's easy to see why a film like this has flopped in the current moviegoing climate, but I hope Alexander Payne isn't discouraged from continuing to think big.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Hostiles

Hostiles opens with a scene in which a family’s home is besieged by an Apache tribe, who kill the man of the house and his three children, including a newborn baby, leaving the anguished mother (Rosamund Pike) half-crazed with grief. We then meet two soldiers as they sit in near darkness and boozily reminisce about their past exploits, such as the time when one of them sliced a Native American "from stem to stern." Ah, good times. Shortly afterwards, when Captain Blocker (Christian Bale, looking and sounding like a young Sam Elliott) is tasked with escorting an ailing Cheyenne chief (Wes Studi) to his home so he can die on his own land, he responds by walking out into the wilderness and howling at the sky at the injustice of it all. These characters hadn’t even begun their journey, and already the film’s pervading sense of despair and violence was suffocating.

That, it seems, is the Scott Cooper way. Like his last two films Out of the Furnace and Black Mass, Hostiles moves from the first scene with a gravity it hasn’t earned, as if presenting itself as a serious piece of work is enough to ensure we should take it seriously. Cooper's slight but charming 2009 debut Crazy Heart now feels like an outlier, as each of the subsequent movies have been defined by a brooding demeanour and a focus on violent, tortured men. It’s hard to recall any characters in his films cracking a smile, unless you count Johnny Depp’s sinister grin in the lamentable Black Mass. The problem is not the grim tone, the problem is a lack of inspiration and ability. There is nothing in Cooper’s direction or storytelling to elevate this material. It just feels like we are dutifully trudging across old territory.

Hostiles is essentially Cooper’s spin on The Searchers. As the racist and vengeful Blocker reluctantly shepherds Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family, he gradually comes to see the humanity of the man he once despised and learns how alike they are, but Cooper fails to illuminate this path to understanding. When Blocker tells Yellow Hawk towards the end of the film that “a part of me dies with you,” it doesn’t resonate because the film hasn’t dramatised his changing perspective effectively. Blocker spends most of his time interacting with Pike’s Rosalie Quaid (his upright, courteous behaviour is quite touching) or the various characters they meet along the way, such as Ben Foster’s convict, who reminds Blocker that they have both lived violent lives and that he might be the one in chains under different circumstances. Much of Hostiles consists of these men reckoning with their violent pasts, with Rory Cochrane’s gradual breakdown being the most strained aspect of the film. The scene in which he tearfully apologises to Yellow Hawk for everything that has been done to his people and hands him a bag of tobacco as a peace offering just feels like the filmmakers paying lip service to the plight of Native Americans.

It would have been better if Cooper had given them a voice of their own. It’s a fatal misjudgement for the film to have Yellow Hawk and his family (Q'orianka Kilcher, Adam Beach) existing primarily as mute props for Blocker’s enlightenment. Given the film’s 135-minute running time and many dry passages, it’s astonishing that Cooper makes so little effort to share the Cheyenne characters’ point-of-view or to give them any sense of an inner life. Wes Studi is a great actor and a unique screen presence, but here is asked to do little more than remain stoic, noble and silent – it is such missed opportunity. As I watched Bale, Studi and Kilcher together on screen, I couldn't help wishing I was watching Terrence Malick’s The New World instead; a film with the empathy, curiosity and imagination to see the world from multiple points of view.