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.