All posts by callen77

THE SHAPE OF WATER

THE SHAPE OF WATER

Guillermo del Toro makes beautiful films, let’s just make that clear. His craft is impeccable. With a variety of collaborators he has created some of the most brilliant productions, sets, and practical effects in all of modern cinema. Here he blends practical and computer generated effects better than any film I can think of (I think he’s still trying to redeem himself for that awful CG fight in BLADE 2).  His massive monster muse Doug Jones, who has been featured under heavy make (yet still somehow always recognizable?!) in six of del Toro’s eleven features, creates a performance that is hard to judge because of this mixture. The creature this time is credited as both “The Asset” and “Amphibian Man” and really has to be seen to be believed. The obvious inspiration is, which del Toro heartily acknowledges, THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, but del Toro and his crew go beyond simple movie monster and create a character of depth and sympathy, so much of which lies in its eye, as is the case with all film performance. These eyes are fixed black orbs but the blinking is all CG. Given this is a story of two mute characters, Sally Hawkins’ Elisa was injured as a child, the importance of their eye contact cannot be understated. Make no mistake this is an inter-species love story, complete with consummation, so if at any point we stop believing the reality of the creature, the whole thing falls apart. Because of the great effects and both legitimately wonderful performance we believe every moment: the “meet cute”, the courtship, the physical attraction, all of it. Unfortunately not all the other performances, or characters, live up to this standard.

Michael Shannon can do menacing while sipping tea and reading Better Homes and Gardens. It’s just his thing. Here his does MENACE! Or more specifically GOVERNMENT MENACE! and it’s all cartoon and caricature. You believe he’s scary, you believe he is dangerous, you just don’t believe he’s human. Octavia Spence suffers a similar fate as SUPPORTIVE FRIEND! This wouldn’t even be an issue if the film was a strict fantasy. Hell, I love watching actors find nuance in timeworn character types. For my money one of Michael Shannon’s best performances is as MENACE WITH A BADGE! in David Koepp’s underseen, highly entertaining PREMIUM RUSH. But I digress. I should clarify “strict fantasy” I think. I’m obviously not referring to elves and fairies and what have you. What I mean is a story set sort of out of time, where things are, in varying degrees recognizable, but not really discernable in regards to era and sometimes locations, and often distorted or exaggerated. EDWARD SCISSORHANDS and SEVEN are a couple films that leap to mind. But THE SHAPE OF WATER goes out of its way to place in a very specific time: American in the 1965. How do we know this? Because at one point Elisa is at her neighbor Giles’ (Richard Jenkins) apartment and she turns on the television and we see footage of the Selma marches. More specifically we see violence against the marchers. I can’t recall if it was them being hosed or attacked by dogs, it is only a brief glimpse. Giles, who happens to be gay, reacts by waving his hands and insisting that Elisa “turn it” and that he “doesn’t want to see this.” Elisa turns the channel to a musical and Giles sits down responding “isn’t that lovely.” I have never in my life felt the energy sucked out of a theater like I did at that moment. I saw this on a Tuesday morning with a full theater and diverse audience and I don’t think there was a single patron that didn’t either gasp or groan (I was a groaner). It is a callous and inexplicable moment, particularly when you consider the film is supposed to be a metaphor for inequality and forbidden love. Pro tip (ok, fine, amateur tip), when creating a cinematic metaphor don’t  put it directly next to images of real people with real struggles, and if you must then for fuck sake don’t treat that image like someone just put a plate of something disgusting in front of you. It is rare that a single, quick moment like this can deflate an entire theater but there was definitely a marked difference in my audience after this. No one reacted to much else for the remainder of the film, except another groan during a scene where, believing he has a mutual attraction, Giles, hits on the cashier at a local pie store (were there really pies stores in the 60s?), but has taken the cashiers customer service training as affection and is promptly told to leave, but kicking him out is not enough, as he is being asked to leave an African American family enters and is also kicked out.
 

The story moves on, the plot unfolds, but the magic has gone. The metaphor, which had been working, seems flippant and petty by comparison. The rest of the film is basically a well-staged heist film with Amphibian Man as the ultimate prize. Elisa enlists her friends and a Russian spy (Michael Stuhlbarg) whose character I won’t even get into but to say that it is a character that the film doesn’t know what to do with or how it wants us to feel about him. He’s Russian so he has to be coded “bad guy” but he’s also the only person outside her immediate circle who sympathizes with both Elisa and The Asset. There’s a complexity to his motivation that could have really been interesting to explore but instead his stand alone scenes feel more like cut-aways to a different film, the international intrigue and cold war representation a pointless sheen over the bizarre love story that is the heart of the film. Bizarre and otherworldly is where Del Toro shines. Not just in this film but throughout his career it has always been the fantastic that he seems most comfortable with, but it is only here where I’ve felt the real world setting a crutch to his story and themes. He should have let these two beautiful characters do their dance and trusted his audience to understand the metaphor.

by Jason Callen

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STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI

Star Wars The Last Jediby Jason Callen

Rian Johnson has accomplished something remarkable. He has taken a sprawling space opera that encompasses 8 feature length films, hundreds of hours of animation, and dozens of books, comics and video games and created a story about intimacy and connection. Given the nature of the force as the “thing that binds us and holds the universe together,” you’d think something along these lines would have been attempted before, and certainly there have been moments throughout the series that highlight the connections the force can create, but it always felt more in service of plot then any kind of exploration of the force’s potential. Through the simple, time honored technique of cross cutting between two characters Johnson creates that connection between Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo (Adam Driver). It is the first time we’ve seen two characters communicate with each other via the force. I know, it seems ridiculous right, like this has happened repeatedly, but no, all other moments of force communication (I’m making these terms up as I go) have always been between “ghosts” and the living or been just a word or a feeling between living characters, never a conversation. (And yes, I realize that technically the connection is manufactured by a third party but I don’t think it changes the impact at all). Big deal you say. What’s the difference you say? I know, I felt the same way at first but as Johnson persisted in its use it became clear he wanted to give the force a more important role. So we get this expanded connection and we get Leia’s amazing force moment, which was so necessary and about damn time, but beyond that we get connections between non force wielding characters. Not telekinetic connections but human ones. I’m speaking obviously of Finn and Rose who end up separated from the main action but vital to it nonetheless. With no one else to trust, they must rely on each other. This would seem a fairly straight-forward side mission, something abundant in the Star Wars universe, but when Johnson goes back to Rey and Kylo, the parallels between the two budding relationships become clear.  Neither Finn nor Rose is force aware in any sense we are familiar with but their connection is clear and clearly meant to enrich the potential of the force. The “force binds and connect everything,” it is not simply a tool for the Jedi and Sith but something that anyone one has the potential to tap into. As it should be.  And while Finn and Rose didn’t exhibit any force powers, I would not be surprised to see them emerge in later episodes.

Luke’s belief that it is “time for the Jedi to end” takes on a different meaning if we accept this. We don’t have to assume a Jedi genocide or more (always more!) self-imposed Jedi exile. Instead the end of the Jedi might simply mean the end of Jedi elitism. People no longer need the Jedi to inform them on the ways of the force or to restrict them in the ways in which the might use it with religious tenets. Put simply, the force is for everyone. You don’t bring balance to the universe by hoarding the force among a select few. You bring balance to the universe by imbuing all with the force.  Children abandoned to slavery, former Storm Troopers who grow a conscious, lowly maintenance workers who have only ever dreamed of battle, broom boy…any one could now end up the greatest wielder of the force the galaxy has ever seen. Couple this new potential with Luke’s evolution to a celestial being and it’s safe to say Rian Johnson has blown up the Star Wars mythos, and while many have and will disagree, I’ve found those moments that have garnered the most ire (I won’t list them, you know them) to be the moments that set this film apart from the rest and give the audience something richer than we’ve come to expect. The future of the franchise has never been so wide open or exciting.

Will any of this potential be realized in upcoming films? Sadly I hold out little hope for the next episode since it will be returning to the pedestrian, TV aesthetic inclined, J.J. Abrams who is half the director and a third the writer that Johnson is. But fear not, Disney has already green-lit Johnson a new, non-episode trilogy so there is reason to rejoice and believe he’ll get a chance to move his vision forward, and if we’re really lucky (and if Disney has any brains at all) perhaps he’ll be involved at least in the writing of the next episode. Whatever happens, they better be bold, because the bar has been raised. This is the best live action STAR WARS.

OVER THE EDGE

Over the Edge poster

It’s odd when a nearly forty year old film comes with high expectations, but such is the case with Jonathan Kaplan’s 1979 film OVER THE EDGE. For years I’d heard this was one of the best representations of teenage life/angst to be put on film. Such bold statements always leave me weary but seeing as it was co-written by Tim Hunter, who would go on to direct RIVER’S EDGE (1986) which is one of the best such movies, I was willing to trust the cult status of this film.

The cult got it half right. The first portion of this film does indeed create a realistic depiction of teenage malaise. Stuck in the newly developed suburb of New Granada the listless teens spend most of their time in the “rec center” or out performing a series of misdemeanors that range from mostly innocuous to might get someone killed. Wisely the film does not attempt to turn these Junior High students (remember when there were Junior Highs?!) into monsters but simply bored teens, desperate to find something worthwhile to occupy their time. For the majority of the film anyway. The “worst” among them is Richie White (Matt Dillon in his film debut) whose petty criminal record puts him on the radar of the Doberman (Harry Northup), the local sheriff (I assume, the never really specify), who of course sees him as a major threat to the community, as he does all the teens. He uses any infraction to harass and intimidate the teens, eventually shutting down the one place the have, the teen rec center. Run by Julia (Julia Pomeroy), the center consists of a pool table, a Foosball table, a ping pong table, some chairs and a playground. In other words, about 30 minutes of fun before boredom sets in again. As ineffective as the center is, Julia is the only adult presented who is willing to listen to the teens and try to understand them.

This type of film insists that a “good” kid be caught up in the wake of the trouble maker, and in this case that good kid is Carl (Michael Kramer). Smart and resourceful, Carl gravitates toward Richie because of his confidence and humor, and their relationship creates a balance that helps us sympathize with the disenchanted youth. But just as that sympathy is reaching its peak and we think the film is going one way (to a greater understanding between the adults and children), the film creates an incident that changes the tone of the film and leads to a finale that while nicely shot and edited, seems reductive to the purpose of the film. The chaos and violence of these final moments are so extreme and exaggerated that it belies not only the emotional realism of the early portions of the film but also what we’ve come to believe about the main character. We watch Carl grow and come close to bridging the generation gap, only to see him (and EVERYONE else) become exactly what their parents and the law feared. It is a truly demoralizing end.

I imagine if I had seen this as a teenager I probably would have championed it as a huge success and window into the frustrations of confined youth. As an adult, far removed from the angst and rebellion of youth, the film seems more interested in confirming the fears of adults than looking seriously at the causes of juvenile crime. A real shame considering how great it started. An interesting, frustrating, and ultimately disappointing “cult classic.”

by Jason Callen

mother! – a reaction by Jason Callen

mother!

Art is the most selfish act of all, and the most consumptive.  The artist, compelled to create, consumes all around them. No one, and nothing, is safe. Nature, industry, culture, politics…all are ingested and processed in the desperate need to express that inner voice. Love too. Love is the tastiest morsel of all. With love, with a muse, the artist can transcend, reach heights once thought unattainable. Unfortunately for the muse they don’t always survive the process, as the artist is prone to discard them once they’ve served their purpose. The muse’s needs are of no concern to the artist in the midst of creation. The muse does not control its own power. The muse is activated when necessary, otherwise lying dormant. Their heart crystalized and preserved until the next desperate need strikes the artist. Sometimes the muse malfunctions, provides no fruit for consumption. These are dangerous moments for the artist, who must now distract themselves while waiting for the return of their inspiration. At these times the artist can become aware of their own selfishness, their gluttony.  This may trigger a spasm of altruism. In an attempt to balance hour upon hour of forced isolation, the artist may open themselves up, inviting people into the process and sharing with them their passion. But the artist is compulsive and often doesn’t realize when this “altruism” again becomes a part of their consumption. Soon the artist begins to feed again on those they have brought close, turning their lives into part of the work. A side effect of this is adulation. Feeling connected to the artist, the mob begins its own feeding. The artist can thrive on this adulation as much as they do the muse’s love. Sometimes it supplants it entirely. Having claimed partial ownership of the artist, the mob feels threatened by the muse. They fear its ability to return the artist to isolation. And so they destroy it, pummel it, dissect it. The artist is impotent to act. “It’s all because they love me,” he chants as his love dies and ego grows. The muse’s attempt to reignite the artist’s passion cause sparks that ultimately just burn everything to the ground. Undeterred, the artist simply changes medium. Now they work in ash.

BABY DRIVER-A REVIEW BY JASON CALLEN

baby-driver-movie-15

BABY DRIVER is a tale of two movies. The first is what I can only think to call a near-musical, where a young ace driver performs to tunes of ipod a bevy of death defying maneuvers any one of which could get you killed everyone in the vehicle if inches are missed. The diegetic music and the ways it inadvertently syncs with the driving, turn the driving into a metallic dance. Said driver, Baby, as it where, sees himself as having an equal grace when he’s on two feet. This is not necessarily the case as he his frequently getting told to “watch out” as he, still listening to music that we hear as the soundtrack, dances down the street weaving in and out of foot traffic and performing a little routine. The sequence is reminiscent of both Gene Kelly and Tony Manero. It is screaming out to be a bigger more musical moment, to allow that energy of the opening chase to carry over, to look and feel even more choreographed. Instead, director Edgar Wright stays mostly close on Baby and robs the scene of its potential. Moments later another scene evokes Gene Kelly’s first appearance in AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, where he fluidly moves about a tiny apartment, turning every action into a dance. Here, Baby is making a sandwich for his foster father and moves through the kitchen in much the same way, but instead of a wide shot where we can appreciate that movement and the space, Wright cuts needlessly through the scene, even breaking the 180 degree “rule” for no apparent reason. Here again the scene seems to end before it begins, right when you’d expect a more musical moment. A scene in a laundry mat also seems primed to burst but Wright holds it back. This continues throughout these lighter moments of the film (mostly in the first third of the feature).

The other movie within this movie is a hyper violent, fairly conventional cops and robbers flick about a young man who lost his parents (abusive father, loving mother) in a car accident and becomes a car thief/joy rider in an attempt to control the thing that took the life of the only person who loved him. One day he gets caught by a bigger criminal, Doc, played by Kevin Spacey, and rather than turn him in to the police Doc sees what an incredible driver Baby is and blackmails him into being the getaway driver on a series of robberies. But don’t worry, he’s cool, once Baby pays his debt he’ll be free to go. Sure sure. Doc, despite claims of being extremely careful and smart about the crews he uses, employs on more than one occasion, Bats, played by Jamie Foxx. Bats is a psychotic (Batshit crazy, haha, yeah we get it) whose pretty much kills or wants to kill everyone he meets/works with. In reality he’s the fun killer. As soon as he shows up (far too early in the film), all the joy and musical whimsy that the, let’s say, first 20 minutes of the film promised is overwhelmed by Bats’ personality and Foxx’s one note performance.

During those delightful opening moments Baby also manages to find a love interest in Lily James’ Debora. Perhaps surrogate mother is a better description though, as she works at the restaurant that Baby’s mother used to work at (which he haunts daily), looks vaguely like her, and sings vaguely like her. There budding romance is kept separate from the cops and robbers narrative, until of course it needs to be integrated so that Debora can become a hostage and a reason for Baby to take up the violence that he has personally avoided during his time with Doc. It’s all quite depressing, particularly when circumstances lead Debora to use violence as well. Despite another 10 or 15 minutes of coda, the movie ended for me with that act, which also finally and completely ends the promise of the film’s opening. Sure, Wright continues to use the diegetic music in the later half, but now he cheats it, bringing in a conventional thriller score when he needs to during later scenes. It sure would have been fun to continue using Baby’s playlist during these moments. But alas.

I’ve enjoyed Edgar Wright’s work since I was first introduced to the show SPACED, which he directed every episode of. I’ve liked all his previous features as well and make no mistake, BABY DRIVER is made with just as much skill as any of them. His usual energy is there as he works with long time collaborators Bill Pope (cinematography) and Jonathan Amos & Paul Machliss (editing). If this had just been a straightforward heist film I’d probably be singing its praises right now but the open teases a much more interesting genre exploration that never materializes. Or rather, gets crushed by the weight of convention and violence. Wright’s had such success adding humor and pathos to genre films, it would have been so great to see him really attack the musical with the same bravado, even in the karaoke style that takes plays here. Is BABY DRIVER devoid of entertainment? No, but it’s the weakest film from a still young filmmaker whose ceiling is very high.