If you’re not familiar with quirky writer/director/performance artist Miranda July, she specializes in a special kind of weird that borders on surreal and also a surprising emotional poignancy. It’s been 9 years since her last feature film, The Future, and she’s back with what might be her most narratively focused and accessible yet still wonderfully weird movie yet. We follow a family of grifters (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger as the parents) and their day-to-day struggle to con, skim, or steal enough money to get by to the next day. Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) is their only child, and her role in the family is thrown into question when a new member joins their team. Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) has connections to a raft of senior citizens so desperate for attention that, if they all pose as Melanie’s family, they should be able to con these old folks of possessions they can resell. From there, the movie becomes a push-and-pull relationship between Old Dolio and the influence of her shifty family, and she questions her place in this fringe unit and whether her parents actually love her or see her as another means to get a score. Kajillionaire is loose in plot but populated with interesting characters who feel fully realized by July’s writing. She’s so good at studying human behavior and capturing it that the quirky details all feel so genuine and meaningful. Even Old Dolio’s name is a reminder of her parents’ opportunism and problematic parenting skills. She was named after a homeless man who won the lottery under the hopes that he would be grateful and put her in his will (he ended up spending his fortune on experimental cancer drugs). That’s the difference with July. A silly name could just be a disposable oddity, but for her it’s a reflection of a character’s worth and history. There are moments in the movie that achieve a level of artistic transcendence where every piece is humming beautifully together, like one moment where a dying elderly man off-screen directs the grifter family to pretend to be like his own flesh-and-blood family. They play pretend at domesticity, each assuming a doting role, and the tranquil scene of a fake family feels beautifully attuned. The moments stand out more than the whole but July’s empathetic appreciation of human fallibility keeps her from ever condemning Old Dolio’s scheming parents too much. Even the very end finds a way to turn betrayal into a message of humility. Wood (Westworld) drops her voice several octaves, wears baggy clothing, and looks extremely awkward when it comes to human contact. Rodriguez (Annihilation) is the voice of the audience and her test of how far she’s willing to excuse the selfish behavior of this clan of cons. Her burgeoning friendship and maybe more with Old Dolio is a rewarding enterprise for the characters and the audience. Kajillionaire is a gentle little movie that plays at a low-key range of human emotions yet it can still be deftly funny and surprising and heartfelt on its own unique terms. With Miranda July, she makes weird entrancing and human.
Nate’s Grade: B+
You haven’t seen a romance like director Guillermo del Toro’s latest monster mash (monster smash?), The Shape of Water. del Toro, an aficionado of cinematic creepy crawlies, has swerved from big-budget studio fare into a smaller, stranger period romance between a woman and an amphibious creature who already arrives pre-lubricated (I apologize already for that joke). I was compelled to watch The Shape of Water twice to better formulate my thoughts, mostly because I was not expecting the movie to be so enthusiastically whimsical, adult, and romantic, and the best beauty and the beast tale of this year.
Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a lonely mute woman working on the cleaning staff at a classified government laboratory. Her neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), is a hopeless romantic trying to find his place in the world as a gay man. Her best friend, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), is supportive but thinks they should mind their own business. An Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) from the Amazon is confined to a cell and repeatedly beaten by Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), the vile head of security at the station. They believe the creature’s ability to breathe underwater and on land will be the key to winning the space race. The scientist in charge, Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), is secretly a Russian spy, though his allegiances are more to the fragile creature than any country. Elisa teaches the creature sign language, the joys of hard boiled eggs, and lots of cheery music. She also falls in love with the creature and grows determined to save the Amphibian Man by breaking him loose.
From the get go, del Toro drops us into a world that is not our own, as he’s so skilled at doing. This version of 1960s Baltimore feels as though it’s the twentieth century equivalent of a fairy tale village, and our monster is also the princess in need of rescue. Our heroine has a strange scar that foreshadows her place of belonging. The entire film bristles with a sense of expertly curated magic realism even though there isn’t anything explicitly magical. The supernatural and fantastical are met with a casual acceptance, as they would be in any storybook legend of old. When Elisa discovers the Amphibian Man in his tank, it’s literally at the ten-minute mark or even earlier, and she is unfazed. She immediately accepts the existence of this scaly mere-man, establishes a line of communication, and befriends the creature. It’s as if del Toro is trying to prime the audience for what’s to come and hoping to skip over the intermediate waiting period of incredulity. For del Toro, the real fun is once the characters connect, and belaboring that necessary connection is not in the audience’s best interests or time.
The movie glides by on effusive outpouring of charm, given such vibrant, sweeping life thanks to del Toro’s repertoire of pop-culture influences and his passionate love of cinema. The Shape of Water feels like del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor (Hope Springs) took one of the old Universal horror B-movies and decided to make it into one of the most personal, delightful, and curious filmgoing experiences of the year. It’s film as escape for society’s outsiders. The sense of whimsy is ever-present without being overpowering or diluting the drama. It never feels quirky for its own sake of satisfaction. You’ll recognize several of del Toro’s artistic references, the re-purposing of cultural artifacts, but the magic suffused within every frame is thanks to del Toro and his team of filmmaking artists. If Amelie was going to fall in love with a sea creature, it might look something like this The Shape of Water.
The movie is also surprisingly, refreshingly adult in its depiction of human beings. Again the opening minutes set a standard of what to expect. We get a sense of Elisa’s daily routine before leaving for work, and one crucial component involves furious masturbation in her bathtub (set to an egg timer for sport?). This is a far more sensual movie than I was ever anticipating. There are multiple sequences of Hawkins disrobed and offering herself to the Amphibian Man. We never see any underwater action but we do hear about some of the mechanics of how the coupling is even remotely possible physically (“Never trust a man,” Zelda chuckles upon hearing those dirty details). It’s not all sexy time indulgences. There’s a sharp undercurrent of very real and very upsetting violence, typified by Strickland’s ruthless determination to break the creature. He’s a Bible-thumping sadist generally dismissive of those he finds different and lesser and yet he’s drawn to Elisa. Why is that? Because she’s a diminutive woman who cannot talk, and this sexually excites him like nothing else. He even comes on to her, thinking his interest is a form of masculine charity. There are some shocking moments of very real violence and its lingering effects. Strickland’s on-the-job injury becomes a metaphorical moral gauge for the putrid character’s state of being. The Shape of Water is a movie that does not blunt anything, whether it’s the sexuality or violence of its story (beware pet lovers: this is the second 2017 entry where an amphibian being hidden from the government eats somebody’s house cat). This is a fable for adults, a grimy Grimm’s tale with a sprinkle of Old Hollywood sparkle.
The Shape of Water is also a deeply romantic and earnest love story about two outsiders finding a connection in the most unlikely of places. Engineering a story that pushes two oddball characters together, each finally finding a kindred spirit, is an easy recipe for a satisfying conclusion; however, their romantic connection has to feel rightly earned. If we don’t believe the characters have fallen for one another, that this potential relationship elevates their existence, that the colors of the world seem brighter when around this person, then it doesn’t work. You have to buy the love story and it must be earned. Amazingly, del Toro is able to craft a love story with a mute woman and an Amphibian Man that checks most of the boxes of Hollywood romantic escapism. Elisa has an openhearted way of looking at the world, and her acceptance provides her with a bravery few others have. The creature presents somebody who views her not as a woman with a disability, as something lesser, but as something whole and wholly fulfilling. Everyone wants to be truly seen by someone for who they are rather than what they’re not.
While del Toro is supremely skillful at making Elisa’s romantic yearnings felt, there is one inherent weakness in this girl-meets-fish dude tale of love. The Amphibian Man isn’t really much of a character and far more of a symbol to the other characters. To Elisa, he’s her hope. To Giles, he’s a wild animal. To Strickland, he’s a defiant challenge to be tamed. To Zelda, he’s the questionable new boyfriend for her pal. To Hoffstetler, he’s a beautiful creature. To the U.S. government, he’s a potential scientific breakthrough. To the Soviets, he’s a liability and a potential future weapon. We’re told the indigenous people of the Amazon worshiped the Amphibian Man as a god but ultimately he remains a cipher others project onto. The love story feels a little too one-sided from an audience investment perspective. Still, the romance works and that fact alone is incredible considering the unique pairing.
Hawkins (Maudie) is the beating heart of the movie and delivers a wonderfully expressive portrait of a woman finding her voice, so to speak. She’s relatively upbeat and that fits the whimsical tone of the picture. Hawkins plays a woman excited by the possibilities of the world. She reminded me of Bjork’s tragic heroine from 2000’s Dancer in the Dark, a woman who saw the extraordinary in ordinary life, who could perceive a symphony of music just on the outer edges of everyone else’s hearing. Going completely wordless for the movie, save for one very memorable fantasy sequence, requires a lot of daunting physical acting from Hawkins, and she’s more than up to the task. I guarantee a scene where she tearfully forces Giles to say out loud her signing will be her Oscar nomination clip.
When we talk about the weird and wild promise of cinema, it takes a controlled, assured vision and precise execution to bring together the dispirit elements and allow them to coalesce into something that feels like a satisfying, mesmerizing whole. The Shape of Water is del Toro’s gooey love letter to monster movies while stepping outside of homage and into the realm of something daring and different. I could talk about the Busby Berkley musical number as declaration of love, or that the story is told from socially marginalized voices finding an affinity together, or the small character moments that give generous life to supporting figures like Zelda and Hoffstetler, or that it leaves implied stories to be chewed over for extra richness like Giles likely being outed at his work to the dismay of his closeted superior, or the perfect casting for secondary antagonists, or the exquisite cinematography that seems to utilize every shade of green the human eye is capable of seeing, or the stunning production design, or the sweetly eccentric whistling musical score by Alexadre Desplat, or the grace of Doug Jones’ performance in the amphibian suit, or just how funny this movie can be, even the sadistic villain. I could talk about all that stuff but I’ll simply condense it all to a plea to give The Shape of Water a chance. It’s rare to see a storytelling vision this precise that’s also executed at such a high degree of difficulty. In other hands, this could have been an unholy mess. With del Toro, it’s a lovely mess.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Director Roland Emmerich, the maestro of the dumb fun blockbuster, is never going to get the credit he deserves but the man is something of a mad genius when it comes to putting together spectacle-rich, low-calorie but still satisfying summer entertainment. Take White House Down, the second of 2013’s Die-Hard-in-the-White-House movies. It’s really more of a buddy film contained to that famous structure. It’s not a smart blockbuster by any means but it makes up for any and all flaws with its sheer overpowering sense of fun. Stuff gets blown up real good, the action is brisk, and there are satisfying payoffs for story elements that felt like they were, at first glance, merely thrown together. You may walk away surprised at how much you’re enjoying the comedic interplay between Secret Service agent Channing Tatum and president Jamie Foxx. Plus it’s fun to see the president in on the action instead of merely as a hostage, like the earlier Olympus Has Fallen. In direct comparison, I’d have to say White House Down is the better of the two movies, both in payoff and action. It’s nice to have a movie that’s just fun to watch, that goes about its blockbuster business with precision, supplying a few decent twists, and giving us heroes worth rooting for and action sequences that are well developed and that matter no matter how ridiculous. Emmerich movies are blissfully free of self-serious malarkey, though his weakest hit, 2004’s Day After Tomorrow, got a bit preachy. His movies know what they are and know the demands of an audience. What I needed this summer was a movie designed to make me cheer the impossible. White House Down is a romp.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Essentially a faithful remake of the Swedish pre-teen vampire romance, Let the Right One In, this American reinterpretation loses points in originality and freshness but makes up for it with a bigger budget and better acting. Even fans of the original, and count me as one, must admit that Chloe Grace Moretz (Kick-Ass) as a pint-sized vampire stuck forever in pre-pubescence, and Richard Jenkins (The Visitor) as her aging caretaker, are upgrades. The true surprise is the eerie assuredness of the entire production from director Matt Reeves, he of shaky-cam Cloverfield fame. The entire film just feels so placidly precise, even as it draws tension and sets up for one vicious poolside climax. Some of the audience unfriendly moments from the original have been exorcised (say goodbye to lingering gender identity questions), but Let Me In still happily dwells in an unsettling place, forcing its characters to do questionable things in the name of companionship and forcing the audience to decide how they fell about that. Also, the film still retains its ambiguity for interpretation; whether you view it as a depressing saga of use and abuse, or an disaffected teen romance is entirely up to you. Let Me In won’t grab peoples’ attention in the same way its Scandinavian predecessor did, but it doesn’t screw it up either. And these days, that’s got to count for a lot.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Best-selling author Nicholas Sparks is probably a perfectly reasonable human being. I’m sure he’s great at parties and that people love him. He may even have a dynamite recipe for sugar cookies. But I don’t know what happened to Sparks to turn him into the romance genre’s angel of death. His novels have followed a familiar practice of big Third Act deaths that usually deny readers their cherished happy endings. Is the motive to push people to make the most of our preciously little time spent on Earth? Is Sparks just sadistic and has found the secret to eternal life — the tears of millions of housewives and teenager girls. Whatever his rationale, another commonality for Sparks is that the film adaptations of his books are pretty corny and dreadful. A Walk to Remember, Nights in Rodanthe, Message in a Bottle; all about romance ultimately denied, none coming close to watchable. Dear John can at least be called watchable; however, watching should be limited to the confines of your living room TV when there’s nothing else on.
It’s the spring of 2001, and John Tyree (Channing Tatum) is enjoying his two-week leave from the military. He’s out surfing the fine North Carolina beaches when he rescues the handbag of Savannah (Amanda Seyfried) from being washed away. They two of them casually chat and soon those chats lead to barbecue invitations, parental visits, and kisses in the rain (a romantic movie tradition). Savannah takes an interest in John’s eccentric father (Richard Jenkins) because she recognizes his condition as autism. She’s been helping to watch her neighbor’s autistic child. Savannah would like to start her own horse camp for the autistic (sounds like an insurance nightmare). Life seems so full of promise and John promises to be back as soon as his military commitment expires in six months. Then 9/11 happens. John re-enlists and extends his tour another two years. This places great strain on his relationship with Savannah, but they write each other countless letters that manage to find John no matter what far-flung village he’s stationed at. Can their love exists on a series of hand-written letters? Well, look no further than the classic implications from the film’s title.
Dear John goes through all the traditional Nicholas Sparks waterworks trademarks: young love leads to yearning, which leads to heartbreak, which leads to more yearning, which then inevitably leads toward one of the leads dying and everyone learning some sort of shallow profound meaning about life, blah blah blah. There are plenty of heightened melodramatic elements thrown into a fairly traditional, unspectacular love story, but all potent potential moments of drama feel underwhelming pretty much because the audience doesn’t care. John and Savannah are perfectly nice people and their love has that hopeful bloom, but their relationship is no more involving than watching a pretend couple in a commercial for greeting cards or life insurance. These people are vanilla. It makes it astounding, then, that such highly charged elements like cancer autism, and 9/11 fail to leave any impact. Dear John confuses listing dramatic events as drama itself. The dramatic stakes feel entirely too mellow and the film generally has a detached feeling, like it’s purposely distanced from the material for fear of getting too involved. This is a relationship movie that has its own commitment issues.
The military angle is respectfully explored, though not in much depth. John is torn apart by the pull of returning to his beloved but also of serving his country and, more personally, keeping his band of brothers in arms together. It’s a complicated scenario but the military commitment is another item in a list that should grab your interest but fail to do so. 9/11 isn’t given any deeper consideration other than the fact that it serves as a roadblock between our two lovebirds. If you want to see a more nuanced, complicated, and empathetic view of today’s overburdened military, check out the movie Stop-Loss, which also stars Tatum.
The film drops any facade of being a romantic drama about midway through when Seyfried gets completely sidelined. She’s less a character and more an agreeable plot device; she’s self-aware and kind and knowing and receptive yet also naive. This makes her sudden character shift rather jarring, which seemingly paints Savannah as extremely co-dependant. Dear John then transforms into a serviceable father/son drama. There are some nice and moving moments between John and his father; this should have been the real focal point of the movie. Jenkins acts circles around everybody in this movie. It’s wonderful seeing a grown-up in these kind of movies show the kids ho this acting thing is done. Tatum actually might become a pretty good actor. He convincingly plays the more emotional moments well. He may very well prove to be the Patrick Swayze of his generation. Tatum can dance (Step Up), make the girls cry, and also handle some rock-socking action (G.I. Joe, Fighting, most of Tatum’s other movies). I think there’s an actor buried beneath that daunting physique waiting to blossom. Don’t disappoint me, Channing.
Dear John is a formulaic romance trained to seek pre-programmed audience responses (“Now you will laugh. Now you will cry. Now you will cry again. Now you will once again continue to cry…”). Lasse Halstrom (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Cassanova) directed this movie but you’d never be able to notice. I don’t want to be too harsh on the film because the acting is pleasant the story isn’t repulsive and does have some good moments, but mostly the movie comes across as bland and remote. The romance seems absent a beating heart to keep things moving. It’s all too lifeless. The character of Savannah best summarizes Dear John as a whole: mild pretense of wisdom, pretty to look at, genial, but fairly bland and difficult to convince is worth your valuable time.
Nate’s Grade: C
The follow-up by Thomas McCarthy, the writer/director of the sparkling Station Agent, is an affecting indictment on our nation’s immigration policies that manages to say a lot of important things in small touches, ditching histrionic messages. Walter (Richard Jenkins, in a commanding and deeply empathetic performance) discovers a pair of illegal immigrant squatters living in his seldom-used New York City apartment. He strikes up an unlikely friendship that moves in subtle strokes that keeps the movie very character-based. The second half of the film revolves around Walter’s attempts to work within the system to free his new friend from detention. I could have spent more time with Walter and Tariq, the Syrian immigrant who teaches Walter how to play the African drum. The Visitor explores a man learning in his autumn years how to reconnect with people, and it has moments of astonishing emotional clarity. McCarthy is a filmmaker that can spin narrative gold from just about anything; The Station Agent had a hot dog vendor, a single mom, and a dwarf. The Visitor is further proof that McCarthy is an extremely talented man who knows how to target and tap the humanity of his unique characters. There are very few moments in this movie that feel false.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Miles Massey (George Clooney) is the preeminent divorce attorney in Los Angeles. But after years of bankrupting homes after people have broken them (this allusion may be too tricky), hes grown tired of the same old same old. Enter Marilyn Roxroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a conniving gold digger who has been ruined by Massey defending her dimwitted hubby (Edward Herrmann). Now shes out for revenge, which could be in the form of romancing Massey while bringing him down.
Intolerable Cruelty is something of a strange breed. It’s the Coens most striving foray into mainstream success, with the weight of the world on Clooney and Zeta-Jones exchanging sparks and verbal repartee. For the most part, things work: the leads do have a winning chemistry; Zeta-Jones is positively glowing in Roger Deakins’ beautifully milky cinematography (she found out she pregnant late in the shoot, which could explain the glow).
The stumbling block for Intolerable Cruelty and its central romance is that neither of the leads, though at times charming, isn’t exactly likable or able to root for. An integral part of any romantic comedy is empathy for the leads so much that we want them to get together, possibly with swirling crescendos. But in Intolerable Cruelty, both leads make a living off deceiving and taking advantage of others. So while their War of the Roses-esque pursuit to out-scam the other can provide some entertaining twists (and some forced and out of place), the whole duplicitous one-upsmanship doesn’t blossom credible love between the leads or the audience.
I have a strong feeling that Intolerable Cruelty was a story the Coens hopped on late, did some rewrites and invited old Coen friends to join in the jubilee. This is the first time the Coens have worked with other writers (the people who brought us such duds as (Big Trouble and Life), and certain storylines or subplots that glaringly feel disjointed from the screwball-comedy tone of the film. An asthmatic hit man named Wheezy Joe (who got the biggest laugh with his demise) is funny but in the wrong Coen film. When Clooney and Zeta-Jones both hire the services of Wheezy Joe to off the other, you know the story took a fantastical wrong turn. A creepy decrepit owner of Clooney’s law firm also feels like a leftover from a different film. This movie also has the most ripping up of legal documents I’ve ever seen in a movie.
Clooney is quite funny as a chattering legal eagle with a Cary Grant edge. Hes ready and willing to play against his movie star image, which works wonders for comedy, though the running gag where he must look at his teeth in any reflective surface never takes off. It took me until Intolerable Cruelty to realize how much of a beautiful woman Zeta-Jones is. Her warm smile could light up an auditorium. The supporting characters are all underused but very memorable. The opening with Geoffrey Rush’s TV exec walking in on his canoodling wife is very funny, and he plays the long-haired arrogant type well. Cedric the Entertainer is hilarious as a private eye determined to ”nail yo ass” that I started privately wishing the film would spin to follow his life and not Clooney’s.
Intolerable Cruelty is a nice diversion for the Coens, with some good laughs here and there (my favorite being the courtroom scene where Clooney and Zeta-Jones go head-to-head for the first time), but one would hope that the Coens will get back to doing hat they do best, which is quirky yet beautiful independent films. In the end, it seems that the Coens have created an oddity for themselves — a normal movie. We expect more Joel and Ethan.
Nate’s Grade: B-
The Coen brothers dark, twisty entry to the world of film noir looks mind-blowing with its black and white lensing. And the story is great too. Billy Bob Thronton plays a barber who gives new definition to the word passive. One day a customer lets him in on an up-and-coming financial project and if Thronton were to provide some dough then surely he would rake it in. As with most film noir, the normal man is thus pulled into the web of intrigue and crime. The ball gets rolling after Thornton blackmails his wife’s tryst (James Gandolfini), who also happens to be her boss and his friend. Things get far more complicated from there and nothing seems to go right as Thornton makes one bad decision after another. The Man Who Wasn’t There is an engaging and smart drama with game bits of comedy strewn at key moments. The Coen brothers are a pair not very easily topped when it comes to excellence in films, and this latest entry is a wonderful addition to their resume.
Nate’s Grade: A-