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Never Look Away (2018)

This is only the second film for writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck since his 2006 Oscar-winning masterpiece, The Lives of Others. Seeing his name attached to any movie was enough to secure my ticket. Going back to his native language, the director traces the life of a young, daring Dresden artist, loosely based on Gerhard Richter, trying to find his sense of self and truth from the reign of the Nazis to the GDR under Soviet influence. It’s a sprawling yet intimate human drama that has a full range of emotions, from the swooping romance to the heartbreak. It balances many emotions and tones as it presents a rich portrait of a young man’s life set across a fascinating backdrop. His free-spirited aunt, an inspirational figure, is abducted due to her schizophrenia and ultimately sentenced to death by an SS-enabling doctor (Sebastian Koch). This gets even more complicated when he goes to college and starts secretly dating the daughter… of that very same doctor, now being protected by a high-ranking Soviet official he aided. The simple strokes of a love story, or the disapproving father trying to destroy their love story, or the efforts of the family post-war to find some foothold in a new East Germany, it all adds up to a deeply felt and deeply alluring human drama with plenty of breathing room. The length (3 hours 8 minutes) gets to be unwieldy, especially during the third hour when we visit our second art school education. It’s just less generally captivating to watch a guy try and find his artistic voice when his life has all this other potent drama afoot, and that’s even after the lingering fallout from a forced abortion and hidden Nazi searches. Never Look Away is compelling, compassionate, thoughtful, and a tad too long for its own good. Hopefully the director doesn’t take another long eight years for a follow-up (please!).

Nate’s Grade: B+

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Border (2018)

Border is a hard movie to describe without giving away key parts of its plot. Ostensibly this Swedish film is about Tina, a customs agent with a genetic deformity who can literally smell fear. She’s bedeviled by another man, Vore, who looks to have the same genetic deformity she has, which unleashes a flurry of gnawing questions over whether the two have some deeper connection, who might be her real family, and whether this genetic deformity is really what she’s been lead to believe. The movie is from the writer of Let the Right One In and takes a very macabre and understated look into a fairy tale realm bleeding into our own world. The movie is mostly grounded and benefits greatly from its lead actress, Eva Melander, who gives a rousing, nuanced performance under heavy prosthetic makeup. Tonally, it feels like the darker impulses, which can get extremely disturbing, are at odds with some of the other competing storylines, like her gradual self-awakening and the potential romance with Vore. Nothing will prepare you for how weird things will get including an awkward sex scene that defies belief. Border holds out a bit too long with its pertinent information, delaying the mystery without enough clues to tease things out in a satisfying manner. Afterwards, the remaining reveals reflect more on the cruel depths of Vore and less with Tina’s response. It makes an uncomfortable direction feel like it’s meant more as provocation. Ultimately I think I needed more from the story and characters to better meet out the aims of its genre-defying vision. It’s definitely a different movie and will register for those looking for dark, adult fairy tales.

Nate’s Grade: B-

A Star is Born (2018)

There have been four official renditions of A Star is Born. I say “official” because other storytellers have imitated the famous formula countless times (2011’s Best Picture-winner The Artist is essentially the same tale). The original 1937 version starred Janet Gaymor and Frederick March and was about a Hollywood acting starlet. The 1954 version starred Judy Garland and James Mason and was nearly three hours. The 1976 version swapped Hollywood for the music industry, starring Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson (a generation asks, that guy from Blade?). Now Bradley Cooper has taken to reviving this old favorite, much like a singer re-imagining a classic song. As a character says in the film, there are only 12 notes within each octave, and it’s up to the individual artists to take those same 12 notes and spin them in meaningful ways; it’s the singer, not the song. Cooper and his company have refashioned A Star is Born for 2018 audiences, and it’s an emotionally satisfying showcase for its booming stars.

Jack (Cooper) is a popular singer-songwriter with a long career of hits stretching back decades. Ally (Lady Gaga a.k.a. Stefani Germanotta) is a waitress with big dreams of stardom. She writes her own songs but is afraid to perform them because of her looks. One night Jack stumbles onto her performance in a drag club, and from there he’s smitten. He invites her onstage at one of his concerts and the duo sing Ally’s song she wrote. From there they’re inseparable and Ally’s career explodes. She transitions to a solo pop act thanks to a thinly veiled villainous British manager (Rafi Gavron). Jack’s addictions and maladies seem to be getting worse as the relationship continues and Ally must choose between her blossoming career and being the caretaker for the self-destructive man she loves.

This is Bradley Cooper’s debut as a director, as well as a screenwriter, and he knows that the formula of A Star is Born is universal and requires little tinkering. The real draw will be in the characters and the performances, and that’s where A Star is Born 2018 shines. Cooper’s character is a talented mess and we’re introduced to both aspects early. The film opens with him playing onstage and it’s full of vigor, swagger, and all shot in a long take to keep the electric feeling alive, also highlighting Cooper doing his own strumming. This is a rock star that knows what he’s doing, we immediately sense. Then in the car ride as he desperately looks for a source of alcohol, we see how cavalier he is about his own addictions and self-destruction. He’s also suffering from tinnitus and refuses to wear hearing aids because he feels it will make it harder for him to be in the moment, thus taking away something from the authenticity of his performance. That’s a key word when it comes to Jack. He is obsessed with authenticity and using the spotlight to say something meaningful. This ethos will cause friction in his relationship with Ally as she gets molded into a pre-fabricated pop star with lyrics about butts in jeans. Jack knows deep down that his time in waning, both commercially and physically, and he is driven to make the most of it before the spotlight dissipates. In some ways, Ally is a reclamation project for his career and his person. It’s not manipulative. He genuinely wants to do right by her and give her the opportunities that he thinks she deserves. I never doubted Jack’s fidelity to Ally, especially as we learn piece-by-piece his troubled back-story with a troubled father. Jack has two significant relationships in his life, Ally and his older brother and tour manager, Bobby (Sam Elliot). He pushes them away while needing to draw them closer and that conflict drives the character more so than his musical legacy.

Cooper the actor does a suitably good job losing himself in the character, alternating charm and warmth and rage and stubbornness. His singing vocals are pretty solid and add to the overall impression of Jack as a character rather than an acting vehicle for a director who wanted to show off. As a director, Cooper follows the instincts of his character and has a very practical, no-frills sense of style, sticking to longer takes and pinning the camera to his performers to get every nuance of emotion across their tear-stricken faces. His camera instincts are on verisimilitude and trust in his actors, and they deliver for him. I liked the little moments that Cooper finds to let his characters stretch and for his film to breathe. The initial courtship between Ally and Jack over the course of one long night sets the tone for the rest of the movie. We can tell early on there’s something special between these two. There’s also some fine moments between Cooper and Elliot (The Hero) expressing the hardships of two hard-headed brothers tired of dealing with the scars of their alcoholic father. It’s a delicate balance so the soapier elements don’t overwhelm the pivotal sense of realism that Cooper is after. The fact that he finds that right balance throughout a 135-minute movie is an accomplishment in and of itself, let alone for a novice director, although the pacing is a bit sluggish at points.

This is rightfully Gaga’s show and she dazzles on stage and on screen. It’s tailor-made to be a showcase for Gaga and her sensational singing, so she’s got many supports from Cooper and company to succeed. Cooper is good but she is unquestionably great. It’s her movie and just as Ally becomes a star so too does Gaga. It’s not just the musical performances too, which are uniformly outstanding while still being able to be done through the lens of her character. Her performance of “La vie en Rose” is slinky, brimming with assurance, and magnetic to watch, giving the audience a sense to what Ally is capable of. You can easily see why Jack would become enchanted with her immediately. Her big moment singing her original song to a stadium of thousands is the highlight of the film. Cooper’s camera stays trained on Ally on the sidelines as she goes through a myriad of emotions, working up the courage to saunter onstage at the right time to belt out her original tune. It’s a thrilling and emotionally rousing moment that feels literally star making. You see her nerves melt away as she lets go and immerses herself in the music. The dramatic moments are just as nicely delivered, though there are the occasional bump or two. Gaga has a feisty sense of self that pushes her to push back, but she can also be achingly vulnerable and lovesick as her character falls head over heels for a troubled man. She’s present in every scene and has a strong rapport with Cooper. I fully expect her to earn an Oscar nomination for her performance and likely one for an original song.

With all that being said, A Star is Born 2018 also strangely relegates Ally’s character. Walking away, I began thinking over the movie and its characterization and I realized that Cooper and his team of screenwriters have given the rising star the least amount of material. She’s got the most screen time and her character arc is evidently clear, the rags-to-riches ascent, the naiveté giving way to hard-won wisdom and heartache. She has big dreams and gets more confident as the film continues and her career comes alive. All of that is clear, but dig deeper and you’ll discover less than you remember. Ally doesn’t even follow the track where as her notoriety increases so does her ego. She’s pretty much the same caring, humble, ambitious human being as a waitress and as a Grammy award-winning musician. I suppose her static status says something about how solidified her own sense of self is even after her dreams come true. She’s not one for the temptations of the recording industry and grater fame and fortune. I don’t think she even has a flaw; perhaps a mild lack of confidence in her performance abilities thanks to shallow male executives that equate physical looks with commercial mass appeal (Gaga herself has spoken about the negative feedback she received for years because of her looks). But a lack of confidence is a pretty weak and easily resolved flaw in a narrative. I think her big character flaw is actually her devotion to her self-destructive relationship with Jack. In order to go into more detail, I’ll be spoiling portions of the movie (if you haven’t seen any of the other versions) so please skip the next paragraph to remain absolutely pure.

Inherent with every rendition of A Star is Born is one performer on the rise and one performer on the decline. This goes with the territory, as does the falling star having some kind of crippling addiction that only gets worse. Cooper is too devoted to bringing a sense of realism to his film to merely add a happy ending. The romantic relationship between Ally and Jack is the heart of this movie but I began questioning whether it was actually a good relationship, not good in a sense of the quality of writing but good in a sense of whether it was ultimately healthy for Ally. He’s an alcoholic, a pill-popper, and he’s pushing himself too hard in a race against his irreversible hearing loss. He’s spiraling and figuratively drowning (literally in the 1954 version) and looking for a lifeline, and that’s Ally. She becomes a primary caregiver for his benders. She’s willing to sacrifice her career for him, and that level of devotion alarms even Jack, pushing him into making a fatal decision in the guise of helping her. That’s right, it’s a movie that portrays suicide not just as a tragedy but also as a misplaced gift (2016’s Lights Out did something similar to resolve its supernatural dilemma). It’s hard to tell what Cooper’s view of this decision is, whether it’s romantic or wrong-headed and cruel. Their relationship is self-destructive and Ally’s insistence on sticking it out, with a man who doesn’t trust his own will power to stay sober, comes across as a questionable asset. Should I not be hoping that she leaves and finds happiness with someone who is healthier for her?

A fun thing I noticed was the ongoing appearance of alums from the TV series Alias. The show aired from 2001-2006 and was some of the best network TV, especially its first two rollicking seasons of spy hijinks. Cooper was a supporting character on that show and he does right to his co-stars by using his own increasing leverage in Hollywood (three Oscar nominations, repeated bankabaility) to give them high-profile work. Greg Grunberg, J.J. Abrams’ lucky charm, plays Jack’s understanding and put upon personal driver. Ron Rifkin plays an addiction counselor that offers hard wisdom to Jack. I was hoping that Victor Garber and Jennifer Garner might be around the corner but alas it was not to be.

A Star is Born 2018 is a worthy and emotionally involving addition to the oft-repeated formula. It’s more emotionally grounded, eschewing sensational melodrama for something authentic and resonating after it’s long over. This is a familiar story but it’s been made relevant to a modern audience and given an emotional clarity that is richly affecting. It’s a big Old School sort of movie with big feelings but Cooper maintains a sense of integrity throughout, treating his characters as flesh-and-blood human beings. Gaga is the sensational standout but every actor does good to great work here. I wish the script gave her character more dimension and opportunity to flash even more complex impulses, but I’ll be happy with what I got. A Star is Born 2018 may be the best version yet, and that’s saying something for a story that’s been kicked around since FDR. It’s the singer, not the song, and this movie is sweet music to your ears.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

Crazy Rich Asians is a frothy mix of familiar 90s romantic comedy cliches and tropes but now with an all-Asian cast and Asian culture given a dignified spotlight. Thanks to the strides in representation, it makes the familiar feel fresh again. This is a very Pretty Woman princess fantasy story of an ordinary woman, Rachel Chu (the great Constance Wu) falling in love with a rich man who then whisks her away to his rich family home out of country and introduces her to the world of the cloistered elites, ex-girlfriends, and hangers-on and their disapproval. Much of the conflict hinges on her feeling accepted by her man’s scowling, scary mother played by the formidable Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). The two-hour running time mostly consists of a lot of blandly nice people. I think enough of these supporting characters could have been consolidated or eliminated to give more space to characters that matter. The film reminded me, in some regards, of the 50 Shades series where we jump from scene to scene to celebrate the extravagance of an elite lifestyle of luxury. It’s intended to alienate Rachel and contrast with her humble, hard-working, honest sensibilities, but after two or three of these, I don’t think it’s quite having that effect. Wu (TV’s Fresh Off the Boat) is a charming, loveable lead, and the film has fun, colorful characters played by Awkwafina (Ocean’s 8) and Ken Jeong (The Hangover trilogy), who amazingly doesn’t overstay his welcome. The production design and costumes are sensational and might even get some Oscar attention. Crazy Rich Asians is a fairly formulaic but pleasant enough movie, and the fact that an all-Asian cast rom-com is slotted as a summer movie is a positive sign. The end results are a fizzy fantasy repackaged but still entertaining and without a sense of pandering.

Nate’s Grade: B

Adrift (2018)

It’s one part survival-at-sea drama, one part relationship drama, and you get an equal slice of both until an unforeseen ending explains why the narrative was so divided. Based on a true story, Adrift tells the journey and survival of a couple (Shailene Woodley, Sam Claflin) lost at sea for 41 days after getting too close to a hurricane. Woodley takes the lead to fix the sailboat, gather supplies, tend to the grievous injuries of her boyfriend, and plot their treacherous path to Hawaii. If they’re off just a few degrees, it will be life and death. The survival half is viscerally entertaining and steady with its details, allowing the audience to get comfortable in following the steps and reasons. The camerawork by director Baltasar Kormakur (Everest) is sweeping and methodical, pulling us into the danger and isolation while creating a sterling sense of verisimilitude. The screenplay vacillates between the present and past, supplying flashbacks to fill out the romantic relationship. It’s a smart move because it allows us to immediately get into the stakes of survival while also finding room to develop the characters in a more normal setting. Plus it also makes more sense by the Tully-esque end. This is pretty much Woodley’s (HBO’s Big Little Lies) show; her secondary co-star might as well be her nipples poking through her character’s swimwear and tops. As readers may know, I’m a big fan of Woodley and the naturalism she brings to her performances, and Adrift is no exception. She can say so much through her smiles. She’s a great anchor for a storyteller. Ultimately, Adrift is a survival drama that takes a while to get going but leaves a favorable impression thanks to the acting and technical merits.

Nate’s Grade: B

50 Shades Freed (2018)

I think Fifty Shades Freed as a title works well not just for the audience but also the actors, as everyone is celebrating putting one of Hollywood’s least engaging film franchises well behind them. E. L. James’ best-selling erotic novels have made for pretty lifeless big screen entries. Director James Foley (Glengarry Glen Ross) is free from having to bring this silly thing to straight-laced life. The actors are free at last from the mechanical sex scenes that populate these films, free at last from their terrible chemistry with which they cannot conceal, free at last from having to say stilted dialogue for stilted characters, and free at last from the six hours of boredom and overstated kink. This is a franchise that wants to go out in a toe-curling climax but goes out with a whimper. If you’re like me you’ll scratch your head and wonder, “Was that it?”

Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) are now Mr. and Mrs. Grey. While honeymooning in France, Christian still can’t help his domineering ways and instructs Ana not to sunbathe topless. She finds ways to assert her independence and defiance. Meanwhile, the happy couple is challenged by two foes: a vengeful Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson) and the prospect of children.

It’s hard to say which in this trilogy is the worst film but I still venture that the second, Fifty Shades Darker, is the winner in that regard. It’s hilariously bad and incompetent, whereas Fifty Shades Freed is slightly better simply because there’s less of everything, which also includes less of a reason to exist. If you thought the previous film was struggling to stretch enough story to fill a feature-length runtime, then just wait until you watch the new movie where we have such scintillating plotlines like whether Christian’s brother might be cheating on his girlfriend or Christian being mad because Ana hasn’t changed her work email to her new married name. That last item also serves as another blaring waning sign about the scary control freak that is this franchise’s supposed brooding, Byronic hero, but we’ll get more into that later. The characters introduced in the last film don’t really matter. There just isn’t a credible story here, which may be why this is the first Fifty Shades to clock in short of two hours (and it has a montage that cycles through highlights of the trilogy). The problem is that the last film mostly completed the journey of Christian Grey from bad boyfriend material to slightly less bad marriage material, as he got down on one knee and proposed to Ana. He learned to settle down, open up about his past behavior, and start the process of compromise. With Fifty Shades Freed, we start off with them getting married and their frolicking honeymoon, and the movie seems to exist in that post-“happily ever after” phase of romances that we rarely see because nobody wants to know what happens after the couple gets their Big Closing Kiss. Does anybody want to check in with Cinderella and Prince Charming arguing over who has to do the dishes (trick question: it’s the servants)?

Conflicts are once again introduced and hastily taken care of, much like the laugh-out-loud helicopter crash from that last film that was resolved in the very next scene. They’ve carried over a lackluster villain from the second film, Ana’s unfortunately named old boss Jack Hyde who tried to sexually assault her. This man worked as a fiction editor in the world of publishing and now suddenly he’s an expert on kidnapping, breaking and entering, and stalking. It’s a ridiculous threat meant to provide some level of dread and danger, except he’s easily dispatched by the end of Act One. There’s a hilarious courtroom scene where his lawyer is trying to argue that Jack was simply trying to work things out after exhausting all his communication resources. Ignore the fact he held a knife to Ana’s throat. He goes away for the second act only to, surprise, come back in another stupidly preposterous way to re-establish his menacing threat… only to once again be easily dispatched in an anticlimactic manner. This guy sucks. The screenplay tries to hastily add some duality to Jack, saying he despises Christian Grey for denying him the life he deserved. Apparently (spoiler alert but do you actually care anymore?) Jack and Christian were in the same Detroit foster care system together and I guess Jack assumes without Christian he would have been adopted by wealthy elites instead? Jack seemed to make a name for himself even without that cushy starting point. Mostly this is another Fifty Shades movie that feels like it has time to fill and time to kill.

That’s where you’d expect the steamy sex scenes to provide a jolt. Isn’t the whole purpose of this franchise watching pretty people get naked and do sexy things? For all its whips and chains and BDSM banter, the Fifty Shades sex has been tepidly tame. As I wrote previously of this franchise: “I cannot overstate just how dull and lazily staged the sex scenes are in the film, extinguishing any kind of titillation and strangely demurring once things get passionate. The nubile bodies are on display, Johnson’s in semi-permanent arched back, though Dornan is often coquettishly obscured (sorry ladies). The word that seems most appropriate for the sex scenes is ‘anticlimactic.’ Ana jokes that she’s a vanilla girl and trapping Christian into a plain relationship, and their big screen sex life typifies this (anyone remember Ana’s question about what a butt plug was?). It’s a world of kink where nipple clamps are giggle-worthy accessories to the participants and the go-to sexual position is missionary. This movie is not the daring dip into untapped sensuality it’s been made out to be. It’s much more conservative at heart.”

The lusty thrills are of the soft-core porn variety with close-ups of erect nipples and heavy breathing. The sex scenes in the second film were most strange because they all followed a routine that was cut short once actually sex began, cruelly teasing the target audience. By my count, there are three actual sex scenes in Fifty Shades Freed and two or so aborted efforts. The strongest sex scene is the one that feels inspired from 9 1/2 Weeks, where Ana takes control and dabbles melted dollops of ice cream over Christian’s shirtless torso only to lovingly lap up every morsel. It’s the only scene that feels like it has some spontaneity and sexiness. Maybe it’s because it breaks free from their Red Room routines or maybe it’s because it has Ana in charge, or maybe it’s just residual good will from memories of 9 ½ Weeks (side note: I re-watched it a year ago as “research” for a short script, and it is not as sexy as you’ve been told. There’s an extended sex scene on the scuzziest and grimiest fire escape stairs in the rain). Another disappointment for its intended audience must be the lack of full-frontal male nudity, something each film has curiously shied away from. There is plenty of Jamie Dornan’s pubic hair, which I guess was dangled as a concession to the fans. If you came to watch erotic sex scenes you’d be better off getting off from late night cable.

With bad sex, bad storytelling, and bad pacing, what we’re left with is the closing realization that these two people really shouldn’t be together. Much of the second half of this movie revolves around a core difference over their views on children: Ana wants them and Christian is less than enthusiastic. This is a conversation that should have taken place before they got hitched. It’s another example of Christian not wanting to share Ana with anyone (he literally says this in response to being a potential father). You can bring the man to sing a dopey love song on the piano but you still can’t remove all the scary, controlling elements of his character. I think ultimately Christian’s love of bondage is because he is portrayed as being damaged, abused, and this informs his sexuality. While that may be the case for various people, transforming moments of trauma into uncontrollable and subconscious desires or titillation, it presents a pretty distorted picture of the consenting adults who frequently enjoy participating in BDSM. These people are simply not that interesting. Anastasia Steele (and it pains me every time to type that out) is a mousy audience surrogate meant to be whisked away into a hidden world of luxury, where the hunky man is obsessed with having her, and only the power of her love can make him whole again. That doesn’t exactly sound like the makings of a healthy relationship, and the fact that it’s spun into being a smutty fairy tale is even more disconcerting. The Twilight fan fiction origins become clearer with every film.

Struggling to justify its whole existence for 105 lugubrious minutes, Fifty Shades Freed is the flaccid finale to a boring and underwhelming trilogy. I have no problems with movies whose sole purpose is to turn on their audience. Erotic movies certainly have their place in the landscape. They can even be specifically designed for very specific audiences that do not include me, and the Fifty Shades series is definitely not my kind of smut. I’m not the target audience but I’m open to interesting stories and visceral sexuality. With how redundant and tedious the film franchise is, I think I’ll recycle yet again an observation I wrote of the original film: “Surprisingly boring and rather tepid, Fifty Shades of Grey feels too callow to be the provocative film experience it wants to be. It needs more of just about everything; more characterization, more organic coupling, more story, more romance, more kink. It is lacking in too many areas, though the production values are sleek, like it’s the most technically accomplished episode of Red Shoe Diaries.” Skip the Red Room, these insipid characters, and the high-camp tawdry attempts at sensuality. The final Fifty Shades is a fitting end for a franchise that could never get its mojo going.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Molly’s Game (2017)/ Call Me By Your Name (2017)

Two new awards-caliber film releases couldn’t be more different. One of hyper-literate in a high-stakes world of drama, gambling, and crime, and another is somber, lackadaisical, and personal, chronicling a summer love that changed lives. One movie has scads of plotting it zooms through with high-powered visuals and voice over, and another luxuriates in the moment, a placidity on the surface interrupted by rising passions. One of these movies I found captivating and the other I found perfectly nice but unremarkable.

Molly’s Game is Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, clearly having studied at the altar of David Fincher, and he packs a lot into his 140 minutes chronicling the rise and fall of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), a former Olympic hopeful who found herself running an expensive, private series of poker games. She’s drawn into an unfamiliar world and through her tenacious grit, preparation, and fortitude, she is able to become a fixture amongst the rich. Then the FBI comes knocking and wants to charge her in conjunction with being part of a Russian money laundering operation. Driven by a fierce performance from Chastain, Molly’s Game is a gloriously entertaining movie that glides by. It burns through so much plot so quickly, so much information, that you feel like you might have downloaded Bloom’s book while watching. The musical Sorkin dialogue has never sounded better than through the chagrined, take-no-prisoners Chastain. The snappy dialogue pops, the characters are richly realized, and even during its more outlandish moments, like a surprise paternal reunion therapy session, Sorkin packs multiple movies of entertainment in one brisk, excellently manicured production.

In contrast, Call Me By Your Name is a slower peak into the discovery of romantic feelings between 17-year-old Elio (Timothee Chalamet) and grad student Oliver (Armie Hammer). Set amid the sunny countryside of northern Italy, the film takes it sweet time establishing the lazy world of its characters and their closely intersecting orbits. I became anxious because the characters kept me at arm’s length, leaving their burgeoning romance to feel distant and tame. I understand the hesitation of both parties and the age difference complicating matters. I understand caution. But it feels like the film is cautious to a fault, to the point that one of them laments later why they wasted so much time. The acting is pleasant if undistinguished. The best scene is a terrific monologue by Michael Stuhlbarg as the world’s most lovably accepting father. For an earth-shattering romance, I too often felt unmoved and restless. If we’re going to spend this much time hanging out with these people we should get to know them more intimately, and not just in the physical sense. I missed the compelling artistic charge of something like a Moonlight. I’m a bit stupefied at all the praise heaped upon Call Me By Your Name, a fine indie drama that, for me, too infrequently delves below its pretty surface into something more substantial.

I don’t know if this recent comparison sheds light on any personal insight, but perhaps I just love big, showy, obvious plot that calls attention to itself, with characters that fill a room, rather than an airy romance that moves at the speed of its own breeze. Anyway you have it, one of these movies makes my Best Of list and the other just makes me shrug.

Nate’s Grades:

Molly’s Game: A-

Call Me By Your Name: B-

Downsizing (2017)

Alexander Payne is not exactly the first name you would think of when it comes to science fiction. The man has a history of road trip comedies, average Midwestern men, mid-life crises, and the colorful miscreants of society. The fact that the director of Sideways and The Descendants is tackling The Incredible Shrinking Man is a bold move. Payne is outside his comfort zone with Downsizing, and it shows at points. While never quite satisfying the possibilities of its premise, Downsizing is still worth watching for its memorable moments and for the sheer brilliance of one outstanding performance.

In the not-too-distant future, science has developed the technology to shrink human beings to five inches tall, approximately 1/100th of their size. A middle-income couple can live like the top one percent because their money goes further. Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) is a schlubby, regular guy suffering from the ennui of a job he hates and a life that feels unfulfilled. He and his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), decide to undergo the downsizing procedure, which is irreversible. Paul’s wife backs out at the last minute but he doesn’t find out until after he’s gone small. Now with a McMansion all to himself, Paul has to readjust to what he thought his new life would be like. He moves into a condo and shirks the offers to join the parties of his hedonist neighbor, Dusan (Christoph Waltz). Paul finally decides to live life and embraces new experiences, the biggest befriending Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a one-legged Vietnamese cleaning lady who was downsized against her will for being an overseas political activist. Paul feels drawn to this woman and she opens his eyes to the larger world around him.

The strangest part of Payne’s movie is that the main thrust of the story could have been told without all of the science fiction dross. This is very much a romantic comedy/drama that follows the formula of a man jilted at the altar who has to get his life back together, finds someone new who changes his perspective on life, and then they get together by the end. You could have plucked this story and set it in an ordinary world and it still would have worked, which begs the question whether the world of Downsizing is properly applied. The consumer commentary seems muddled, with the rationale for downsizing being helping the planet, reducing the population so to speak, but really it’s an escape into a fantasy of wealth. People are downsizing so they can live in luxury and leisure. This should set up Payne for his incisive brand of satire as he skewers the selfish and self-righteous foibles of mankind, except that doesn’t really happen. Sure, eventually in the second half the movie opens up its tiny world a little wider, revealing the not-so-hidden subculture of immigrant labor toiling away to keep everything stable and pretty. It’s obvious social commentary and rarely does it go a step further than just recognition. And so the film becomes another in a long line of movies about a man who must be shaken from his malaise and enjoy the possibilities of life he never knew existed. Downsizing eventually ignores its sci-fi conceit to tell a relatively ordinary tale of self-actualization.

Payne’s premise would have best been explored through the more open parameters of a television series. Downsizing is an interesting concept that leads to other natural questions over how this tiny world operates and also how it interacts with the larger community. There’s a small scene where a drunk overhears Paul’s plan to shrink and argues that little people shouldn’t be granted the same voting rights as “normal-sized” citizens. The normies contribute more to society and should be given more credit, he argues, before being shooed away. This political division could have made for an interesting topic of reflection itself, but like many of Payne’s pit stops, it comes and goes after whetting your appetite for further examination. What about a story where downsizing is a punishment to do away with the “undesirables” of a nation? A TV series would have allowed more room to explore, with finer nuance, the details and possibilities of this fanciful world. Payne allows his movie to breathe, taking extended jaunts on different ideas but rarely enough to satisfy your sense of curiosity. The last act takes place at the original downsized colony in Norway, though at their diminutive size I wonder if it took them months to travel in Dusan’s yacht. It’s meant to think about what will come after humankind has passed the point of no return when it comes to climate change. Paul has to rethink what he wants his legacy to be and what meaning his life will have, which then pushes him into a rather simplistic choice of go with the girl or the cause. Given the rest of the movie’s focus, you shouldn’t be surprised what decision he ultimately makes.

However, the real reason you should legitimately see Downsizing is for the astounding, star-making, can’t-take-your-eyes-off-her performance by Hong Chau (Inherent Vice, Big Little Lies). I cannot recall another movie where a character comes in at the halfway mark and just takes over completely, single-handedly lifting the movie up. Every moment she is onscreen is made better. You’ve never seen a character in a mainstream movie quite like Ngoc Lan Tran. She’s a political dissident, amputee, and lower-class cleaning woman who teaches Paul about the class divides. Tran is tragic, comic, caustic, lovable, and Chau is an acting revelation. I’ve read several reviews that found her to be a cringe-worthy, borderline racist depiction of an Asian woman meant to be laughed at, and I strongly disagree. At no point was I laughing at Tran because of her status, her ethnicity, or her broken English cadences. I was laughing because she was a force of nature that blew away the pretensions of others, that cut to the chase, and spoke her mind in a carefree and honest manner. Her matter-of-fact affectations are so perfectly delivered in accordance with the character’s personality. There are moments where her character is being set up for one thing and Tran goes entirely in another direction, and whereas you might have laughed at the start she surprisingly earns other emotions. Take for instance a scene where Dusan tries to ditch her by making an excuse about a sudden travel commitment. Tran takes this moment and turns it into a genuinely poignant monologue about the unexpected nature of fate. By the end she’s crying out of sheer elation, and those tears are not meant for ridicule. Downsizing realizes what an asset it has and makes her the deserved focal point of the second half. You’ll fall in love with her too. Chau doesn’t just deserve an Oscar nomination; she deserves to win everything.

Downsizing is an episodic high-concept comedy where the shrinking is irrelevant to the main storyline that evolves over two plus hours. This is an adult movie that explores some mature topics with surprising time and scrutiny, and then it can also be a simplistic rom-com that misses the mark on larger, Swiftian social satire. It’s another story in a long line of disaffected, middle-aged men finding their groove again, except then it becomes the story of a Vietnamese activist and her unique persona. Hong Chau is the reason you should see Downsizing above all. She doesn’t so much steal her scenes as just take full ownership over the back half of the movie. Her performance is so uniformly excellent that you wish the rest of Payne’s uneven movie could meet her commitment. There are a lot of ideas here that seem to get brushed aside for the conventional formula of a romantic union, even if the pairing is rather unconventional. Downsizing is an entertaining movie that doesn’t quite amount to more than the sum of its little parts.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Shape of Water (2017)

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-

The Mountain Between Us (2017)

At what point can you tell an onscreen pairing just isn’t working? Chemistry is one of those elusive and ineffable qualities that can make or break a film, especially one that relies upon sexual tension and romantic yearning. If the actors don’t feel like they want to be with one another, it’s all going to fall apart. This is what I kept thinking as I watched The Mountain Between Us and was dumbstruck by the powerful lack of chemistry between its leads, each an accomplished actor in their own right. I don’t thin the movie could have been saved given its script but it certainly could have been at least better. If you’re going into The Mountain Between Us expecting a thrilling survival tale or a stirring romantic pairing, then you’ll be sorely disappointed.

Ben (Idris Elba) and Alex (Kate Winslet) are strangers who have the same problem. Their flights have been canceled and they have important places to be. He’s a surgeon. She’s a journalism photographer who is getting married. They share a single engine propeller plane to fly over the mountains and into the Denver airport. Unfortunately, the pilot suffers a stroke and the plane goes down, stranding Ben, Kate, and the pilot’s helpful labrador in the mountains. They’ll have to rely upon one another to survive in a hostile wilderness and seek rescue when nobody knows where they may be.

Watching pretty people endure hardships and persevere is as old a story as Hollywood, and The Mountain Between Us fails on so many levels, but none more so than chemistry. Elba and Winslet are meant to fall in love with one another over the course of their struggles and it is that love, we are told, that was the real key to their survival. If that sounds like Nicholas Sparks dribble, you’re on the right track, as the source material was very much a romance story. I’m sure the characters had to be better established and the romance felt more organic than what we get in the movie. I think the setup is an interesting place to start: two strangers who rely upon each other for survival and that co-dependence transforms into something they deem to be love. However, we don’t really get much in the way of the consequences of this except for an extended coda that doesn’t feel like nearly enough. Other than a spur-of-the-moment sex scene the movie doesn’t dwell on this looming romantic relationship in any way other than glances of gratitude. We hardly know anything about these characters before they are in a plane crash, and from there the survival against the elements takes precedence. Winslet spends most of the movie laying down and needing to be taken care of. If this movie needs to survive on their romance then it was doomed at casting. Granted, there is nil in the way of characterization and plot development for them to work with as well. At no point do you feel any emotional connection or even any sort of sensual heat between them. They seem far more irritated and put-upon by one another, but that’s supposed to melt away into something deeper and meaningful, though it never does. These are two talented actors but whoa do they not work together (other pairings were going to be Michael Fassbender and Margot Robbie, Charlie Hunnam and Rosamund Pike). Let this film be a lesson to everyone about the importance of hiring the right actors.

Given the life-and-death survival, it seems shocking that the film has such low or non-existent stakes. You never once feel like these characters are in real jeopardy. They always seem to luck out, whether it’s a perfectly placed flare gun to ward off a bobcat, a cabin that’s none too far from their crash site, or that same dead bobcat that can provide some nourishment. There doesn’t seem to be much of a struggle on screen other than walking through the snow. It’s missing the visceral realism that survival stories offer audiences as entertainment. Ever since watching Wind River, stories about characters running long distances in sub-zero climates is ruined for me. I keep thinking, “Why aren’t their lungs exploding now?” I was surprisingly bored through much of their survival outdoors because none of it felt that serious or memorable (this isn’t Kate Winslet’s personal Revenant). This is less a survival story than a sudsy romance. Apparently, how they survive is less important than their eventual acknowledgement of love. It removes all sense of danger. The inclusion of the dog is the single greatest antidote to realism. Ben and Alex have a cute pet this whole time. This makes The Mountain Between Us feel like a “movie” rather than a “story,” and so we just wait and wait for precious moments that will successfully entertain, few and far between they are.

Director Hany Abu-Assad (Paradise Now, Omar) makes fine use of the Canadian Rockies to provide breathtakingly picturesque landscapes. Even if you’re relatively bored with the characters there’s always the scenery to take in and enjoy. Abu-Assad does have one memorably effective sequence and that’s the plane crash itself. His camera bobs and weaves inside the tiny cabin as long unbroken shot, reminiscent of the famous sequence inside the car in Children of Men. It’s an effort level that isn’t really matched, or at least evident, for the rest of the movie. It peaks at the crash. The human drama seems more interested in the human drama than the survival thrills, which is fine, but if that was the case then we should have gotten better characters and the room for them to develop so that whatever romantic connections form feel and believable and desirable.

I have a solution to all of these issues except the chemistry one. This movie needed a radical rehaul at the structural level to be a better-developed and more interesting story. The movie needed to be told primarily AFTER Ben and Kate are rescued (spoilers, I guess, but I doubt many thought this was going to end in Greek tragedy). It’s during this fifteen-minute coda where the movie becomes its most interesting, and that’s because our characters have to readjust to the outside world but are forever changed. Starting from that point allows the characters to open up so much more and we see a different array of challenges, ones that are more relatable but also with an undetermined outcome. We know these actors are going to live by the film’s end without question. We don’t know if they’ll still be psychologically stable or whole though re-acclimating to their lives. This needed to be more like the second half of Room. This approach would give substantially more for these great actors to dig into. You could also use flashbacks to fill in notable experiences during their time stranded in the mountains. This would provide contrasts but it would also smartly allow us to skip all the dull stuff we know is just filler. This would also allow more genuine surprises and chances for narrative irony. At one point Alex develops the film roll she took during her time in the mountains, and at this point we already know she snapped a picture while Ben was asleep post-coitus. What if seeing these pictures was our first clue that some romantic intimacy happened? These two people bonded over the course of a couple weeks and no two other people may fully understand what they’ve gone through. Explore that with their difficulty to reconnect to the “outside world” and how much they have come to rely on one another after their rescue. That way it’s a character-piece about relationships with worthy material.

The Mountain Between Us is a mediocre romantic drama hindered by terrible chemistry, half-formed characterization, and a poorly developed story. When the life-and-death survival after a plane crash in the mountain feels lacking in stakes and peril, then you have a problem. When the romantic union between its mega-watt stars feels perfunctory, you have an additional problem, especially when it seems to be the point of the exercise. The Mountain Between Us plays, as one other astute critic wrote, as “Idris Elba fan fiction,” with the injured lead being tended to by the handsome and capable protector who can’t help but fall in love with this woman. It’s not an offensively bad movie but a fatally flawed disappointment that had potential given its premise. There needed to be a dramatic restructuring of the screenplay to emphasize their recovery, which would have better served the talents of these actors. Still, there are worse people to be stranded with.

Nate’s Grade: C

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