movie reviews Jan. 2018

Three Billboards outside ebbing, missourithe shape of water

Ratings range from "0" (watch TV instead) to "5" (a must-see).

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The Shape of Water
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

The phrase "movie magic" is too easily bandied about these days to compliment indulgent special effects.

With The Shape of Water, director Guillermo del Toro, who has made a career out of monster movies (Hellboy, Pan's Labyrinth) and ghost stories (The Devil's Backbone, Crimson Peak), has tapped into something that truly warrants the phrase.

Embracing magical realism as well as personal obsessions with horror, history and myth, co-writer and director del Toro has conjured a film that is simple like a fairy tale yet unfolds into surprisingly relevant commentary on an increasingly intolerant culture, our glorification of the "good old days" (when America was "great"), and the importance of fantasy (on screen, on the radio, in books) in our lives. All of which is presented in the cinematic language of a filmmaker at the height of his powers.

At its core, The Shape of Water is a Hollywood B-movie. A remake, even. The script, by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, draws heavily from The Creature from the Black Lagoon and its second sequel, The Creature Walks Among Us. But like the best fables, del Toro transports viewers into a world both fantastic and familiar.

In true storybook fashion, the film's antagonist, Elisa (Sally Hawkins), is an outsider, an orphan and a mute, introduced in a prologue voiceover by neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) as “the princess without a voice.”

In the early sixties, with the Cold War still raging, Elisa works night shift as a janitor for a top-secret US laboratory. At home and at work, she finds support and solace in other outsiders: co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), a black woman in a workplace dominated by white males; and gay neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), who is attempting to revive his career as a commercial artist in an industry that has turned to photography. The world around them is consistently cruel and dismissive.

When an important "asset" is delivered to the lab, Elisa is at first curious then strangely attracted. In a fairytale, he'd be a merman or a frog; here, he is the quintessential outsider, an amphibious bipedal humanoid (Doug Jones) torn from his home, family, and prior existence in a South American river basin

The US military are unsure what to do with the creature but are by-God determined to exploit or destroy it rather than allow it to fall into Soviet hands. While scientists run tests, supervision of the asset is left to Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), who prefers to chain and torture what he considers a dumb animal.

The relationship between the two outsiders moves from that of kindred spirits to romantic partners as Elisa brings the creature food, then introduces him sign language and music.

How far does del Toro take this romance? In modern parlance, all the way.

del Toro's biggest challenge, as it is for any storyteller, is making us believe. To that end, the film relies on the silent performances of its two leads. Sally Hawkins's (Happy-Go-Lucky, Blue Jasmine) brings to Elise a strength, a sly intelligence, and a sensuality that ground the fantastic elements in an emotional reality. Doug Jones, too, beneath practical and computer-generated effects, breathes life into what should be a severely limiting role.

And with, perhaps, one exception (a rare instance of Shannon overacting), what are essentially stock B-movie roles — the Girl, the Creature, the Scientist, the government Agent, the Spy ‑ are so animated by screenplay detail and compelling performances that caricature is transformed to archetype, as befits a fairy tale.

Frequent del Toro collaborator, Danish cinematography Dan Laustsen (Mimic, Crimson Peak) provides a sumptuous palette of aquatic greens and noirish shadows for the ensuing tale of Cold War intrigue and escape; but it’s Hawkins’ embodiment of the indomitable urge for connection that elevates this far beyond a genre exercise. (R ) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 01/03/18)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

In the latest film from writer/director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths), Frances McDormand plays grieving mother Mildred Hayes. Determined to resuscitate the investigation into the case of who raped and killed her daughter, Mildred hires out three billboards near the scene of the crime off a lonesome highway. “Raped While Dying,” “And Still No Arrests?” and “How Come, Chief Willoughby?” the billboards demand.

Notwithstanding McDormand's considerable range — which unfortunately seems to be reduced to a flippant irascibility as she ages — Mildred's sole emotional reaction to her guilt-ridden bereavement (the source of which is revealed in a heavy-handed flashback) is a strident tenacity, intensified by the baffling mechanics overalls she stubbornly wears throughout the entire movie — even while on a date with a man (Peter Dinklage) who has just done her a substantial favor ‑ and over the coat she wears while stocking shelves at the gift shop where she works. McDormand gives an undeniably powerful performance but the role is not dynamic.

Woody Harrelson plays Chief Willoughby, the man the final billboard calls to account by name. Short of violating the civil rights of every man in America, Willoughby has performed a competent investigation based on the DNA sample found on the burned body of Mildred's daughter. Willoughby expects the case to break in the same way all small-town crime gets solved — when someone overhears the perpetrator bragging about committing the crime at the local bar.

But before that can happen, McDonagh, who in his last movie proved to be a fan of a meta narrative, plays tricks with the story. Not since Alfred Hitchcock's sleight of hand, forcing viewers to switch identification, if not allegiance, from Marion Crane to Norman Bates in 1960's Psycho, has a MacGuffin been used so audaciously in place of plot. Viewers hoping for a showdown between McDormand and Harrelson must instead make do with one between Mildred and Willoughby's hotheaded deputy Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell.

Bullied by an overbearing mother (Sandy Martin) and stupid enough to answer "What?" when Mildred addresses him as “Hey, f**khead," Dixon is forced to make leaps in intelligence and integrity, spurred on only by a few kind words in a letter from his former boss. Where Mildred's personality is uniformly outraged throughout, Dixon's is miraculously, unbelievably transformed.

There's more than a clue to the overall feeling of the film in the opening sequence. When Mildred approaches Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones), the young media-marketing tycoon in the town, about his terms for renting the billboards, he's reading a paperback of Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Later, after a brutal encounter with Dixon, Red repeats the sentiment: life has "no pleasure but meanness." (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 01/03/18)




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