The Shape of Water

The Shape of Water

By: Kevin Jordan

There is a hole in your shape.

(It’s award consideration season and I’m playing catch-up.  As I tear through them, I thought I’d try mini-reviews.  Enjoy!)

The Shape of Water is another attempt by Guillermo del Toro to convince us he is anything more than weird creatures.  To be fair, Pacific Rim was absurdly entertaining and the Hellboy movies are guilty pleasures, but everything else he has made has been a letdown.  Right off the bat, I thought The Shape of Water was heading in that same disappointing direction because the opening scene features our heroine, Elisa (Sally Hawkins), masturbating in a bathtub.  Other than to convince the men in the audience not to leave (we see Hawkins fully nude), the scene serves no purpose.  Luckily, the film gets to the main attraction quickly – a merman being held captive for study by the U.S. government to get a leg up on the Russians in the space race (the film takes place in the 1960s).  Okay, so del Toro still has a lot to learn about coherent writing, but the film is pretty good when it focuses on its real story – Elisa falling in love with the merman and hatching a plan to help him escape before he is killed.  It’s classic Beauty and the Beast, but with boobs and scary-ass Michael Shannon as the heartless agent running the lab.  As long as you can get past the out-of-place (and bad) French-esque music and massive plot hole of there being cameras everywhere in the facility except the room containing the merman, it’s a pretty engaging and entertaining film.  If nothing else, you can stay for the unique sex scene that del Toro invented.

Rating: Ask for two dollars back.  One for the music and one for the plot hole.

Arrival

By: Kevin Jordan

Just wait for it.

arrival_poster2

I wanted to shoehorn in some jokes about the now-completed Presidential election, but I decided that wound isn’t worth poking right now.  You’ll just have to believe me when I say I was planning on a good segue into a dumb political point in Arrival, but I didn’t want the worst of the Internet hijacking a movie conversation so they can continue to bitch about emails and Russians. Just remember that no matter which way the election went, half the population was going to say we’re fucked and the other half was going to say neener-neener.  Yes, that is most of America right now.  That is also how I know aliens have never been here.  They monitored our airwaves and decided it was best to steer clear, much like you do when you see a couple fighting with each other in the frozen aisle of the grocery store.  HERB – CLEANUP ON AISLE 7.

Arrival is a movie that will probably get missed, opening between Doctor Strange and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.  That is a shame because it’s better than Doctor Strange and most likely better than Fantastic Beasts.  It’s also very different from those movie.  Actually, it’s even different than your typical alien invasion movie.  In Arrival, there’s only one explosion, no laser guns, no space scenes, and the aliens do not resemble humans, not even a tiny bit.  It’s a quiet movie in which twelve alien ships show up in Earth’s skies and park themselves in random places.  And I know it’s random because the movie verbalizes this more than once.  They even show us a globe with bright red dots.  In fact, the bulk of the movie takes place in a field in Montana.

Excited now?  No?  What if I told you the main plot of the movie is that the government hires a linguist, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), to learn the aliens’ language?  Ehhhh?  Wait…where are you going?

Where is my assistant?

Where is my assistant?

Well, now that the short-attention span people have left, you’ll be happy to know that this movie is a throwback to classical science fiction.  It’s much more interested in exploring a concept like two species that don’t even think the same way laboriously learning how to communicate with each other than space battles or podracing.  Kind of like Kevin Costner and the Sioux in Dances with Wolves, but without the dead bison.  A large amount of time is spend with Dr. Banks as she is deciphering the aliens’ language, which is a series of circles with splotches around the edges (just picture a water ring left by your coffee mug) repeating the words she has shown them on a white board.  Wait….where are you going?

In place of chase scenes and shootouts, the movie builds a palpable tension.  The entire mission is to find out why the aliens have come to Earth, meaning Dr. Banks’ goal is to get them to understand the question “What is your purpose on Earth?”  Think about it for a moment – what was the last alien invasion movie that spent more than eight seconds on that question?

This is where gravity gets weird.

This is where gravity gets weird.

Now you should be wondering what’s at stake in this movie that makes it so tense.  Well, other countries are also trying to communicate with the aliens (and everybody is sharing, at least for a while), but they, like those readers who left this review, got impatient.  And some of those countries have itchy trigger fingers.  It’s paramount that Dr. Banks get an answer to the question before some idiot starts a war with intergalactic travelers.  And this would be where the stupid political content comes in.

(SPOILER ALERT BEGINS)

Four soldiers decide to let their hatred and fear of foreigners get the best of them, so they decide to plant a bomb in the spaceship.  This scene sucks for so many reasons, not the least of which is a commentary on a certain group of Americans who hate immigrants for wanting a better life and a shot at the mythical American dream.  Yes, that first group sucks, but making them four soldiers who start shooting at their fellow soldiers to ensure the bomb is not disabled?  Really?  The film includes news clips of people rioting and states of emergency, providing plenty of evidence of fear and anger without stooping to making four soldiers stupid enough to believe attacking super advanced aliens is a good idea.  Compounding this awful scene is the cliché of our heroes being saved as the bomb timer shows 0:01.  I get that this scene was there to catalyze the conflict, but there are so many better ways they could have done this.  Not to mention the aliens conveniently develop telepathy only when the bomb timer is down to a few seconds.  Did you learn nothing from Galaxy Quest?

(SPOILER ALERT ENDS)

Aside from that scene, my only other complaint is that Jeremy Renner’s character, theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly, is there for no reason.  You’d think he’d be there to study the alien technology, but he just giggles at their ability to manipulate gravity and his job appears to be secretary/assistant to Dr. Banks.  All we ever see him doing is setting up equipment, holding Dr. Banks’ whiteboard, and occasionally staring at a computer monitor.  Did the military really need a physicist for this job?  On the flip side, the film pulls a gender role reversal that makes you wonder if the filmmakers deliberately made Donnelly a superficial character who only matters to one small subplot, but is otherwise pointless.  In other words, he’s the minimized “other gender” who is only there for emotional support.  Well played, filmmakers.

This is pretty much his whole job.

This is pretty much his whole job.

I don’t want you to think those two things ruin the movie because they really don’t.  They’re just minor flaws.  Nearly everything else in this movie is fantastic, from the music to the stunning visuals to the introduction of the aliens to the way the aliens’ arrival is depicted (we watch people’s reactions to the news rather than watch the news itself) to the terrific performances (rounded out by Forest Whitaker, Tzi Ma, and Michael Stuhlbarg) to the excellent screenplay and story (Eric Heisserer and Ted Chiang, respectively).  Mostly, I’m glad that the filmmakers, including director Denis Villeneuve, are patient people who made a patient movie that painstakingly builds the suspense while keeping the audience in the dark on the aliens’ purpose until the end of the film.  If you stayed with me for this entire review, then you’ll like Arrival as much as I did.

Rating: Don’t ask for any money back and hope we stop fighting so the aliens don’t avoid us forever.

Pawn Sacrifice

By: Kevin Jordan

My move.

pawn_sacrifice

I’m currently in the middle of a book called Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, by James W. Loewen.  The subtitle tells you everything you need to know about its content and the book covers a wide range of topics, including a section on heroification.  Heroification is what you think it is – making a hero out of a person – and requires that anything bad about the person either be excused away or flat-out omitted.  It was this section of the book that I kept thinking of while watching Pawn Sacrifice.

If you know anything about chess besides how to play it, you know that American Bobby Fischer became the world chess champion in 1972 by beating a Russian guy and that Garry Kasparov lost to a computer named Deep Blue in 1997.  If you know any more than that, it’s because you are a much bigger dork than I am, and I own an American Civil War chess set.  Pawn Sacrifice is a biopic about that first man – Bobby Fischer – and focuses on the time from Bobby’s childhood to the penultimate match with Boris Spassky (that Russian guy), the reigning world champion.  Since this is obviously the first entry in Oscar-bait season, it’s not surprising that the film focuses much more heavily on the characters than on its own plot.

The obvious character to start with is Fischer (Tobey Maguire).  Fischer is portrayed as a brilliant chess player, but a wholly unlikable human.  Almost immediately into his chess career, he starts demanding things – more money, specific venues, absolute silence, among other things.  In addition, he becomes more and more paranoid as time goes on.  This time period being the height of the Cold War, Fischer becomes convinced that the government is spying on him; tapping every object in every house or hotel he stays in.  Eventually, he starts accusing his friends (we’ll get to them in a minute) of being complicit, as well as the Jews (which is ironic because he’s Jewish).  In addition, the stress of his three-year playing tour around the world (in order to be able to challenge Spassky for the world title) is exacerbating both his paranoia and demands.  Like I said, he’s a very unlikable human, and Maguire does a great job in making you root against Fischer in the final showdown with Spassky.

On the flip side, Spassky (Liev Schreiber) is the opposite of Fischer.  He’s cool and collected, tall and handsome, and, unlike Fischer, never comes off as cocky little asshole.  But, besides chess, he does have one other thing in common with Fischer – he is certain that his Russian handlers are spying on him.  He doesn’t go full-bore crazy searching for bugs like Fischer does (at one point Fischer is cutting the backs off picture frames), but he does start to exhibit little signs of paranoia, including a run-in with an office chair.  Like Maguire, Schreiber does an excellent job portraying his character, and you will sympathize with Spassky as he has to put up with Fischer’s dickishness.

Speaking of putting up with Fischer, he has two friends in the entire world – Father Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard) and Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg).  Marshall meets Fischer early in his career and offers to represent him as his agent.  He is the guy who has to take the most shit from Fischer – he’s the guy that has to deliver Fischer’s demands and help make them happen – while also being constantly prodded by the government to make sure Fischer keeps playing until he beats the Russians.  As Marshall puts it, “we lost China and we’re losing Vietnam.  We can’t lose this.”  If you don’t feel for Spassky by the end, you will feel for Marshall because it sure seems as if the victory for him is hollow after so many years of dealing with a Napoleonic narcissist.

Father Lombardy’s role is much fuzzier than Marshall’s.  His job appears to be both babysitter and counselor, with the goal of keeping Fischer’s head just right enough to show up for his matches (and he fails more often than once).  He also seems to have genuine concern for Fischer’s mental state and his only recourse is to play air chess with Fischer (they visualize the board and call out moves, but the first picture in your head was funny).  As good a job as Stuhlbarg does (and Maguire and Schreiber), Sarsgaard steals the movie.  There are parts of the movie that feel like he is the main character and his portrayal accomplishes the same level of sympathy as do the other actors, but with far more subtlety.  It also helps (for me at least) that his character might be the least-holy priest ever portrayed in a movie, while still coming off as legitimate holy man.

The last character worth mentioning is Fischer’s sister, Joan (Lily Rabe).  She has a small role, but it’s the one that introduces the flaw with this film – it feels like an unfinished game of chess itself.  Through most of the movie, Joan becomes increasingly concerned for Bobby’s mental health, even to the point of talking with Marshall about it.  She isn’t at all interested in the chess matches – until the last one.  When Bobby wins, she leaps in joy in her living room and all concern for Bobby’s well-being is gone, never to be mentioned again.  And, it’s the same with Lombardy.  He actually quits the tour at one point, reluctantly returning in concern for Bobby.  He even spells out the problem for Marshall – “Bobby isn’t afraid of what happens if he loses; he’s afraid of what happens if he wins.”  This should have been the central question of the entire movie, but it’s tossed out the window with Joan’s concern and barely addressed as bullet points at the end of the film.  Seriously, the film ends with title blocks listing a small handful of Fischer-related events, including the final score of the 24-game match with Spassky.

Do you see what I mean about heroification?  The film presents Fischer as a hero of the cold war and makes Fischer’s chess game much more important than the game being played between governments and characters.  They missed a chance to capitalize on the metaphor.  Case in point, several scenes depict Bobby being photographed, followed by typewriter noises and the spelling out of a location and date on the screen, like a dossier of a secret agency.  Yet, the film never answers the question as to whether Bobby’s paranoia was justified or if the camera was a figment of his imagination.  It also treats everything that happens after the penultimate match as barely worth mentioning because virtually everything Fischer did after that (tax evasion, vagrancy, defying American embargos, to name three) are considered extremely un-American.  Obviously, that book I’m reading is influencing the way I viewed this movie, but even if it wasn’t, I still would have noticed the unfinished storylines.  Your move.

Rating: Ask for two dollars back.  As incomplete as the storylines were, the performances were fantastic.