FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #123 – “The Shape of Water” (dir. Guillermo del Toro), “Colossal” (dir. Nacho Vigalondo)

Poster for "The Shape of Water"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel flash back to Nacho Vigalondo‘s latest high-concept sci-fi bout, wherein Anne Hathaway is a drunkard in physical charge of a kaiju. Then we jump forward into Guillermo del Toro’s monster fairy tale, The Shape of Water, to see whether love can be what you wish between a woman and a fish (45:37).

May contain NSFW language.

Still from "Colossal"

FilmWonk rating (Colossal): 8 out of 10
FilmWonk rating (The Shape of Water): 7.5/10 (Glenn), 6/10 (Daniel)

Show notes:

  • [02:15] Review: Colossal
  • [07:40] Spoilers: Colossal
  • [18:53] Review: The Shape of Water
  • [31:50] Spoilers: The Shape of Water
  • Music for this episode is “Shake Sugaree” by Elizabeth Cotten & Brenda Evans, from the soundtrack to Colossal, and “You’ll Never Know“, as performed by Renée Fleming and arranged by Alexandre Desplat, from the soundtrack to The Shape of Water.
  • For our thoughts on a previous Vigalondo film, check out Glenn’s review of Extraterrestrial.
  • For the article we referenced, see, “The Strange Case of Anna Stubblefield” which has apparently gotten stranger, legally speaking.

Listen above, or download: Colossal, The Shape of Water (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

Advertisements

Rian Johnson’s “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” – What is it all for?

Poster for "Star Wars: The Last Jedi"

Last year, Jyn Erso and her merry band of sacrificial Rogues reminded us that rebellions are built on hope – that tiny spark of belief in a better tomorrow, a future that’s bigger and grander than yourself. Star Wars: The Last Jedi – which left off with natural-born proto-Jedi Rey (Daisy Ridley) finally locating Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the long-lost, last living Jedi in the galaxy – is keen to explore this concept in greater detail. To slip through its sheen and shielding and really demand an answer to the question that has burned through decades and directors and a trilogy of trilogies. If fear leads to anger leads to hate leads to suffering…if the Light Side begets the Dark Side which brings back the Light Side which resurges the Dark Side… If the war never ends, what is it all for? I credited Rogue One with accomplishing something that eluded The Force Awakens: making the Death Star and associated superweapons actually seem scary. That compliment should rightfully be taken as a criticism of The Force Awakens, and it wasn’t for lack of trying on that film’s part. We saw the awesome power of the biggest, baddest, newest beam of death, wiping out multiple planets from another system that we didn’t know or care about until minutes beforehand. We’re told that these planets make up the new Republic – whatever that is at this point. A few featured extras look scared and dissolve into oblivion, and that’s that. Then the superweapon and a sizable cohort of the First Order are destroyed, and that’s that. And all of the main characters (save Han Solo, who is dramatically murdered by his adult son), escape to fight another day. And as an audience, we’re left to ponder, once again, what is it all for? This level of attrition is unsustainable and pointless. Fear will keep the local systems in line, but what else do they have to live for? What is everyday life for the non-military Star Wars universe apart from combat and desperation, slavery and decay, trading junk for scrap and muddling through for one more day? That’s the life that Rey is living at the outset of this trilogy. When you really consider this universe, it seems terribly bleak, and overdue for an honest look at itself. Which is why I was so excited to see indie and cable drama auteur Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper, Breaking Bad) take a steady shot at making sense of it all. The Last Jedi doesn’t present the same shallow hope we’ve seen before – the sort that is easy to cheer for, as long as its sole objective is to hop in an X-Wing and blow something up. It also dares to deconstruct that hope, as it really must exist in such a universe.

It starts with Luke Skywalker, who disappeared to his Jedi Temple island by choice, with no desire to return and face his failure with his nephew Ben Solo, now styled as Sith apprentice Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). The two tell a similar story of why the latter’s Jedi training went so wrong. Luke founded a new Jedi Temple and began training Ben Solo and other youths who were strong with the Force. Solo turned to the Dark Side, destroying the temple and killing any trainee who wouldn’t leave to follow his path. They agree on that much. But as we hear them recount the story, each of them credibly blames the other for it, and it is to the film’s immense credit that it doesn’t take a firm position on who is correct. Luke may be able to see things through the lens of the Force – the Light Side and the Dark – and so can his student. But Kylo Ren is just like any other well-drawn villain – he sees himself as essentially justified in his actions. Righteous even. Each of these men carries a version of this story, and we will only see its truth revealed through the decisions they make. The Force acts as a bit of a galactic telephone here, bringing Kylo and Rey into shared proximity for a tense conversation while they remain far apart in reality. This forms a tug-of-war for Rey, who never quite feels like a thrall of either would-be teacher. If Luke exemplifies anything by this point, it is fear of the full potential of the Force. He saw it in Kylo Ren, and he sees it in Rey. Meanwhile, she’s happy to receive his corrections about the nature of the Force – but equally ready to ditch him if he should prove unwilling to leave his retreat and render aid. Skywalker’s lessons about the Force play through a lens of bitter cynicism – he castigates the Jedi for their arrogance and hubris – but he also corrects Rey’s amateur assumptions. The Force, he says, is not a tool invented by the Jedi for lifting rocks, nor is it even their exclusive possession. It is an energy that connects all living things, and maintains them in balance. If this sounds a bit familiar, I must emphasize that this is quite a different dynamic from Yoda training Luke on Dagobah. Luke isn’t being coy about any hidden desire to train Rey; he wants her to leave him the hell alone. He’s got a nice life sleeping alone on rocks and subsisting on fish and dinosaur milk. He misses Han and Leia, but has no desire to rejoin their fight. He regrets his failures and wants the Jedi to go extinct.

Still from "Star Wars: The Last Jedi"

Here’s another loose Empire comparison for this film: our heroes escape from a Resistance Base under First Order siege at the start of this film – but unlike Hoth, this is primarily a space battle – and an awesome and costly one to boot. This isn’t the best space battle we’ve seen in the new films (that goes to the finale of Rogue One, for much better use of all three dimensions), but for keeping up with the original trilogy’s planar, World War II battleship aesthetic, it is certainly a memorable sequence. It introduces many novel ships (the fleet-killing Dreadnought and the Resistance bombers are both a sight to behold) and has lasting character consequences. First, there are the flawed X-Wing heroics and bravado of Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), probably the least-developed new character in The Force Awakens, who is handed the truly precious character gift of being wrong, over and over and over again during this film. He’s quite good at blowing things up for the Resistance, but his instincts prove to be a serious liability, and this movie isn’t afraid to let him fail spectacularly. The opening battle also helps to form the backstory of a new character, Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), a ship’s mechanic on an ad hoc guard rotation that plunks her directly into the path of the cool kids as the newly revived Finn (John Boyega) tries to sneak off the ship for reasons that he assures her are noble. After he recovers from her stun bolt to the chest, the three form an ad hoc posse who hatch a plot to save the Resistance fleet, which is still being pursued by remnants of the First Order.

Still from "Star Wars: The Last Jedi"

That’s essentially the A-plot to the film: the dregs of one space navy chasing the dregs of another. And somehow, in the middle of it all, we find Finn and Rose on a secret mission to Space Vegas (real name: Canto Bight), trying to locate a codebreaker who can help their fleet out of this jam. This planet and town had an actual name, but I’m going to describe it in familiar terms. It’s a huge seaside casino town – Space Monte Carlo is probably a better moniker – filled to the brim with the galactic 1%, drinking and spending and partying. The familiar Cantina steel drums pick up (with yet another new John Williams track), drunken aliens stumble around blowing wads of credits, including a tiny one who tries to insert coins in BB-8. The closest thing we’ve seen to this before is Coruscant, the seat of the Old Republic (and eventually the Empire) – a planet covered with a single massive city that is the center of political and economic power in the galaxy. But this is something different – a luxurious, sparsely-populated planet where the galactic superrich go to party and debauch. In the midst of a planet-killing interstellar war, we could easily blow past the absurdity of such a place existing in relative peace, but the movie immediately calls attention to it. If Coruscant was the seat of the Empire, this is the seat of the military-industrial complex, filled loosely to the brim with the sort of people (and aliens) who could only get this rich by selling weapons to anyone and everyone who will buy them. And it’s all quite lovely at first – this is some of the best production design in a Rian Johnson film since The Brothers Bloom, brought to life by production designer Rick Heinrichs (known for similarly impressive work on the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean films) and veteran sci-fi costumer Michael Kaplan. Finn, a lowborn soldier, is impressed by the grandeur and spectacle, but Rose invites him to look closer, and spot the cruelty hovering just below the surface of the extravagant capitalism on display. Since there is child slavery and animal abuse literally within binocular view at the time, her point is well-made, but the script and actors pull off one of the film’s more subtle tricks in this scene, by giving one possible answer to the question that I posed above: this place is what it’s all for. War has the potential to enrich the lives of a few privileged people, far away from the front lines, and any hope that they may experience is vested in their stock price. Rose spots this cruelty because it is familiar to her – she saw it on her home planet, which the First Order used for mining and target practice – and it is further embodied in an unnamed gangster played by Benicio del Toro. He’s neither to be trusted, nor trifled with, but as he joins their mission to save the Resistance fleet, he utters one of his only honest lines in the film: “They’ll blow you up today, you’ll blow them up tomorrow. It’s just business.”

“You’re wrong,” declares Finn.

“Maybe!” says the gangster, with an unsentimental twitch of the eye, not seeming to care one way or the other. I hope we see more of him.

As conventional villains go, Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) is a pitiless monster and – par for the course for one of Serkis’ digital costumes – a flawless CGI creation. He dresses down Kylo Ren as a child in a mask, and tosses and Force-shocks him around like a rag doll for good measure. And of course, an epic struggle plays out between the nascent Force-users over which of their destinies Snoke will control this week. But looking back, that all feels like the old, childish Light-and-Dark stuff to me. These people – strong with the Force or otherwise – will chase and blast and slice and blow each other up til the end of the universe, and perhaps the only real villain that the series has left for us to face…is nihilism. Rey tells Luke from the outset that General Leia (Carrie Fisher) sent her to see him for hope. If Leia was wrong, she deserves to know why. “We all do,” says Rey. This poor woman is begging a Jedi Knight for his help, and all he wants to do is stay put and die. Hamill‘s performance is impressive, bringing a gruff intensity that thoroughly spells out what a disappointment Luke Skywalker turned out to be, for us, and for himself. He is the flip side of del Toro’s unnamed gangster, neither losing nor profiting from the endless war – instead, simply bowing out. If the Force is what binds all things together in perfect harmony, then hope is as fine an emotion as any to invest in it. But what’s on the other side? Not darkness or evil – those are forces to be actively fought. This is despair. Nothingness. Abrogating your power and purpose in the universe and declaring that it can do whatever it wants, because it’s not your problem anymore. This is some dark stuff coming from Disney, and frankly, a great deal more moral complexity than I expected from a Star Wars film.

Still from "Star Wars: The Last Jedi"

That’s where Skywalker starts as a character in this film, and I won’t say where he goes, nor will I spoil the final battle. I’ll just say that it all feels worth it, and seems to be taking these characters in a worthwhile direction. Carrie Fisher has a worthy send-off, and we could always use more Laura Dern. There is a desperate finality to this entire battle that made me briefly ponder how there could be a third chapter to this story. A single silent shot (matched by silence in my theater) is perhaps one of the most visually stunning moments that has ever appeared in the series. But I’m taking this film’s narrative ambition as a promise to be fulfilled with the next film. If The Last Jedi dares to challenge the duality of the Light/Dark-side narrative by couching it as a matter of perspective; if it dares to ask the question of why we should be invested in the outcome of a struggle between two flagging military superpowers for any reason besides the names and flags they use to denote their respective teams, the next had better answer the question in a satisfying manner. What is it all for? The Resistance, or the Rebellion, fights for what they love (Rose seems to exist solely to spell out this point) – but they’d better have some idea of what the peace will look like. The First Order – or the Empire – fights for blood, vengeance, and the tautological maintenance of its own power, with its association to the Dark Side as barely an afterthought. They fight to control the galaxy, and their resolve is steeled by having a rebellion to crush. Anyone who wants to win this war will need to figure out what winning looks like. What a better tomorrow looks like. What exactly it is that they’re hoping for.

But they’ve got everything they need to sort that out.

FilmWonk rating: 8.5 out of 10

James Franco’s “The Disaster Artist” – Let’s indulge.

For someone whose birthdate, nationality, and endless source of funds are an enduring mystery to this day, Tommy Wiseau, the writer, director, producer, and star of the 2003 self-financed film The Room strikes me as essentially guileless. What you see is what you get. And what you get is…quite strange. From his pallor to his dyed, jet-black hair to his uneasy laughter in an ineffable accent, Wiseau is a living cartoon vampire whose most enduring mark on the world has been to make his very best impression of a Hollywood film, which ticks every box that he thinks a film needs to tick. Johnny (Wiseau) is a young bank manager who seems to have it all. Great friends like Mark (Greg Sestero), a great girl like Lisa (Juliette Danielle), a great betrayal when the two start sleeping together behind his back, and a series of additional random high-stakes subplots that are introduced and dropped without further ado. This is pure melodrama, and I must emphasize that what makes this film work so well is that – with the singular exception of Mike Holmes, who mugs horribly at the camera about his “underwears” – all of these actors are playing this horrendous and overwrought material completely straight. When criminal Chris-R (Dan Janjigian) threatens wayward, youthful creep Denny (Philip Haldiman) at gunpoint in a dispute over missing drug money (on a rooftop for some reason), they play it as straight as day players on Law and Order hoping to put together a convincing highlight reel. When Claudette (Carolyn Minnott) pauses a monologue about a real estate dispute with her brother with a surprise announcement that she has breast cancer, you feel it as surely as daytime TV. And you continue to feel it when the credits roll, along with a nagging realization that these events are never resolved or discussed again in any way. The Room is a bizarre, meandering film, and its saving grace is a lead and script whose ineptitude is only matched by its sincerity.

So what do we make of this film, in which young actor Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) becomes friends with Tommy Wiseau (James Franco), and – in the act of writing the book that inspired this film – repeatedly violates Wiseau’s oft-spoken admonition not to discuss him behind his back? Is this a memoir, or a polemic? Is it a tribute, or a betrayal? After I watched the film’s trailer, which consisted of repeated attempts to film a wonderfully bizarre rooftop scene, I went in with a question in mind: who exactly is this movie for? Would this be a mere celebration of Hollywood and filmmaking, like The Artist or Hugo or [literally hundreds of other films]? Or is it an exhibition of nostalgia, intended purely for superfans of The Room? I’m thinking here of something akin to Cary Elwes’ memoir, As You Wish, which consists of 273 pages of saccharine anecdotes from the set of The Princess Bride (including the time he and the entire cast got the giggles from André the Giant cutting a thunderous fart during a scene that they had to play seriously) – less a cutting exposé, and more a parallel novel with a likely dollop of fan-fiction, neither offering any grand insights on the filmmaking process, nor particularly sullying the nostalgic glow that surrounds a beloved film. Something nice, but thoroughly inessential. The answer I came up with is that it pretends to be the former, but it is definitively the latter. This is an indulgence akin to Ed Wood, a thoroughly entertaining film which holds little appeal without prior familiarity with the featured director. It ends with a completely unnecessary credits sequence of side-by-side comparisons between Wiseau’s film and Franco’s recreations, which we’ve already seen throughout the film. I didn’t need this, but I wanted it. Make no mistake, I was delighted by this film, but it is fundamentally a parasitic – or perhaps symbiotic – work that feels less like a meal and more like a bowl of miniature Kit Kats.

The early scenes between the brothers Franco – attending acting classes, acting out a scene in a diner, discussing their frustrated dreams of the silver screen – are easily the film’s strongest. Wiseau’s bizarre antics are nearly indistinguishable from those of his character Johnny, and the elder Franco’s performance, as well as his burgeoning friendship with the younger Franco’s Sestero, is simply outstanding. It is this friendship that forms the sole emotional core of the film that is not nostalgia-driven, and it largely works throughout the film, as do both performances. The only time that James Franco’s performance crosses over into imitative, SNL territory is during the recreated scenes from The Room, where he is no longer playing a character, but rather, trying his very best to match the exact cadence and camera-work of Wiseau. This duplicative puppet show plays a bit like a pair of Highlights for Children pictures where I’m invited to spot the differences. James Franco matches the closest, but some of the others are eerily spot-on as well. Dave Franco’s version of Sestero is such a close, and yet slightly wrong match for the actor that he looks like a mo-capped video game cutscene – uncanny valley territory. That weirdness is less of a problem with the other actor-characters, such as Juliette Danielle/”Lisa”, Philip Haldiman/”Denny”, and Dan Janjigian/”Chris-R”, played by Ari Graynor, Josh Hutcherson, and Zac Efron respectively. The 2017 actors are nearly unrecognizable in their wigs, and have much less to do in the film, and as such, they don’t seem to feel quite so much pressure to be carbon copies of their 2003 counterparts. Efron-as-Janjigian-as-Chris-R (still with me?) is a particularly delightful psychopath.

Carolyn Minnott/”Claudette” (Jacki Weaver), who has just passed out due to a lack of air conditioning or water during a particularly hot and egotistical day on set, makes a trite observation that the worst day on a film set is still better than the best day anywhere else. This may well be an authentic quote, but it’s also the closest that the film comes to acknowledging that “magic of Hollywood” fluff from the other films I mentioned. And there’s perhaps a bit of intended irony here, because Wiseau is certainly depicted as abusing these actors a bit. Hitchcock abusing Tippi Hedrin, this is not – although that relationship does get a shout-out in the film – but there’s definitely a minor, timely depiction of actors (particularly female actors) being sacrificed on the altar of their director’s ego. The conflict comes to a head as Wiseau is about to film a bizarre and overlong sex scene with Danielle, and he struts around naked (wearing only the standard-issue Hollywood dick-sock), defending the need to show his ass in the film (“to sell movie!”), and screaming that Danielle’s body looks disgusting (because he spots a bit of acne that will probably not be visible to the side-by-side film and HD cameras). DP Raphael Smadja (Paul Scheer) engages in a bit of masculine bravado, threatening that Wiseau is “a dead man” if he should ever disrespect Danielle again. Smadja is fired, then not fired, Sestero tries to calm his friend down, and Danielle – consummate professional, or perhaps just afraid of getting fired herself – says repeatedly, “I’m fine – can we just do the scene, please?” This scene was a monkey-fight at the zoo, and honestly, I have no idea if I believe it went down this way or not. This is about as unlikable as the character Wiseau ever gets in the film, and while it has a lasting impact on his relationship with Sestero, I honestly found it too shallow a conflict to really affect my image of Wiseau as an earnest and mostly amiable weirdo. Much of the conflict with Sestero stems from a “best bud vs. girlfriend” dynamic featuring Dave Franco’s real-life wife Alison Brie in an utterly insubstantial role, and despite how well the Franco brothers play this friendship, none of this felt like it mattered all that much. James Franco can get into multiple shouting matches with every guest-starring comedian in this film, and all the while, I’m just thinking, Franco – and Wiseau – are the bosses of their respective sets. They are the money, they make all of the decisions, and we’ll get a movie out of this no matter what. We don’t spend enough time with any of the other characters to know or care about their feelings on the situation, and there’s fundamentally very little at stake here. In retrospect, my judgment of Wiseau as guileless starts to feel more like a cop-out, designed to avoid admitting that I learned very little of substance about the man from a film that is supposed to be his biopic.

Perhaps I’m asking too much here. I took two full weeks to write this review, partially because of a Thanksgiving vacation, and partially because I was unsure if it’s okay to enjoy an indulgent, pandering film if I’m the one that’s being pandered to so effectively. The film ends with Wiseau at his premiere, Sestero back as his reluctant friend, and the audience giving a biopic-standard round of applause for the film and its subject (perhaps not for the reasons he intended), and of course, my real-life audience did the same. Wiseau drives past the premiere twice in a limousine full of an excessive amount of The Room swag (the very same swag was in the theater with us as well) – his ideal red carpet premiere containing a generous sidewalk crowd, as one more box that his film needs to check. And in the end, I’m happy to acknowledge that any love I experienced for this film is inextricably tied to my love of The Room – love that I at least believe that Franco shares on some level. If The Disaster Artist feels like anything, it’s a sequel and spiritual successor, and perhaps that’s enough. And as the credits roll, and I watch the two films side-by-side like the post-modern, tech-addicted weirdo that I am, my inexorable conclusion is: Fuck it, let’s indulge.

Hi doggie! You’re my favorite customer. I did NAHT.

FilmWonk rating: 6.5 out of 10