THE QUARRY (2020) – Quiet Yet Intriguing Drama Remains One-Note Throughout

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Shea Whigham and Michael Shannon in THE QUARRY (2020).

THE QUARRY (2020) has an intriguing story to tell.

A drifter (Shea Whigham) murders a preacher and then assumes his identity, moving to his new parish in a small Texas town. The drifter knows little of religion, and when he speaks to his small congregation made up mostly of Mexican immigrants, they are taken with his words because unlike previous preachers he is not judgmental, and he’s not judgmental because he knows so little of religion, so  he simply reads from the Bible and often chooses passages about redemption.

The local sheriff Chief Moore (Michael Shannon) while investigating a robbery uncovers clues which make him suspicious of their new preacher. As the congregation grows, and the drifter finds himself leading this desperate group of immigrants, Chief Moore follows the clues which lead him to the local quarry, the site where the drifter murdered and buried the body of the real preacher.

The story told in THE QUARRY is nothing new or innovative, but it held my interest for most of the movie. Things slow down towards the film’s final act, and its ending is not very satisfying.

I most wanted to see THE QUARRY because of its two main actors. Shea Whigham, who plays the unnamed drifter, is a character actor who has been in a ton of movies in various small parts, and he makes a mark in nearly all of them. If you see movies on a regular basis, chances are you’ve seen Whigham. He’s been in JOKER (2019), VICE (2018), BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE (2018), FIRST MAN (2018), and BEIRUT (2018) to name just a few. He also played the brother of Bradley Cooper’s character Pat in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012).

He’s an excellent actor and I was glad to see him playing a lead role. He’s good here as the drifter, although the role has its limitations. For starters, he’s a man of few words, and so a lot of what happens in the movie features this drifter taking things in silently. As such, the film itself suffers from bouts of slow pacing where things deaden to standstill. Of course, the style of the film is mirroring the drifter’s character, and so the pacing is on purpose, but still it makes for slow viewing. We also don’t really get to know this character all that well, and for most of the movie, he remains a mystery.

As happy as I was to see Shea Whigham in a lead role, he’s made more of an impact in movies in his signature smaller roles.

I also wanted to see THE QUARRY because of the presence of Michael Shannon, another actor whose work I really enjoy. Shannon has starred in KNIVES OUT (2019), THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017), and NOCTURNAL ANIMALS (2016), and he was outstanding as George Westingthouse in THE CURRENT WAR (2017), starring alongside Benedict Cumberbatch who played Thomas Edison. He also played General Zod in MAN OF STEEL (2013).

Here as Chief Moore, Shannon is fine, but ultimately it’s not an amazingly written role, and there’s not a whole lot for Shannon to do other than seemed bored as the sheriff of a small town and occasionally be suspicious.

One of the weaknesses in the movie is there is not a lot of tension between Chief Moore and the drifter. As a result, there sadly aren’t many decent scenes with Whigham and Shannon.

The screenplay by director Scott Teems and Andrew Brotzman, based on a novel by Damon Galgut, is best at writing realistic dialogue, which is strong throughout the movie. It doesn’t fare so well as a dramatic piece, as the film doesn’t really build to a suspenseful climax. As Chief Moore begins to investigate and close in on the drifter, this stranger doesn’t really react. He’s the same one-note character throughout the movie. The drifter’s story arc really is about his own personal journey. Early in the film, when the preacher offers to hear his confession, the drifter refuses, rejecting religion, but by film’s end, he’s ready to confess, although none of this involves the other key character in the movie, Chief Moore.

The film looks good, and director Teems does capture the mood of the drifter throughout, as the film is steadily paced and set in an almost dreamlike state, as if we are all sharing in the drifter’s internal search for peace and redemption. The problem is this doesn’t always translate into compelling viewing.

There are brief hints that the story is going to widen its lense and cover points on immigration— the boys who rob the drifter are young immigrants, as are most of the congregation, as is the woman Celia (Catalina Sandino Moreno) who operates the house in which the preacher lives—-but it barely scratches the surface on this subject. Moreno, by the way, is excellent here as Celia, and I wish she had been in this movie more.

For the most part, THE QUARRY is an intriguing drama, although it’s not much of a mystery or a thriller. And while it doesn’t really generate that much emotion, I don’t think it was trying to. It succeeds most when it captures the persona of its main character, the elusive drifter turned preacher, a quiet man whose past we know nothing about.

As such, it’s a subdued piece that like its main character plays things close to the vest without any big reveals or revelations.

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Best Movies of 2019

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Here’s my list of the Top 10 Movies from 2019. Now, while I see a lot of movies each year, I obviously don’t see every release, and so it’s possible that some of your favorites are not on this list. But here are mine:

10. READY OR NOT

I loved this gory campy thriller in which Samara Weaving plays a bride who finds herself married into a peculiar family: they love games, and on her wedding night, the game of choice is a variation of kill the bride, and they mean it. They’re playing for keeps. But Weaving’s character is no victim. She fights back and then some! Although it sounds like a downer, this one is saved by its lively humor where you’ll find yourself laughing at things you have no business laughing at. Samara Weaving, who was so good in the horror flick THE BABYSITTER (2017) is excellent here once again.

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9. DARK WATERS

This riveting drama about one attorney’s fight against the powerful Dupont chemical company which was not only polluting one town’s water but an entire nation with its no-stick cookware features top-notch performances by Mark Ruffalo and Anne Hathaway. The most disturbing part of this film, which was based on a true story, is that the issue was never satisfactorily resolved and continues to this day. A must-see drama.

 

8. JOKER

The lone superhero movie to make my Top 10 list, and that’s a stretch, because it’s not really a superhero movie. It’s a moving and often disturbing drama that chronicles one man’s descent into one of the most iconic superhero villains of all time.  Joaquin Phoenix knocks it out of the park as Arthur Fleck, the man who eventually becomes the Joker. While I still slightly prefer Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) because of the way he dominated that movie, Phoenix’ performance here is very different but equally as satisfying. The strength of JOKER is it makes the story of the Joker completely plausible. You’ll understand and believe how an ordinary person could become the Joker.

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7. THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON

This heartwarming tale of a young man with Down syndrome Zak (Zach Gottsagen) who runs away from his state-run home to pursue his dream of becoming a professional wrestler features outstanding performances by Zach Gottsagen, who has Down syndrome in real life, Shia LaBeouf as the drifter who decides to help Zach fulfill his dream, and Dakota Johnson as the concerned social worker hot on their trail. Also features fine supporting performances by Bruce Dern and Thomas Haden Church. Superior script by writer/directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz. LaBeouf’s best performance to date.

 

6. SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK

The only horror movie to make my Top 10 List, SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK is all the more impressive because it’s rated PG-13 and still manages to be scary, and that’s because it takes its business of scaring people seriously. Based on the popular book series by Alvin Schwartz, SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK succeeds at what a lot of other horror movies fail with, and that is, building suspense. This one gets more exciting as it goes along. It tells separate horror stories that are all connected by one compelling wraparound story. The whole thing works, making for the most solid and effective horror movie of the year.

 

5. THE CURRENT WAR (2017)

Filmed in 2017, THE CURRENT WAR was re-released in 2019 with a new director’s cut, and so I feel comfortable including it on my Top 10 List for 2019. This winner of a movie tells the fascinating tale of the competition between Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) to be the first to provide electricity for the United States. This period piece which takes place in the late 1880s-1890s is beautifully photographed and handsome to look at. Features two powerhouse performances by Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Shannon, both of which drive this movie along, as well as a notable performance by Nicholas Hoult as Nikola Testa.

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4. ROCKETMAN

Outstanding biography of music legend Elton John features perhaps my favorite acting performance of the year, Taron Egerton’s spot-on depiction of the flamboyant and troubled John. Innovative in its approach, mixing the music of Elton John into key moments of the story, this film succeeds as much as a musical as it does as a biography. The sequence where John performs at the Troubadoor club in Los Angeles is one of the more electrifying sequences in any movie this year.

 

3. HOTEL MUMBAI

Not really shown a lot of love by critics, HOTEL MUMBAI nonetheless was one of the more intense movie experiences of the year. Based on the true story of the terrorist attack on the Taj Hotel in Mumbai,  HOTEL MUMBAI tells the compelling story of how— with authorities hours away from reaching the hotel— the hotel staff decided it was up to them to protect the guests from the terrorists who had overtaken the hotel. Thanks to some taut and tight direction by Anthony Maras, and notable performances by Dev Patel, Armie Hammer, Jason Isaacs, Anupam Kker,  and Nazanin Boniadi, this one is a nail-biter from start to finish.

 

2. JO JO RABBIT

For me, JO JO RABBIT was the biggest surprise of the year. It came out of nowhere and was a film that I went to see not knowing what to expect, especially considering it tells a tale of a young German boy JoJo (Roman Griffin Davis) living in World War II Germany who adores the Nazis and Adolf Hitler, so much so that his imaginary playmate is Hitler himself, played here with hilarious effectiveness by writer/director Taika Waititi. At times wildly comedic a la Monty Python, this one is also a moving drama as JoJo’s mother Rosie (Scarlet Johansson) is anti-Nazi and is secretly housing a young Jewish girl Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie). When JoJo discovers her, he is at first outraged, but as he gets to know her, he begins to learn the truth about what Nazism is all about. JO JO RABBIT is an amazing movie that works on all levels. Thanks to the writing, directing and acting talents of Waititi, and the rest of his talented cast which also includes Sam Rockwell as a Nazi captain with a conscience of his own, JO JO RABBIT is both a deeply moving drama and wild zany comedy, which provided for me the most and the best laughs from a movie all year. This was my pick for the Best Movie of the Year, until the final week of 2019.

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1. LITTLE WOMEN

And that’s because the last week of 2019 I saw LITTLE WOMEN, a perfect gem of a movie by writer/director Greta Gerwig, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite filmmakers working today. Gerwig makes the bold decision to tell this story out of sequence, and the result is a fresh moving take on a literary classic, one that effectively speaks to modern audiences here in 2019. Features outstanding performances by two of the most talented young actresses working today, Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh, as well as a superior supporting cast which includes Emma Watson, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothee Chalamet, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, Chris Cooper, and Meryl Streep. While I’m not really a big fan of the novel by Louisa May Alcott, I am an instant fan of this movie, thanks to Gerwig’s innovative directing and writing, the message about what life was like for women when they had so few rights, and the powerhouse performances by Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh, two actresses to keep our eyes on in the years ahead. Without doubt, LITTLE WOMEN is clearly my pick for the Best Movie of 2019.

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And there you have it, my picks for the Top 10 Best Movies of 2019.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

KNIVES OUT (2019) – Whodunit Mystery More Like Clue than Christie

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I suspect foul play!

So says Daniel Craig’s Detective Benoit Blanc in his sometimes effective Southern drawl in the new whodunit mystery KNIVES OUT (2019).

Actually it’s not much of a pronouncement. Nearly everyone in this movie has a motive for murder.

KNIVES OUT is a lively comedic whodunit that is receiving high praise from critics and fans alike. Sure, it’s energetic and punchy, throwing its audience nonstop curves, keeping everyone guessing, and it pays homage to the classic murder mysteries of yesteryear. But I found its tale of murder and family intrigue contrived from the get-go, and as such, I had much less fun with this one than a lot of other folks.

Acclaimed author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found slain in the opening moments of the movie, and soon after, famous detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is on the case, which is at first ruled a suicide, but as Blanc says, he suspects foul play. And of course he should, because the night before Thrombey’s death, he celebrated his 85th birthday at a lavish party at his home with his family, who all had contentious moments with him, some even ending in shouting matches.

It seems that many in his family had reasons for doing him in. There’s his oldest daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), her husband Richard (Don Johnson), his daughter Joni (Toni Collette), his youngest son Walt (Michael Shannon), and his grandson Ransom (Chris Evans). There are more suspects as well, including his young personal nurse Marta (Ana de Armas) who Blanc takes particular interest in, mostly because of her peculiar trait of vomiting whenever she tells a lie.

And that’s the plot, as Blanc questions the suspects , and the audience sees past events shown in flashback, as we all try to figure out just who murdered Harlan Thrombey. As mysteries go, it’s a good one, as there are so many possibilities, the answer is not easy to decipher. Then again, and this is the main problem I had with this film, it’s all so convoluted and contrived. It’s confusing on purpose, the goal of writer/director Rian Johnson being to construct a story that’s nearly impossible to figure out because that’s what whodunits are all about, the thinking being that it’s fun not to know who committed the crime. That’s the intention, but the result is less fun as it’s all very forced and simply not believable. At the end of the day, it’s all very cartoonish and comical. So, for me it played less like an Agatha Christie tale and more like an homage to the old CLUE (1985) movie.

The best part of KNIVES OUT is its all-star cast. Yet, while everyone in this film is very good, nobody steals the show or has moments which lift the material to higher levels.

Chris Evans gets the best lines in the movie as the unpredictable and fiery grandson Ransom Drysdale, the relative who seems to miff everyone in the family on a day-to-day basis.

Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, and Michael Shannon all have their moments, but none of these folks get scene-stealing bits. As much as I did not like the reimagining of HALLOWEEN (2018), Curtis’ performance in that film was more notable than what she’s given to do here. Likewise, Michael Shannon has certainly enjoyed meatier roles. For example, his performance as George Westinghouse in THE CURRENT WAR (2017), which was just released in 2019, was much more impressive. Of these folks, I probably enjoyed Don Johnson the best.

Daniel Craig is OK as Detective Benoit Blanc, but he certainly didn’t wow me. I enjoyed his previous take on a Southern character better, as the explosive Joe Bang in the comedy LOGAN LUCKY (2017).

The majority of the movie centers around the character of Marta, and Ana de Armas is more than up to the task of handling the bulk of the screen time. Interestingly enough, de Armas and Daniel Craig will be reunited in the upcoming Bond movie NO TIME TO DIE, due out in April of 2020.

Writer/director Rian Johnson, known for such films as STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII- THE LAST JEDI (2018) and LOOPER (2012), infuses KNIVES OUT with nonstop quirkiness and oomph, but the result is mixed. It’s a case I think of trying to be too clever and cute. The entire film plays as if everyone in front of the camera and behind it is winking at the audience, inviting them into their playful whodunit world of mystery and murder, and the audience for the most part knows it’s in on the joke, that this story is played for fun and laughs. The trouble is this strategy only goes so far. The general mood of the entire film is gamesome, but the specific moments where the characters and the script should be drawing the audience in really aren’t there. The contrivances rule the day. The connections to the audience do not.

I saw KNIVES OUT in a packed theater. yet the audience was largely quiet. While folks seemed amused, it certainly wasn’t a laugh-out-loud kind of movie.

KNIVES OUT was enjoyable for me in a silly way that was never anything more than fluff and contrivances, the way I would feel after playing the game of Clue, not after reading an Agatha Christie novel.

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THE CURRENT WAR (2017) – Fascinating Illumination of Edison and Westinghouse Race

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There are a lot of negative reviews out there about THE CURRENT WAR (2017).

Don’t believe them.

Not only does THE CURRENT WAR successfully tell the fascinating story of Thomas Edison’s and George Westinghouse’s bitter battle over the electric current and how best to illuminate the entire nation, but it also features an A-list cast that includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, Tom Holland, and Nicholas Hoult.

Which sounds I know like a superhero movie reunion, as all four of these actors have starred in superhero films— then again, who hasn’t?—: Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, Shannon as villain General Zod in MAN OF STEEL (2013), Holland as Spider-Man, and Hoult as Beast in the recent X-MEN movies.

None of these four disappoint. In fact, Benedict Cumberbatch who plays Thomas Edison, and Michael Shannon who plays George Westinghouse both dominate this movie, and these two together really turn this one into something special.

But back to those negative reviews for a moment. There’s a story behind them, and it pertains to the delayed theatrical release of this film, which was made in 2017. See, back in 2017, this film was set to be released by The Weinstein Company, just before Harvey Weinstein was accused of rape and sexual assault. The release was delayed, the film sold to other distributors, and two years later here it is.

Now as to those reviews, a lot of those regard the film as it was back in 2017. Upon this 2019 release, the film is being called THE CURRENT WAR: DIRECTOR’S CUT, because director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon re-edited it. I’m guessing a lot of those reviews pertain to the original version, which I didn’t see, but I have seen some of the reviews, and they don’t describe the movie I saw in theaters. The movie I saw is one of the best movies I’ve seen here in 2019.

The movie opens in 1880, where Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) is not only an extremely successful inventor, but also a celebrity, with fans across the nation. It’s not uncommon for people to come up to him seeking his autograph. His latest invention, the electric light bulb, is poised to illuminate the country like never before.

But Edison’s system isn’t terribly efficient, and it’s expensive, and it’s not easy to light over great distances, meaning some sections of cities will be lit, while others will not be, at least not at first.

George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) believes he has a better system. By using an alternating current, Westinghouse’s system is cheaper and more efficient than Edison’s, and it’s able to light great expanses of land. As such, Westinghouse promotes his system as the one that can give electric light to the entire nation.

Edison decries Westinghouse’s alternating current as being deadly, and predicts that it will result in the deaths of many innocent people. Edison demonstrates that his system is like water. You can touch it without harm, but Westinghouse’s, if you touch it you will die.

Of course, today if you’re doing electrical work around your house you know to turn off the power or else face a potentially lethal shock, so we know which system eventually won out, but that doesn’t take away from the potency of the story told here. It’s a captivating story that held my attention throughout. There are also fascinating subplots, like the origin of the electric chair, seen then as the “future to humane executions,” and the involvement of a brilliant young inventor Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), who was ignored by Edison and who later joined forces with Westinghouse and helped him utilize the alternating current to capture the strength of Niagra Falls to produce unprecedented amounts of electricity.

I really enjoyed THE CURRENT WAR. The story starts in 1880 and continues into the 1890s, and so as a period piece it looks fantastic. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon captures the period, both with colorful photography and authentic costumes. There’s a lot going on in this story, and I thought Gomez-Rejon did an excellent job keeping it all together. It never felt muddled or confusing. It’s a strong narrative.

As such, the screenplay by Michael Minick is a good one. It delves deeply into the characters of both Edison and Westinghouse. Edison was the showman, forever interested in appearances, always working on the next best invention, and always demanding he be paid highly for it. One of the better lines in the movie is spoken by Edison’s personal secretary and right hand man Samuel Insull (Tom Holland), who warns Edison against his own personality, cautioning him that if he’s not careful he’ll  “be remembered more as P.T. Barnum than Sir Isaac Newton.”

Westinghouse, by contrast, believed more in principles, did not want to fight dirty when engaged in the war with Edison, but also was shrewd and smart, and knew when to hit back hard. He also understood the bottom line, that his system was cheaper and more efficient, and so he knew that unlike Edison with all his bells and whistles, all Westinghouse had to do was to keep repeating that simple message, because it was true.

The story remains interesting throughout. I was hooked right way and remain riveted until the end credits rolled.

My favorite part of THE CURRENT WAR though were the performances of the two leads, Benedict Cumberbatch as Thomas Edison, and Michael Shannon as George Westinghouse. Cumberbatch is perfect as the intense Edison, turning off as many people in his inner circle with his egocentric approach as the lights he turned on, all the while never losing his grip on his celebrity status. Likewise, Shannon is masterful as the more down to earth and lesser known Westinghouse, a man who keeps to his principles until cornered, and at that point, does what it takes to survive.

Nicholas Hoult is also memorable as Nikola Tesla, the genius and dreamer whose ideas rivaled Edison’s. Tesla’s downfall was that, unlike Edison, he didn’t understand business and money. He died having made little or no money off his inventions.

I also enjoyed Matthew Mcfadyen in a supporting role as financer J.P. Morgan, a staunch Edison supporter who eventually jumps ship and puts his money behind Westinghouse.

Of the four big names in the cast, Tom Holland probably has the least impact. His role as Edison’s personal secretary Samuel Insull is a small one, and he doesn’t really do a whole lot.

And while THE CURRENT WAR reunites Tom Holland with his AVENGERS co-star Benedict Cumberbatch, since this film was shot in 2017, technically this is the first movie in which these two starred together.

One drawback I had with THE CURRENT WAR was the absence of key female roles. While there are women characters, like Mary Edison and Marguerite Westinghouse, neither of them figure all that prominently in the proceedings, and their absence is notable.

Other than this, THE CURRENT WAR is a superb movie which tells a riveting story from history that covers a time when the world was changing, when the nation went from darkness to light. The story of the two men involved in the race to give the nation that light is one that is definitely worth learning about.

As such, THE CURRENT WAR is must see viewing.

Even though it was filmed n 2017 and is just getting its theatrical release now, THE CURRENT WAR is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.

Don’t miss it.

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THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017) – Exceptional Love Story Mired by Meandering Plot, Characters

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I had heard and read very good things about THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017), the new movie by writer/director Guillermo del Toro, and since the inspiration behind del Toro making this movie was CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954), one of my all-time favorite horror movies, I was eager to see this one, and admittedly, I had high expectations for it.

Sadly, those expectations were not met.

THE SHAPE OF WATER tells a poignant love story.  Mute Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) makes the best of her uneventful life in 1962 Baltimore.  She enjoys a sweet friendship with her artist neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a man struggling with his own aging process and who can’t hold a job, due as we learn later to a drinking problem, but he is tender and caring towards Elisa.  When she leaves her apartment, she’s off to work as a janitor at a secret government laboratory, where her friend and fellow cleaner Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) looks out for her.

When Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) brings in an Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) he captured in the waters of South America and houses it in the part of the lab Elisa cleans, she finds herself instantly drawn to the creature and soon begins secretly meeting with it, as she quickly discovers that it is highly intelligent and can communicate with her.  Since both she and the creature are mute, they immediately bond with each other, so much so, that in the classic Beauty and the Beast tradition, they fall in love.

This creative love story is the main story told in THE SHAPE OF WATER, and it’s the one that works.  Everything about the relationship between Elisa and the creature worked for me, and it’s the best part of THE SHAPE OF WATER.  But it’s everything else about this movie, from its supporting characters to its subplots that I found seriously lacking, and as such, dragged this movie down several notches.

One of the reasons the love story works so well is the tender performance by Sally Hawkins as Elisa.  Even before she meets the creature, Elisa is a likable character, from the way she interacts with her friend Giles to the way she does her job.  And when she connects with the creature, it’s a natural connection since in spite of her bright disposition, she still feels alone, without someone to love.  More so, when suddenly the feelings between Elisa and the creature become deeper, I completely bought into the relationship, mostly because Sally Hawkins’ performance convinced me her feelings were genuine.

It’s an impressive performance by Hawkins, especially since she plays a character who cannot speak.  She is probably the most expressive of any character in the movie. She’s certainly the most memorable character, and her performance is the best part of the movie.

The other reason the love story works is the writing by screenwriters Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor. The idea of taking an amphibious/human hybrid creature and showing off its intelligent and emotional side rather than turning it into just another movie monster, is a good one and one that I applaud.  I enjoyed the Amphibian Man here, and I was completely into the love story between this creature and Elisa.  Both the concept and the writing was refreshing and thought-provoking. My only wish is that they would have taken it even further and allowed us to learn even more about this mysterious creature from the sea.

And the Amphibian Man looks cool as well.  However, as played by Doug Jones, I was certainly reminded of a very similar character Jones played in another Guillermo del Toro movie, Abe Sapien in HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY (2008).  The Amphibian Man here is clearly reminiscent of Abe Sapien, and so as much as I liked his look, it’s not entirely original.

Jones makes his living playing creatures and aliens, as he also played The Bye Bye Man in the dreadful horror movie THE BYE BYE MAN (2017), as well as the ghoul in OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL (2016), among others.  He currently stars as Saru in the latest Star Trek TV show, STAR TREK: DISCOVERY (2017-18), again hidden under extensive make-up.  Jones is fine as the Amphibian Man, but it’s nothing I haven’t seen him do before.

But the rest of THE SHAPE OF WATER simply didn’t work for me.  Neither the rest of the characters or storylines drew me in.

Michael Shannon’s villain Colonel Richard Strickland is far too one-dimensional to be convincing.  He’s your standard military bad guy.  Even scences showing him at home with his wife and kids do nothing to lighten his Neegan-like portrayal of a vicious, close-minded bully.

Now, Richard Jenkins’ Giles was a character that I did like, but the story spends far too much time on his back story, when he’s simply not as integral to the main plot as Elisa. During the first half of the movie, a lot of time is spent on his visits to a diner, because he’s attracted to the young man working there, and we follow him as he tries to get his job back.  The point seems to be to show that like Elisa he’s a fellow outcast, but the story tends to meander off the main path and would have been better served to remain focused on Elisa and the creature. When the focus is on them, the movie is much more compelling.

Which brings me to the story. As much as liked the screenplay when it relayed the story of Elisa and the Amphibious Man, I found myself scratching my head about its other choices. The presence of Octavia Spencer in the role of Elisa’s friend Zelda immediately brought to mind Spencer’s work in THE HELP (2011) and HIDDEN FIGURES (2016), two superior films which dealt with racism.

THE SHAPE OF WATER also plays the race card, but only superficially.  We see Octavia Spencer’s character dealing with it, and we also see a couple of other scenes showing prevalent racist attitudes in 1962.  The point again seems to be that the cruelty which villain Richard Strickland shows the Amphibian Man wasn’t specific to rare aquatic creatures but to fellow humanity.  But in this movie these scenes seem so out of place, I think mostly because one thing we do not see is Elisa’s reaction to them.  It’s not part of her story, here.

Likewise, since it’s the height of the Cold War, Soviet spies are actively trying to steal U.S. secrets and are very interested in stealing the Amphibian Man from the Americans, and so we are introduced to as it turns out a sympathetic Soviet scientist Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) who, like Elisa, finds himself wanting to help the creature rather than turn it over to his Soviet contacts.  But these scenes don’t really work either. Like the other subplots, they seem out of place and take away from the movie’s main focus, the love story.

I know this will sound like sacrilege to a lot of movie fans, but I’m not the biggest fan of Guillermo del Toro’s work.  I loved both his HELLBOY movies, but for me, that’s about it. Even his well-regarded PAN’S LABRYNTH (2006) didn’t do a whole lot for me. So, in a way, I’m not really surprised I didn’t love THE SHAPE OF WATER.  I’m just not a fan of the way del Toro tells a story.

That being said, the love story between Elisa and the Amphibian Man is touching and extremely well-done.  It’s everything else in this movie that doesn’t really work for me.

To make the love story here the centerpiece of the movie, the supporting characters and story should be built around this main story in order to support it, but that’s not what happens here. Instead, the other characters and storylines seem out of place and do nothing but distract from the main and much better love story in the film.

As a result, THE SHAPE OF WATER is a mixed bag.

Its love story is exceptional. If only the rest of the movie had been the same.

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NOCTURNAL ANIMALS (2016) – Thought-Provoking Creative Exercise in Moviemaking

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NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, the new thriller by writer/director Tom Ford, and starring Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal, is the type of movie that gives its audience lots to think about, and the more you think about it the more you like it.

I’m still thinking about it.

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS opens with one of the most difficult-to-watch opening credits you’ll ever see in a movie.  The credits play over images of naked obese women dancing, in slow motion with nothing left to the imagination.  When the credits end, it’s revealed that these women are part of a modern art exhibit hosted by the film’s main character, art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams).

But even the reason for this choice of exhibit, these opening credit images, is something to think about, expecially when you juxtapose the outward ugliness and happy faces of these obese women with main character Susan Morrow’s outward beauty and internal sorrow.

So, Susan Morrow is a very successful art dealer and gallery owner, but she’s also terribly unhappy.  Her current marriage with the handsome and successful Hutton Morrow (Armie Hammer) is not going well, as her hubby is having an affair.  She’s also not happy with her career.

In the midst of all this, she receives a package from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), a novel he has written entitled Nocturnal Animals, which he has dedicated to her.  She starts reading it and is immediately captivated by the story, which we see unfold on screen.  A man Tony Hastings (also played by Jake Gyllenhaal) and his wife and daughter are driving along a lonely stretch of Texas highway when they cross paths with a carload of unsavory characters who force them off the road.

After a terse and very uncomfortable conversation, the three men, led by an aggressive sociocapth named Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) abduct Tony’s wife and daughter.  What follows and what horrible things happen to Tony and his family make up the bulk of the novel.

To Susan, it’s clear that this novel is symbolic of what happened to Edward in their marriage, specifically what she did to Edward as she ended their marriage.  She begins to think back to that time, when she and Edward were married, and these scenes are shown via flashback.

There are three stories being told in NOCTURNAL ANIMALS:  Susan’s present day predicament, dealing with her crumbling marriage and unsatisfying art career, the novel, which tells the fictional story of Tony — by far the most compelling part of the movie—, and Susan’s looking back at her first marriage to Edward.

Does the telling of all three stories work?  Do they seamlessly make up one terrific movie?  Not exactly, because there are certainly flaws here.  But NOCTURNAL ANIMALS is such a creative ambitious movie it’s easy to look past them.

The acting is excellent.  I’m a huge fan of Amy Adams and she doesn’t disappoint here at all.  Susan is a terribly unhappy character, and Adams captures this sadness brilliantly.  The entire movie is steeped in sadness, all the way down to its final shot.

By the far, the best story in the movie is the fictional one told in Edward’s novel.  That story also features the best acting in the movie.  Jake Gyllenhaal is very good as tormented husband Tony, the fictional counterpart of Edward.  Aaron Taylor-Johnson knocks it out of the park as the unhinged Ray.  Even better than both these guys is Michael Shannon as rogue law man Bobby Andes, who makes it his mission to hunt down Ray and his friends and bring them to justice.

I found Shannon’s performance mesmerizing.  The best part is he lifts Bobby above the usual rogue law man character and makes him nuanced enough to stand on his own.  He really makes him a real person, which is pretty funny when you think about it, since Shannon is playing a fictional character in a novel!  His Bobby acts and looks like he walked off the set of another recent movie involving crime in Texas, HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016), starring Jeff Bridges and Chris Pine, which came out earlier this year.

But the problem I had with this part of the movie is as good as it is, we know from the get-go that what we are watching is part of a fictional novel being read by Susan, and so while this is certainly creative, it also takes aways from the drama.  I was never as invested in these characters as I otherwise would have been, since I knew they weren’t real.

On the other hand, it’s clear that this story about Tony written by Edward is symbolic of what happened to his marriage with Susan, and how it impacted him.  As we see in the flashbacks, Susan ended their marriage in a truly horrible way.

It’s hinted at in the movie that Susan feels slightly threatened by the book, that she views its story as Edward seeking revenge against her.  I didn’t think this was played up enough in the movie.  I never got the sense Edward was a threatening person, nor did I feel Susan’s life was in danger because of him, which is too bad because this only would have added to the movie.

The ending to NOCTURNAL ANIMALS is a bold one and no doubt will leave some viewers upset, but I really liked it.  A running theme in the movie is how weak Edward is supposed to be.  At first, Susan defends her husband, saying he’s not weak but simply sensitive, but later, she changes her tune and even she is calling him weak.  The ending is Edward’s way of answering that accusation.

I enjoyed Tom Ford’s direction here.  As I said, he crafts the film so both visually and thematically it gives you a lot to think about. Likewise, it’s an excellent script by Ford, based on a novel by Austin Wright.  It tells three stories, all of them multi-layered, and it’s ambitious in its execution, even though I don’t think it all worked .

Even so, most mainstream movies today don’t require much brainwork, so it’s always refreshing to come across one that does.

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS is not a perfect movie, and it’s certainly not a crowd-pleaser or the type of movie you want to see on a date.  But it is a thought-provoking creative exercise in movie-making that succeeds in telling a very sad story.

And it is sad, from beginning to end.  Relentlessly sad.  It also does a fine job capturing the pain and sadness that goes with divorce and its aftermath.

You may not think you like this one as you walk out the theater, but if you give it some thought, and let some of the scenes seep into your consciousness afterwards, and if you ponder what it all means, you’ll find the answers add up to a satisfying conclusion.

One thing is for certain.  NOCTURNAL ANIMALS will stay with you long after you’ve left the theater.

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