Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

review Archive

Thursday

28

December 2017

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The Shape of Water is a Profoundly Human Masterpiece

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Guillermo del Toro is a singular filmmaker in the industry. His delicate approach transcends the conventional patterns for the science fiction/horror genres, giving movies like Hellboy & Pacific Rim a much stronger emotional resonance than an audience might expect from their blockbuster aspirations. Other films such as Pan’s Labyrinth & Crimson Peak offer narrative complexities with all of the visual wonders you might expect out of an installment of the Transformers. The Shape of Water is a carefully crafted spectacular that should finally deliver some long overdue awards show recognition for one of the most innovative directors currently making movies.

Set against the backdrop of the Cold War and all the anxiety it brought to the nation, The Shape of Water takes place in a Baltimore research facility in the 1960s. Sally Hawkins’ Elisa is a mute woman who works alongside Octavia Spencer’s Zelda as a night-shift janitor, whose fairly routine life is disrupted as she begins to form a bond with a humanoid fish creature, initially known as the “Asset,” who’s brought to the lab after being captured by a team led by Michael Shannon’s Colonel Strickland, a man who embodies the worst prejudices of his era.

The heightened anxieties of the era are largely absent from Elisa’s life. She has a close bond with Zelda, along with Richard Jenkins’ Giles, finding warmth in less than perfect circumstances. She takes pleasure in listening to music, dancing, or even simple conversation while many live in fear of nuclear annihilation. I’m not sure if del Toro meant that as a commentary on the present era, but there’s a certain sense of optimism conveyed in the way Elisa goes about her life, smiling when many might see nothing but dread.

Despite the presence of a magic humanoid fish creature at the heart of the narrative, The Shape of Water is a deeply human film. Hawkins, Shannon, and Richard Jenkins portray fundamentally broken characters searching for the missing pieces in their lives. Hawkins expertly conveys her character Elisa’s emotions through sign language, working off of Jenkins, Spencer, and the “Asset” in a way that never feels as though a barrier exists between the characters. It is through this simple act of conversation, even at times without words, that The Shape of Water truly stands out.

For all the visual wonder that we’ve grown to expect from del Toro’s work, the performances allow the film to exist on an intimate level with its audience. This may be both a period piece and a science fiction film, but it makes its strongest investment in its characters. Jenkins’ Giles is a lonely closeted artist struggling to have his work noticed. Shannon’s Strickland is a scorned officer, who blindly shields his vulnerability with anger and abuse. Doug Jones’ performance as the “Asset” makes him out to be both intelligent and at the same time, a wild beast. These are fully fleshed out characters. Films often struggle to juggle both their casts and their narratives, but The Shape of Water allows its immensely talented cast to shine at every moment, even when Spencer’s Zelda is simply rambling about her family while she and Elisa mop the floor.

At its core, The Shape of Water is a film about being seen as a person without any asterisks. Elisa is mute, Giles is gay, Zelda is a person of color, and the “Asset” is a magical fish creature. These are details about these people, not singular traits that define their entire existence. We live in a world that often forgets to see people as people, or simply chooses not to. The film triumphs most when it flips this scenario, presenting characters who live and love without considering all the factors that set them apart.

Guillermo del Toro has always been an expert at crafting the world he wants his audience to exist in for the duration of his films. He ups the ante with The Shape of Water, a film that not only wows the viewer, but forces one to think about the way we view each other in a nation where diversity is often weaponized as a political tool. It is certainly his best English language script and may very well be his finest film. As a director who’s primarily worked in the sci-fi/horror genres which are rarely acknowledged in the major awards categories, del Toro has hardly gotten his due as a master filmmaker. Hopefully, that changes this year, but regardless,  The Shape of Water is one of the year’s best and well worth the price of admission.

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Tuesday

12

April 2016

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Fear The Walking Dead and the Crisis of Character

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As someone who considers himself a casual fan of The Walking Dead, I looked forward to Fear the Walking Dead for two reasons. The cast of the flagship show has grown too large and the plot too convoluted for a show that only produces sixteen episodes a year. Fear offered a simpler approach to the zombie genre.

The trouble with a zombie show that focuses more on character than action is that it needs to actually have compelling characters. For Fear, this shouldn’t inherently be a problem as it doesn’t need to allocate screen time to dozens of characters, but having time to build relationships with characters doesn’t necessarily make them likable or even compelling.

The first episode of Fear offered next to nothing positive for anyone other than perhaps the diehard fans who stick around for Talking Dead. Only two characters stood out as remotely interesting, Salazar and Strand, with two more, Madison and Nick, that I only care about because I like the actors who play them (Kim Dickens and Frank Dillane, the son of Game of Thrones’ Stephen Dillane).

Fear fails because it makes the wrong assumption that its characters have to be tethered to a Rick-like sense of altruism that’s more than a little tired six years into the franchise. I assume someone involved with the creative felt the need to have Madison express a desire to help the refugees on the boat as The Abigail sailed on. As new a show as Fear is, we’re past that kind of nonsense, which benefits Strand as a character who thinks logically. Fear makes the mistake of pitting someone against Strand’s position, which might be natural as far as storylines go, but we don’t need that and more importantly, we don’t want it.

If the reports that this season will spend much of its time on water are to be believed, Fear’s season two is shaping up to look at lot like Herschel’s farm. In other words, boring. The boat might be more fun than the farm, but we don’t have Rick, Glen, Dale, Shane, Carol, Maggie, or T-Dog to keep us entertained. The hints of a Strand/Madison/Salazar conflict offer a flicker of hope for this season, but the downside of that is that it stands to reason that one of them will die, leaving us short a compelling character.

Granted, it seems unfair to completely write off the show. Season six of TWD bears little resemblance to season two. The only problem is that season two wasn’t really bad on its own. It dragged on at times and pales in comparison to every other season, but it wasn’t terrible TV. Beyond that, it always had the comics to show us that better times were just on the horizon.

Here, I don’t know. I’m not sure how much I care. Water zombies are fun, but plodding melodrama can be better found elsewhere. If Fear wants to be a character centric drama, it better work on its characters who for the most part, have less interesting personalities than the creatures chasing them around.

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Wednesday

22

July 2015

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UnReal Is The Perfect Summer TV Show

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There are two types of shows that air in the summer. There’s summer TV and shows that happen to air in the summer. Six Feet Under is a summer TV show. True Detective is a show that airs in the summer. Rescue Me is a summer TV show. Masters of Sex is a show that airs in the summer. Burn Notice is a summer TV show. Rectify is a show that airs in the summer.

You might be confused with what the difference is, especially since none of these shows really have anything in common with each other. There’s really only one word that makes a TV show that airs in the summer, a summer TV show. Fun.

It’s hard to imagine summer TV being what it is now without Six Feet Under, which aired in the infant stages of cable television’s rise to power. Back in a day when channels like HBO protected their especially quirky shows by airing in them in the broadcast TV offseason, a show about a family that ran a funeral home could plant its dark comedic roots without being slaughtered by the likes of an ER or a CSI.

That’s less important nowadays when the overwhelming majority of shows that anyone cares to talk about air on cable anyway, but summer TV has always maintained a niche that at least in theory separates itself from the rest of the year. I doubt it’s a coincidence that Netflix drops all the Orange is the New Black episodes in the summer months, when everyone craves something a little lighter than say, House of Cards.

Which isn’t to say that dramedies don’t air at all times of the year. Only that they flourish in the months when the days are long and people tune in at night to see something with a little more flair than a conventional drama, perhaps with a margarita or a Corona. This year’s line-up is packed with shows, but not necessarily many that fit the label I’ve described besides OINTB, which caters to the binge watchers.

I don’t think it should be too surprising to see Lifetime produce a hit scripted drama. After all, History managed it with Vikings. Fifteen years ago, the notion that AMC was capable of producing one of the most successful shows of all time was laughable. Turns out, the channel didn’t even need to stray very far for its core philosophy either.

UnReal is about the behind the scenes madness of a Bachelor stand in show called Everlasting. As you can probably imagine, the show is heavy on the melodrama. What was really shocking is how well that worked.

UnReal’s best asset is its cast. Shiri Appleby does a marvelous job playing the enigmatic lead Rachel, whose shadiness goes well beyond the point of absurdity. I can think of about a hundred ways in which her character could ruin the whole show, but Appleby keeps her grounded enough to make it all work.

House of Cards alum Constance Zimmer is also superb, though it takes a minute to fully comprehend how an actress so misused on a Netflix show could then be properly utilized on a Lifetime scripted drama. Craig Bierko, who played one of my least favorite characters on Boston Legal (one of my all time favorite shows), also plays his part to perfection.

What makes UnReal so satisfying? The show isn’t afraid to be what it is, a scripted drama about a reality show that’s lauded as a joke that airs on a network that also happens to be lauded as a joke. One might say UnReal itself was in on the joke.

It’s a show that’s self aware of the medium it exists in. It knows it can get away with wildly outlandish plots and dreamy sequences played to the tune of a Lifetime TV movie. UnReal isn’t trying to be anything else, which is perhaps why it succeeds. It’s a genuinely original idea in a world that’s starving for ideas to the point where it brought back Coach and Prison Break.

The true appeal lies with UnReal’s delivery. It could survive on being “so bad it’s good,” like the recent A Deadly Adoption Lifetime TV movie starring Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig. Instead, it uses its quality cast and lets them run wild in the absurdist playground.

Which is what makes a perfect summer TV show. Six Feet Under’s black humor would’ve worked at any point in the year, but it felt especially delectable when the weather melts away your other worries. The fact that it airs on a Monday might matter during the fall months, but here it carries the “c’est la vie” mentality that makes it all the more refreshing. An excuse to have a glass of wine at 10 pm on a Monday and a good one at that!

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Tuesday

27

May 2014

4

COMMENTS

X-Men: Days of Future Past and the Unimportance of Film Continuity

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As impressive as the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been from both a critical and financial standpoint, the evolution of superhero movies does present some risks. Both the X-Men film franchise, which is owned by Fox and therefore is separate from the movies connected to The Avengers, and the DC film universe have followed in Disney’s footsteps of moving away from stand-alone films in favor of franchises with large connected plotlines. In theory, this is pretty smart. If end credit scenes and brief cameos can draw fans to films they might not otherwise be incline to see, then why not? More movies, more money.

X-Men: Days of Future Past took one of Marvel’s most endeared story lines and used it to connect the cast’s of the original trilogy with the cast of X-Men: First Class, which was a deceivingly ambitious effort given the star power involved. With so many Oscar winners and nominees amongst the principal cast, the stakes were high to deliver a top-notch story that correctly utilized the talent involved. With a run time of a little over two hours, an equal division of screen time would’ve certainly come at the cost of the story.

Thankfully, this was something that director Bryan Singer was aware of. While this story called for both casts, the true meat of the film belongs to the newer cast. It’s nice to see Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry, Ellen Page and Anna Paquin all back in the roles that brought this franchise to the big screen, but James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, and Nicholas Hoult are the future and rightfully took point on the film. Hugh Jackman excelled in his role as a mediator between the two generations without stealing all the spotlight. Wolverine might be a fan favorite, but coming off his second solo film, it was smart not to give him all the attention.

The film also deserves credit for choosing to ignore the blatant plot continuity problems brought forth by X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, by far the franchise’s two weakest entries. Old Professor X is back from the dead and the world is in shambles. Why? Who knows and more importantly, who cares?

The biggest problem with a shared universe is the inherent obligation to explain the significance of the other films. This gets you more time with characters who would be in fewer movies without a shared universe, but it comes at a cost. Thor: The Dark World had its moments, but it also felt weighed down by a necessity to intentionally distance itself from The Avengers.

X-Men Days of Future Past chose to only make references to the past films when the plot called for it. The result is a film that’s allowed to embrace the fact that it’s a movie and not a TV show. Part of the reason that this particular film could get away with this is because its source material ignored such problems and also received critical acclaim, but it’s something that other franchise should think about.

Shared universes can take you out of the movie. I’m sure I’m not alone in wondering where Iron Man was when Thor was duking it out with the alien guy in The Dark World. That’s not a big problem now, but more movies in the future means more pressure on these films to make an effort to be conscious of their surroundings. Distractions in film are far more problematic than in television.

Days of Future Past had a story to tell and nothing got in the way of that. A summary of the events leading to the dystopian world that the original cast found themselves in could’ve added half an hour to the story. The majority of Paquin’s scenes were cut which suggests that Singer knew that there could be too much of a good thing. Rogue was a good character, but it’s hard to believe that her presence was missed by anyone other than die-hard fans of True Blood.

The success of Days of Future Past calls into question the importance of film continuity when it comes to superhero films. The cameos and the end credit scenes are nice, but as the phases of the MCU evolve, so will the need to adjust to accommodate the ever-growing universe. In a genre known for excess, it would be wise to exercise some restraint on that front. References are fun as long as they don’t alienate those who choose to take a pass on questionable choices like the upcoming Ant-Man.

X-Men: Apocalypse will feature the new cast with no expected involvement from the cast of the original trilogy, even Wolverine though a cameo would not be surprising. It remains to be seen how the new film will address Days of Future Past, but it certainly doesn’t need to. I hope it doesn’t.

In creating complex superhero worlds, we can easily forget what these films are. Silly action movies. That doesn’t mean they need to be devoid of any artistic value, but that value should be derived from the film and not from a cameo from a different superhero or an end credit scene, which teases a different movie. Days of Future Past worked because it lived in the moment, albeit in a moment that fluctuated in time. Those moments didn’t always make sense, but that’s okay. Superhero movies don’t always need to make sense, but they do need to be entertaining.

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