January quadruple feature [no spoilers]

Tuesday being cheap day at the local theater chain, I betook myself through the wintry weather for a quaddie. This will be the last time I’ll be able to do this for some time, I suspect. Managed four films in eleven hours with only brief pauses this time. These were all worthwhile; no duds or wasted time.

10:15 — The Shape of Water

In a stylized version of the Cold War-era U.S., a cleaning woman at a government laboratory (Sally Hawkins) discovers and befriends a sea monster (Doug Jones) that the U.S. military (a researcher played by Michael Shannon) is torturing in aid of the space program, with the aid of her closeted artist neighbor (Richard Jenkins), her coworker (Octavia Spencer), and a Russian spy who’s infiltrated the facility (Michael Stuhlbarg). I hadn’t planned to see this (I’m not usually into monster films, plus after Berlin Station I’m not especially impressed by Jenkins), but it made several “best of” lists for 2017 and it tied for second / third best film of the day.

So much to like about this film, starting with how beautiful it is. I really felt as if I were living in the middle of a graphic novel. The color scheme is luscious and there are so many interesting details in the sets and costumes. I feel like I don’t really have the words to describe what the cinematographer does in this film to recreate that stylized, comic book feel, but it’s entrancing. Second, Hawkins, Shannon and Spencer all offer excellent performances. I’m very much getting to the point that when I see Spencer’s name on the bill, that’s a reason for me to see a film. I had read recently that Jenkins’ forte as an actor is the hapless type, and he does that pretty well here (maybe the problem in Berlin Station is that it’s hard to believe that Frost could be quite that hapless; i.e., Jenkins was miscast). Criticisms — there’s some weird issue with the script and I can’t specify exactly what it is. (Is the film too slow? Slightly aimless in tempo?) In itself, it’s full of the kind of details and wry observations that I love when I find them (for instance) in a Coen Bros. film. It has that tinge of sadness that a film has to have for me these days. But somehow the story itself didn’t reach the magical level of the cinematography, at least not for me. The other thing: if you’re going to have actors speaking Russian so extensively with subtitles, just hire actors who are also native speakers of Russian. Russian is beautiful to listen to; listening to these actors butcher it was no fun and a serious damper for my willing suspension of disbelief.

Also, had I not seen this film, I’m not sure I’d ever have seen the trailer for this other film, which looks adorable:

12:55 — Darkest Hour

England in May, 1940: Germany has stomped through the Low Countries and is about to invade France, in response to which Labour pushes the peacenik Neville Chamberlain out of office, and George V asks Churchill to form a government. The film focuses on the War Cabinet Crisis of 1940. This is the film I was expecting to like the best; it tied for second/third with The Shape of Water.

Basically: it’s the Gary Oldman show. If you enjoy Oldman,or you’re a fan of Winston Churchill, this is an excellent performance and he will probably be nominated for an Oscar again. Oldman’s mimicry of Churchill is almost shockingly accurate. Compare to some of the audiotape of his speeches and historical film footage if you don’t believe me. Like The King’s Speech a few years ago, it’s an interesting reminder of the important role that rousing oratory has played in history (there’s an implicit comparison to Hitler at work), and it’s touching to see Churchill make references to Cicero. Like Dunkirk, which I saw this summer, it’s a WWII film in which the English play the only role — in a way that’s almost proud, as the film includes a scene where Churchill flies to France and can’t even get out an intelligible sentence. Now, it’s certainly the case that France wasn’t showing itself from its best side in the spring of 1940 (and the film isn’t wrong that Roosevelt was hampered in helping by the Neutrality Acts, even if it makes him sound like a prime twit; Lend-Lease was still about ten months away at this point), but it’s hard to avoid reading this as a Brexit film, at least insofar as films like this bolster the “we’ll go it alone” narrative of British history popular about Leavers. I have to say that as good as the film was, it couldn’t stop me from thinking my own subversive political thoughts about empire and its end while watching.

There’s really nothing notable about the film in any other regard than the acting. The cinematography is about what you would expect. I guess it’s always gray and unpleasant in London during WWII. And there’s one potential tearjerker moment in the script, when Churchill rides the Underground and a Black fellow completes a quotation from Macaulay — that most reviews are misattributing to Shakespeare. (Here’s the quotation, if you’re curious.) There are several other strong performances here (Kristin Scott Thomas as Clementine Churchill, Ben Mendelsohn as George V, and (the to me unknown) Stephen Dillane as Halifax, but they pale in comparison to Oldman’s, not least because they get so much less screen time. Other than that, Joe Armstrong (Alan-a-Dale from Robin Hood) plays Churchill’s factotum.

My mother would have loved this and I think dad would enjoy it, but the speech (Churchill’s mumbling, George V’s speech defect, and all the watery “r” sounds of the aristocratic English accent) will make it impossible for him to understand. We’ll wait for television and closed captioning.

While watching this I saw the trailer for “I, Tonya,” which I had actually firmly resolved not to see, but it may have softened me. I remember that incident quite well.

 3:25 — All the Money in the World

This film tells the story of the 1973 kidnapping of the grandson of the U.S. oil baron, investor and art collector, J. Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer). I didn’t know anything about the incident before I saw the film (so I can’t tell you about the accuracy of the plot; I simply don’t know and can’t comment on it) and hadn’t been planning to see it until the uproar over Kevin Spacey, who was entirely replaced in the film by Plummer after the film was already in the can. (Plummer had been director Ridley Scott’s original choice, but the studio had wanted Spacey.) Allegedly Scott didn’t want the Spacey scandal to distract from Michelle Williams’ performance as Gail Harris, the younger Getty’s mother. I was curious and I also wanted to show my support for getting the criminal assholes out of the industry, so I decided to see it. It ended up my top film for the day.

First of all, I thought Plummer was perfect in this role. I’d have never have known that what I saw was not the first cut. As the film makes clear, an automatic incomprehensibility attaches to a man who’ll pay 1.5 million for a work of art of uncertain provenance or an architectural recreation of Hadrian’s villa at Herculaneum, but stonewalls when it comes to figuring out how to ransom his allegedly beloved grandson. The film doesn’t zero in on the problem of Getty’s personality damage; indeed, a lot of it focuses on Gail Harris’ attempts (with Mark Wahlberg as a security man charged with helping or surveilling Gail) to track down the kidnappers and come up with enough money to satisfy them. I thought it was interesting that Ridley Scott felt that Spacey’s original performance was colder than Plummer’s; to me, Plummer is perfectly enigmatic — his Getty is not merely miserly, but there are subtle layers to his refusal to cooperate with the kidnappers, with tones there of a niggling insecurity, a weird pride, as well.

What the film does target, in a thoughtful way, is the significance of money or affluence: Gail saying to her husband: “We’re not poor, we’re broke; there’s a difference,” or Wahlberg’s character noting that financial negotiations are never just about money, but rather about what the money means; the role money plays in the two custody negotiations that occur during the film; or the stunning but underplayed image of a dozen people counting the billions of lira that the ransom comes to, once it’s delivered. There’s a moment where Wahlberg’s character, who initially argued to Getty that the kidnapping was a ruse undertaken by his own relatives to extort money from him, has realized that it’s a “real” kidnapping, and tries to persuade Getty to pay the ransom. Getty’s just received news of one of his investments; it’s a good day. Even so, he says that he has no money available to pay the ransom and that he’s more vulnerable financially than he’s ever been. When Wahlberg asks how much money Getty would need to feel secure, the answer is simple: “More.” It drops like a dead weight in the theater.

And finally, particularly for those of us who didn’t know the story going in, the last third or so of the film is simply a highly successful thriller: will Getty pay up? Will they find the kidnappers? Will the younger Paul escape them? I got very wrapped up in the story.When I left the theater, the woman next to me said, “Wow, I guess it really is possible to have too much money.” I don’t think that was the major point of the film, but it definitely shows that it made the audience think a bit about the deeper relevance of a suspenseful story.

6:35 — Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I don’t have a lot to say about this. It was the fourth best film of the day but I enjoyed it a great deal — keeping in mind that the last Star Wars film I’d seen was Episode III, twelve years ago now. Episodes I-III had essentially burned out my interest in this franchise. I decided to see it because I started to see a lot of articles in my feeds about the feminism of the film, the fact that some viewers were boycotting it as a “girls” film (?), and because almost everyone I know under thirty, both male and female, truly enjoyed it. I can heartily underline those perceptions. I didn’t understand everything in the film, but it was still quite intelligible even without The Force Awakens in my arsenal. If this is the gender and racial / ethnic inclusiveness of the film future, please, millennial audience, bring it on. It was also filled with the point-blank aphorisms that people end up quoting (saving the things we love rather than destroying the ones we hate, and letting go of the past, and so on), and it checked all the Star Wars boxes (cute little birdies, odd aliens in a cantina / casino scene, lots of sword fighting, and good CGI).

I saw Episodes IV-VI as a girl, with my mom. And I think mom would have really enjoyed this film a lot. It had everything in it that she enjoyed about the franchise originally, with the cheering update with kickass women.

~ by Servetus on January 3, 2018.

17 Responses to “January quadruple feature [no spoilers]”

  1. Serv, thanks for all the reviews. The only one on your list that I have seen is the Star Wars movie and I enjoyed it. The three other films on your list I plan to see. The only other movie I plan to see is The Post when it comes out on January 12.

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    • I keep seeing trailers for that (in fact, I think it was the only trailer I saw four times yesterday). I think the story would interest me. I’m not jazzed about the casting. I will probably try to see it anyway.

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  2. I’d definitely have Hot Cross Buns if I tried this!! But it sounds utterly heavenly. Amazing to hit 4/4 thumbs up! Thanks for all your interesting posts in 2017. You were the first person I reached out to last January as I started my RA ride. Your suggestions were so helpful-and fun. Wishing you good health, creative inspiration, fun with friends and family and some choice RA offerings in 2018.

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    • I think every seat I booked had a “dream lounger” chair. I was more likely to get a heart attack from non-movement, I suspect.

      Happy new Year to you, too.

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      • Our theaters have those lounge chairs. Over the course of four movies I probably would have fallen asleep at one point.

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        • I think sometimes people do, but the theater that day anyway was not very warm. It’s a known issue: I saw five or six people carrying in blankets with them. Btw, what did you think of that Star Wars film?

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          • I enjoyed it. I was 12 when the first Star Wars movie came out in 77. I tell my son when the movie came out it was like nothing we had ever seen. Since then I have seen all the movies, however, my husband and I pretend episodes (I-III) never happened. I go to see a Star Wars movie to be entertained and not to over analyze the plot lines. Yes, there were holes in this movie, but I enjoyed the action scenes and it was nice to see all the old familiar characters. I have always had a soft spot for Yoda.

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            • I’m a little younger than you, but I remember that, too, the feeling that it was something completely different from everything else. I’m not informed enough to think about the plot. (I do that with Star Trek, though!). And yeah, Yoda is a real winner. although it’s hard not to think about Frank Oz when I hear that voice.

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              • Serv, Plans had to be changed today, and because I am a Plan B mom, my son, his friend and I ended up going to the movies this afternoon. We ended up at an out of town movie theater that had IMAX. I was not up for another round of Star Wars, even if it was on IMAX, so I brought out your above reviews. Based on the movie times available, I had a choice of All the Money or the Darkest Hour. After reviewing your feedback again, I decided to watch the Darkest Hour because of my love of British history and Churchill. I enjoyed the movie very much and the acting was fabulous. If I closed my eyes I could hear Churchill. The only thing that would throw me off of Oldman’s Churchill was Oldman’s eyes. The supporting cast was great and I was familiar with all the main leads, including Stephen Dillane, who played Stannis Baratheon in Game of Thrones. The aristocratic watery “r” sounds of George VI and Halifax brought Bugs Bunny to mind.

                While watching the movie I was reminiscing a bit about my trip to England last year. I visited the Imperial War Museum, the Churchill War Rooms, and Blenheim Palace. I felt like I was following Churchill a bit on my trip. Also, just before I left I had finished reading Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in its Darkest, Finest Hour. Some of the content in the book was covered in the movie. While watching the movie I kept remembering what I read and thought, what if Roosevelt had helped sooner? What would have happened if England had not chosen to fight?

                BTW, grew up watching reruns of Star Trek over and over. Big fan of The Next Generation, too.

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                • I’m glad you liked it. I agree that Oldman is really impressive.

                  re: Roosevelt, my memory from first-year college US history was that he was hamstrung; he’d have liked to have supported Europe more fully earlier on, but there was such division in the electorate about WWI that a series of laws prevented the US from choosing sides in external conflicts apart from a declaration of war. I think it’s hard to envision that these days;, the “imperial presidency” of the 1960s and after makes it seems to speak for itself that the US would pick a side and get involved.

                  I thought this was an interesting observation: https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/01/not-our-finest-hour/549896/?utm_source=feed

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              • At the end when Churchill walks off the Underground train, I thought, Mind the Gap.

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  3. Thanks for the new movie reviews – always enyoing these! Maybe that’s because I love watching trailers and “The Shape of Water” was on my must-see list even before I read your review here. I also read an article about the mix of digital and “real-life” visual effects they used to create the under-water-scenes on a dry set – amazing! Looking forward to seeing the movie…
    However, the first time I saw the trailer for this I was like “OMG – the writers of this movie stumbled upon the same weird fanfiction that I read a while back!” 😉
    https://archiveofourown.org/works/3984817/chapters/8945284
    If I had to admit to anyone in IRL that I read every chapter of it I think I would blush crimson…unfortunately it’s unfinished and most likely abandoned (last update was 2015)

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    • Glad you enjoyed it. Yeah, I’m a bit embarrassed by my fanfic preoccupation myself — spent a lot of time yesterday rereading one I really like and it just gave me such a good feeling. But I’m not talking about those stories with former colleagues, that’s for sure.

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  4. I’ve just seen The Shape of Water in the theater. I thought it was wonderful and imaginative, if predictable. As to Richard Jenkins, who was nominated for a Golden Globe, all I could think of most of the time was that this could be Stephen Frost in retirement. I guess what you read is true- that he’s best at playing hapless characters, but there were so many instances where I swear, I was watching Frost. On the other hand, who knew he could tap dance so well? I was disappointed in Darkest Hour, except for Oldman’s performance. It seemed incomplete to me. I was tickled though, when I recognized Joe Armstrong immediately, just from his profile. ( Maybe because I’ve been re-watching Robin Hood in hopes of getting my Armitage mojo back)

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    • Maybe that was the problem — that Shape of Water was too predictable. I was thinking of the scene in the diner, for instance: that should have been so sad, and it was sad, but in a way one would completely anticipate.

      Re: tap dancing, I’ve been watching a lot of classic tv and film this year and one thing I’ve noticed is how much tap dancing there is before about 1970. I think it must have been a rule generations ago that future performers learned how to tap dance. I suppose vaudeville explains it for (say) three generations ago, but maybe there was some hangover. I admit I enjoy watching it.

      re: Darkest Hour. I agree — I felt it was just a performance with a bit of background here and there.

      Hope your mojo is on its way back.

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      • IDK about mojo. I would have thought a good dose of Lucas North would do it and am surprise it might be Guy. Maybe I’ll get to finally writing and posting Part 2 of a three year old piece on Marian and Guy.

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