Screening Room: ‘The Shape of Water’

A nearly sure-fire debt for some awards in both acting and design categories is Guillermo del Toro’s ravishing fairy-tale romance The Shape of Water, which is playing in theaters now.

My review is at PopMatters:

The Shape of Water is ostensibly a love story between a solitary woman and a merman. But the true object of the movie’s affection is its star character, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), and rightly so. Elisa is just about the fiercest woman on screen right now; a less complicated but no less determined heroine than Frances McDormand’s blowtorch vigilante Mildred in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. A mute cleaning woman who lives above a grand old movie palace, she has a closely-followed a litany of daily habits that are treated more like chiming celebrations than rote compulsiveness…

Screening Room: ‘I, Tonya’

In 1994, the world of professional skating was hurled into the burgeoning tabloid TV landscape when an assailant clubbed skater Nancy Kerrigan and suspicion fell on another skater, Tonya Harding. The resulting media firestorm was like a runup to the O.J. trial.

Margot Robbie stars as Harding in the inside-out comedy I, Tonya, which opens next week. My review is at PopMatters:

“This is bullshit. I never did this,” Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) assures viewers in the meta-comedy I, Tonya just after she is seen unloading a blast of buckshot at her fleeing husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). Not that most of us would blame her. At that point, we already saw Jeff beat her for saying the wrong thing, or just for being there. Before that there was a long stretch of verbal and emotional abuse from LaVona (Allison Janney), Tonya’s cold-eyed villain of a mother. So this is somebody who had good reason to pick up a shotgun and let fly…

 

Screening Room: ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’

An intoxicating blend of Greek tragedy, Kubrickian creep, and suburban satire, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is playing now. This is priority viewing.

My review is at Film Journal International:

The setting for Yorgos Lanthimos’s latest absurdist take on the violence underpinning society’s placid surfaces couldn’t be more mundane and the stakes couldn’t be higher. It could be that the movie is trying to build on the tradition of cinematic shocks to the bourgeoisie. Behind every great McMansion there must be a great crime. But it’s just as possible that, even though there are some scenes that play like an Ionesco translation of American Beauty, Lanthimos just wanted his background to be as unspecific as possible, so as not to detract from the off-kilter and walloping doozy of a story he’s telling…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Snowman’

Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of Jo Nesbo’s The Snowman, the first of his Harry Hole detective novels to hit the big screen, comes to theaters this weekend.

My review is at Film Journal International:

Deep, deep inside The Snowman, between the permanent rictus of Michael Fassbender’s half-frown and the slow zooms of spooky snowmen, can be glimpsed the outlines of the passable mystery movie that might have been….

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Baby Driver’

So here’s the pitch for the unlikely summer blockbuster Baby Driver: There’s this getaway driver who’s creepy good at his job. Only he has this thing where he listens to music all the time and doesn’t really talk to people. This annoys the bank robbers he works with. Sound good? Well, the soundtrack is, at least.

Baby Driver is out now on DVD. My review is at PopMatters:

In the desultory extras accompanying the DVD of Baby Driver, there isn’t much to explain the movie’s genesis besides the obvious. Writer/director Edgar Wright was obsessed with Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Bellbottoms” and thought it would be a great song for a car chase. So, like the eager fanboy that Wright is, he doesn’t wait any longer than the opening scene to drop that sequence…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Mudbound’

The historical melodrama Mudbound has been making the festival rounds, from Sundance to the New York Film Festival. It’s due on Netflix and in select theaters on November 17.

My review is at PopMatters:

A surprisingly assured big-canvas effort from director Dee Rees (PariahBessie), Mudbound is adapted from Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel about two families, one white and one black, who find themselves unwillingly bound by land, happenstance, poverty, and the persistence of persecution in the Jim Crow South. The Jacksons are a family of black sharecroppers who have to adjust to their new white landowners, an unsure bunch known as the McAllans whose various missteps (intentional and accidental) lead to bloody tragedy…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Voyeur’

Back in 1981, Gay Talese made a splash with Thy Neighbor’s Wife, a controversial study of America’s sexual proclivities. He received an interesting letter not long after publication from a guy in Colorado with all sorts of stories about spying on people at his motel.

The new documentary Voyeur follows what happened next, as Talese spent years trying to turn that man’s story into yet another splashy book. Voyeur premiered at the New York Film Festival and will be released in theaters and on Netflix later in the year. Here’s my review.

Screening Room: ‘Una’

An adaptation of David Harrower’s play, BlackbirdUna is about what happens when a young woman tracks down the older man she had a relationship with when she was far too young and wants … well, it’s not sure precisely what she wants. But he thinks she’s about to burn his whole world down. and she just might.

Una opens this week in limited release. My review is at PopMatters.

Here’s the trailer.

Screening Room: ‘Citizen Jane’

In the 1950s, when bulldozing historic downtowns under the flag of “urban renewal” was all the rage, architecture journalist Jane Jacobs was one of the loudest and most eloquent voices of the resistance. A new documentary on her, Citizen Jane: Battle for New York, chronicles her fight against the city planners who dreamed of replacing organic urban chaos with high-rise and parking lot dead zones.

Citizen Jane opens in limited release this week. My review is at Film Journal International:

At the risk of oversimplifying the debate, Citizen Jane: Battle for the City divides the participants into two camps: the “top-down” city planners and the “bottom-up” activists. To illustrate that divide, Tyrnauer handily reaches back to the most famous urbanist debate of the 20th century: the fight between New York planning czar Robert Moses and journalist-turned-activist Jane Jacobs. The struggle wasn’t always easily understood, but the stakes were for the future of the city itself…

Here’s the trailer.

Screening Room: ‘Fences’

fences-poster

Denzel Washington’s adaptation of August Wilson’s award-festooned play Fences essentially reconstitutes the cast of the rapturously received 2010 revival and transforms it into one of the year’s great films—not to mention a strong standard to follow for future dramatic adaptations.

Fences is playing now in limited release, and should open wider later in the month and also in the new year. My review is at PopMatters:

August Wilson’s Fences tells the tale of a black family in ‘50s Pittsburgh, centering on the clan’s domineering patriarch. It also resonates with a host of grandly American themes, from the bloody swell of history and race to the yawning gaps separating rhetoric and action, dreams and reality. It’s a big play, in other words, and requires considerable energy to bring it to life, on stage or screen…

Here’s the trailer.

Screening Room: ‘The Accountant’

THE ACCOUNTANT

In The Accountant, Ben Affleck puts on glasses and his serious face to play … an accountant … who’s not really just an accountant. See? It’s like one of those twist things.

Directed by Gavin O’Connor (Warrior), The Accountant opens this week wide. My review is at Film Journal International:

In what could serve as the year’s most preposterous mainstream release, Affleck plays Christian Wolff, an accountant who works out of a strip mall in downstate Illinois, finding deductions for local farmers. Or does he? We know that he’s a high-functioning autistic after an opening scene with a child whose tics and inability to deal with small talk or inconsistency seem remarkably like Affleck’s dour-faced pocket-protector of a glowering adult. We also know that he’s more than he claims to be, after being fed into a parallel storyline in which Treasury Department honcho Ray King (J.K. Simmons) details Agent Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), easily cowed due to her secret dark past, to uncover the identity of a mysterious man who has been doing forensic accounting for everyone from terrorists to cartels…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising’

neighbors2

People with lesser imaginations might have imagined that after the bong-huffing and keg-emptying rager that was Neighbors, there was nothing else to be done with the concept. But it appears that Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne are still irked to be living next door to a party house, only now it’s a rogue sorority instead of fraternity. Because: equality.

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising opens this Friday everywhere. My review is at Film Journal International:

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising starts with Kelly Radner (Rose Byrne), one-half of the film’s perpetually befuddled Gen-X couple, announcing her pregnancy to Mac (Seth Rogen) by spewing vomit on his face while they’re having sex. It ends in a curiously anti-climactic scene with the Radners enraptured in honeyed two-child McMansion bliss. In between those polar-opposite moments roils a helter-skelter of moments that read like something stitched together almost at random from the notebook leavings of Rogen and Evan Goldberg (just two of the five credited writers)…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Hail, Caesar!’

Channing Tatum in 'Hail, Caesar!' (Universal Pictures)
Channing Tatum in ‘Hail, Caesar!’ (Universal Pictures)

For their latest fullbore farce, the Coens return to the Los Angeles of yesteryear, only it’s a brighter concoction than the murderous landscape of Barton Fink, and stares a veritable Woody Allen posse of stars goofing around like stars of old.

Hail, Caesar! opens today. My review is at PopMatters:

[The] livelier moments include Tilda Swinton’s quivery and predatory presence as twin sisters who are also rival gossip columnists, Channing Tatum deftly cutting a rug during a big On the Town-like dance number with a not-so-subtle gay subtext, and Ralph Fiennes, as a sleek European exile director trying to coax a taciturn and nearly pre-verbal cowboy star through a scene of Lubitschian complexity. But as each one of these scenes nears a crescendo, the Coens either cut away or otherwise leave it stranded in a film that seems as lost as its protagonist…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ’13 Hours’

Pablo Schreiber, John Krasinski, and David Denman in '13 Hours' (Paramount Pictures)
Pablo Schreiber, John Krasinski, and David Denman in 13 Hours (Paramount Pictures)

When the US consulate in Benghazi was attacked by an Islamist militia in September 2012, they were quickly overwhelmed. Their only fighting chance was a small team of contractors stationed at a nearby CIA station. Michael Bay’s 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is based on those contractors’ tell-all book about the massive firefight and bureaucratic snafus that followed the assault.

13 Hours opens this weekend, in case you’ve already seen all the December awards movies. My review is at Film Journal International:

That sound you hear while exiting the theater as 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi rumbles to a finish is something like relief. Because the last thing that our panic room of an election season needed was a Michael Bay gasoline bomb getting dumped onto the simmering garbage fire that is the Benghazi investigation. That hasn’t happened. The closest that this bruising but respectful film comes to sounding like a cable-news shouting head is when one character, bemused that the news back home is attributing the attacks to protesters, says matter-of-factly, “We didn’t hear any protests.” Then it’s back to the shooting; we are in Bay country, after all…

Here’s the trailer:

Now Playing: ‘The Drop’

Tom Hardy, faithful dog, and Noomi Rapace in 'The Drop' (Fox Searchlight Pictures)
Tom Hardy, faithful dog, and Noomi Rapace in ‘The Drop’ (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

With a screenplay by Dennis Lehane (Mystic RiverShutter Island), an Oscar-nominated director (Michaël R. Roskam, for Bullhead), and an Oscar-worthy turn by Tom Hardy, The Drop would seem to have plenty of ability to overcome its status as a run-of-the-mill crime drama about a mob-linked bar in Brooklyn. Whether it does or doesn’t is up for debate; the genius of Hardy’s performance shouldn’t be.

The Drop is playing in most markets around the country now. My review is at PopMatters:

The response of your average cineaste, upon hearing the words “In Brooklyn…” in a film’s opening narration, is to look for the nearest exit. What follows is too frequently more mythologizing than storytelling. The borough is transformed from specific place to psychic landscape, full of tribal loyalties and tight bonds, where the begrimed and as-yet ungentrified street scene indicates bootstrapping and self-policing pride. Cops not needed here.

However, if you follow your instincts and bolt at the start of Michael R. Roskam’s sturdy and bleak noir The Drop, you miss Tom Hardy creating a thing of beauty yet again…

You can see the trailer here: