Friday, December 29, 2017


Offbeat love story simmers in bewitching Shape of Water

It would be glib to say The Shape of Water is like Beauty and the Beast meets The Creature From the Black Lagoon. It would be accurate, but it doesn't suggest the profound emotional pull and dramatic resonance of this bewitching new movie from Guillermo del Toro.

The master craftsman behind the amazing Pan's Labyrinth, Del Toro's career has taken some oddball turns since then, but he's back in top form with this evocative modern fairy-tale.

Co-scripted by Del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, the story begins at a secret government facility in Baltimore, ca 1962 — at the height of the Spy-vs-Spy tensions of the Cold War. Elisa (Sally Hawkins), and her friend, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), are maids, cleaning up the research labs.

An orphan, whose damaged vocal cords render her unable to speak, Elisa lives an orderly, solitary life in an apartment above a once-grand movie theater. Her only other friend, Giles (Richard Jenkins), down the hall, is a lonely, middle-aged gay artist whose magazine illustrations are going out of style.

Hawkins & Jones: Liquid Asset
One day, something strange is brought to the lab, accompanied by volatile government honcho, Strickland (Michael Shannon).

The staff is warned to keep their distance, but Elisa can't help peeking into the tank to find that what everyone refers to as "The Asset" is a man-sized, reptilian, aquatic creature with scales, webbed digits, and gills, captured from the jungles of South America — where "the natives consider him a god."

The scientists, however, are only interested in his dual breathing mechanisms (both water and air), which they plan to study for military purposes. But Elisa soon discovers he's a sentient being, able to communicate. It's agonizing enough whenever sadistic Strickland shows up with a cattle-prod to show "The Asset" who's boss. But when Elisa hears they plan to dissect him, she goes into action.

Hawkins & Jenkins: Allies for love
That's the plot, but Del Toro takes extraordinary time and care to develop Elisa's relationship with the "Amphibian Man." She brings him food and companionship; he learns her sign language (which no one else at the facility bothers to do), and responds to music she smuggles in to play for him.

In small deft strokes, theirs becomes one of the most compelling, fanciful, and satisfying love stories you'll see onscreen all year. As Elisa signs to Giles, "He doesn't see how I am incomplete." They recognize in each other something everyone else is missing.

Loud and clear: Elisa has a message for male authority
Hawkins is as marvelous as ever, full of smoldering fury at Strickland (the story's real "monster"), yet persuasively tender and giddy in love. But major kudos go to Doug Jones, as the creature. A frequent Del Toro collaborator, he's a skilled mime who specializes in otherworldly roles (he played the fearsome Fauno in Pan's Labyrinth, and Abe Sapien in the Hellboy movies).

The range of subtle sound effects by which the character communicates are brilliantly done, but it's Jones' soulful, expressive presence that gives the movie its heart.

Inspiration: the original "Amphibian Man"
And it's all done with make-up; you'd never feel so much humanity from a CGI effect.

Jenkins is also terrific as wry observer Giles; hopelessly crushed on the guy who serves pie at the diner, he becomes Elisa's staunchest ally. And Del Toro's sheer joy of filmmaking is contagious, from precision chase scenes, and glimpses of period TV shows like Mr. Ed and Dobie Gillis, cannily chosen to inform the story, to his gleeful homage to vintage Hollywood musicals in a nutty but irresistible fantasy dance routine shot in black-and-white, a la Fred and Ginger.

Cat lovers (like me) will find one incident distressing, but even that makes a valid point about letting what's wild stay wild. Overall, this offbeat love story could not be more timely, or effective.

It celebrates diversity with a "disabled" heroine, a woman of color, and a gay man teaming up to thwart the evil schemes of a government of monsters. It's about a woman who defies the perception that she is powerless against condescending male authority. It rebukes stark political and scientific agendas without compassion. And it stands up for the unalienable right to fall in love — period.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017


Jeff Garrett: Scrooge defiant
Condensed Carol delivers holiday spirit in lively, solo Scrooge

No matter how many versions of A Christmas Carol you've seen — and I've seen plenty —the new Jewel Theatre Company production, Scrooge: The Haunting of Ebenezer, is something completely different.

It's adapted and performed as a one-man-show by Jeff Garrett, in which the dauntless Garrett enacts 31 characters out of the beloved Charles Dickens classic.

Garrett delivers a Herculean solo performance playing all the parts — from Scrooge, Marley's Ghost, Mrs. Fezziwig, Tiny Tim — in a show that's as much a celebration of the acting craft as it is about the Yuletide season.

This is also the first ever holiday show to be mounted by JTC, now in its 13th season, and embarking on its third year in the Colligan Theater at The Tannery. With only nine scheduled performances over a seven-day period, it's a brisk injection of holiday spirit right when we need it the most.
Garrett: Scrooge redeemed

In addition to playing all the characters, Garrett also takes the role of narrator, telling us Dickens' famous Christmas Eve tale in the author's own words.

 (Well, not all of them; Garrett cherry-picks his scenes, characters, and incidents, streamlining and condensing the material into a fleet 80 minutes.)

But this isn't Dickens Lite; the emotional heart of the story is laser-focused throughout.

What I love about the novel is the economy of its storytelling, well-served in this unadorned, yet effective production. It only plays through next Sunday, so catch it quick, before it disappears like the foam off a glass of hot bishop. (Read more)

Tuesday, December 12, 2017


Crackpot dream spawns weird cult hit in funny Disaster Artist

The most delirious scriptwriter could never invent a character like Tommy Wiseau. With his eccentric speech and long, dyed-black hair, of indeterminate age, means or national origin, and pretty much devoid of any actual talent, he became one of the most renowned filmmakers of the new Millennium in 2003, as writer, producer, director, and star of The Room, universally acclaimed as the worst movie ever made. (Move over, Ed Wood.)

With that single act of abomination against the annals of cinema history, Wiseau has become the international poster boy for pursuing one's artistic vision — however crackpot it may be — in the face of all obstacles.

Wiseau is now such a legendary cult figure they've made a movie about him: The Disaster Artist, a giddy, lightly fictionalized adaptation of a non-fiction book about making The Room.

The book was co-written by Greg Sestero, Wiseau's friend and real-life co-star of The Room. The Disaster Artist is directed by James Franco, who also stars as Wiseau, in a performance of fascinating weirdness.
Truth is weirder than fiction

If the real Wiseau wasn't up there in the spotlight for all to see, Franco might be accused of excessive eccentricity, swanning around with a lazy, affected drawl, looking like a cross between Tiny Tim and Vlad the Impaler. But Franco also manages to expose the occasional raw nerve of a lost soul yearning to fit in.

In a San Francisco acting class, 1998, shy young student Greg Sesteros (nicely played by the director's brother, Dave Franco), is mesmerized by the chutzpah of fellow student Tommy Wiseau. Doing the "Stella!" scene from A Streetcar Named Desire, Tommy shrieks, rolls around on the floor, and literally climbs the walls. The rest of the class is stunned into horrified silence, but Greg has found a mentor.

When Tommy suggests they move together to L. A. to break into Hollywood, Greg is thrilled. Soon enough, they decide to make their own movie, Tommy hammering out a bunch of loosely-connected melodramatic crescendos disguised as a script.

Foreknowledge of The Room is not essential, but viewers interested in backstage Hollywood will get the most out of this cheery look at outsiders amok in the Hollywood dream factory.
(Read more in this week's Good Times)

Thursday, December 7, 2017


Forget about your kick-ass super-heroines. Mildred, the middle-aged mother at the center of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, doesn't have magic, bullet-repelling bracelets or jiu-jitsu training.

All she's got is a spectacularly vulgar mouth, a fearless take-no-prisoners attitude, and a relentless drive to see justice done — whatever the cost to her family, her community, or her own shaky reputation.

As portrayed with steely grit by the superb Frances McDormand, Mildred is a one-woman Justice League out to avenge the murder of her teenage daughter. That she has a few demons of her own to exorcise along the way deepens her character and the story in this third layered and complex morality play from Anglo-Irish playwright-turned-filmmaker Martin McDonagh.

As in his previous films (the extraordinary In Bruges, and Seven Psychopaths), McDonagh mixes raucously funny dialogue and irreverent observation of human nature and foibles with an uncompromising (and often surprising) sense of morality.

He also likes to keep us guessing about who are the bad guys, who are the good guys, and what — if anything — separates them.

It's been long months since her daughter was raped and murdered in the rural town of Ebbing, and Mildred (McDormand) is still incensed that no suspects have ever been found and the case has gone cold. When she notices three dilapidated billboards along what was once the main road into town, she pays to have signage put up demanding action from the town police chief, Willoughby (a terrific Woody Harrelson).

This has a divisive effect on the townsfolk: everyone sympathizes with Mildred's loss, but nobody agrees with her confrontational tactic of blaming the hard-working Willoughby.

Another actress might choose to chomp on the scenery with extra relish and hot sauce, given such extravagant material. But McDormand commands the material, instead, by playing Mildred small and close. Her volatility — and her vulnerability — are always right below the surface, but she rarely even has to raise her voice.

The rest of the cast is just as impressive, including Sam Rockwell as a dimbulb, yet hothead deputy, Lucas Hedges as Mildred's loyal, but embarrassed son, and Peter Dinklage as a sympathetic local with a crush on Mildred.

McDormand vs Harrelson and Rockwell: Justice League
 A more conventional filmmaker might also try to frame this story as more of a traditional mystery thriller, or a subversive black comedy — or possibly both. But throw your expectations out the window, because McDonagh isn't interested in making a typical genre movie.

Nothing get tied up with a neat bow, here. However marginal his characters, or dire their circumstances, what interests him above all else is the universal quest for redemption — in whatever oddball form it might take. (Read more)