Romance is shaped like a fish

I was prepared not to be a big fan of The Shape of Water. It looked twee and self-indulgent, and several people whose tastes I trust were lukewarm on it at best. TheĀ Hellboy movies didn’t do much for me, nor did Pacific Rim – but worse, I’d never really warmed to Guillermo del Toro’s biggest critical darling, Pan’s Labyrinth. I liked Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone, and I have a clandestine soft spot for Blade 2‘s comic book operatics, but more often than not I’ve liked del Toro’s endearing enthusiasm and the aesthetics of his films more than the films themselves.

Imagine my surprise when I really enjoyed The Shape of Water.

The Shape of Water

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A Damn Fine Cup of Culture Podcast #7: The Florida Project

d1ad56da-abce-4afe-9f45-79294aede9e3Tune in for episode 7 of A Damn Fine Cup of Culture, most of which we spend with Moonee, Jancey, Halley and Bobby at the Magic Castle motel, discussing Sean Baker’s The Florida Project. We also stop by Charlotte, Tennessee for a quick chat about Logan Lucky and take a quick glimpse at the upcoming Academy Awards. Continue reading

Great Expectations

I’ve seen both of the main winners at this year’s Academy Awards, Gravity and 12 Years A Slave – and I came away from both of them feeling just a bit underwhelmed. Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be one of those “Why the Oscars suck!” posts, not least because I don’t really feel particularly invested in them to begin with. What I want to talk about instead is this: expectations.

With 12 Years A Slave, I went in expecting to be as much bowled over as I was with Hunger and Shame. I was stunned when I caught Hunger on TV a couple of years ago; his visual language and his storytelling, combined with Fassbender’s amazing performance (is the guy ever any less than very good?), struck me as something I’d never seen. Shame built on this, engaging me both emotionally and intellectually in a way that’s rare in films. 12 Years A Slave is by no means a bad film, in fact it’s very good, a beautiful example of moviemaking craft on all fronts – but it didn’t stun me. It felt less unique than McQueen’s previous films.

Gravity

Gravity, too, is an exquisitely crafted film. It’s been criticised for being (allegedly) thematically shallow, all spectacle and no substance – which I don’t agree with. No, my beef with Gravity is this: I watched the trailer on a large screen in HD, and it pulled me in, evoking a real dread of floating in outer space, untethered, with nothing there but stars that are trillions of miles away. It’s not that the film itself didn’t summon this dread, but it didn’t build on it: basically the thing I liked best about the film was already there in the trailer. More so, actually, because it was distilled into two minutes. It doesn’t help that I’m not a big Sandra Bullock fan, finding her bland rather than relatable, but mainly my disappointment was similar to what I felt after 12 Years A Slave. I was disappointed, not because the films were bad, but because they didn’t, and perhaps couldn’t, meet my expectations.

In some ways I think those expectations weren’t entirely fair, if fairness indeed comes into the matter. If I hadn’t seen and been so receptive for that particular Gravity trailer, the actual film might have wowed me more thoroughly. If I hadn’t been stunned by Hunger and Shame, I might not have expected 12 Years A Slave to be stunning in that particular way, and this in turn might have allowed me to appreciate it more for what it was rather than being disappointed at what it wasn’t. Then again, without the trailer I might not have gone to see Gravity to begin with; I might not have gone to see 12 Years A Slave at the cinema just because of Chiwetel Ejiofor (no doubt a great actor, but I don’t go to the cinema just because of a particular actor).

12 Years A Slave

How many films could I have appreciated more if it hadn’t been for very specific expectations? And how do you manage your expectations anyway? I’m not sure I could, or would want to, watch a trailer and go, “Yeah, fantastic trailer, but I’m sure the film won’t live up to it. I’ll go and see it, but ho hum…” I want to be enthusiastic about things, I want to have that feeling of anticipation – and when such expectations aren’t just met but surpassed, it feels amazing. If anything, the problem may not be how much I expect but how specific my expectations are.

Anyway: sometimes when I rewatch films that underwhelmed me the first time, I enjoy them all the more the second time around. I’m sure that in a couple of years’ time Film Four will show 12 Years a Slave and Gravity, just in time for Cuaron and McQueen’s latest works – and if I go to see them expecting to be just a bit disappointed and underwhelmed, perhaps I’ll come away enjoying them all the more.

Swan on Swan

So, tonight’s the night. Stars all gussied up, waiting to hear those coveted words: “And the winner is…” A show that is best enjoyed with vast amounts of alcohol and decadent nibbles. (A couple of years ago, my girlfriend and I pulled out the sofa in front of the TV and made it into a bed, slept until early in the morning and then had toast and salmon while watching the Oscars. Good times. Much better than the one where we tried to do a Vacherin fondue and the cheese both smelled and tasted putrescent.)

I haven’t seen all of the nominees, far from it. Colin Firth hasn’t stuttered his way into my heart yet (aww…), an ageing Dude hasn’t yet shown us what True Grit is, and I have no idea whether The Kids Are All Right or not. In the last two weeks I’ve watched two of the multiple nominees, though: 127 Hours and Black Swan. I enjoyed both films, but I wouldn’t necessarily call both of them ‘good’ films. They both are showcases for their directors, full of stylistic flourishes – but I found 127 Hours exhilarating, thrilling and moving, and I was able to take the film seriously throughout. Black Swan, for all its technical accomplishment, struck me as silly to the point of becoming laughable.

It’s an eminently well made, well acted, well shot, well edited film – but it’s a B movie dressed up to be Oscar bait. It’s a Brian De Palma thriller pretending to be a relevant statement about the artist’s responsibility to destroy herself in order to produce true art. And it’s cheesy as hell – but like a good cheeseburger, it is a yummy treat and should be acknowledged as such.

My main problem is this: if you’re going to make a film about someone going mad, with scenes that signal at every edit, “Is this real or is this only happening in her poor, psychotic imagination?”, you need to have a certain base reality. Natalie Portman’s Nina, though, is a few feathers short of a cygnet from the beginning, and even the scenes that are supposedly real are turned up to 11, producing a hyper-reality that is only halfway removed from the all out insanity that eventually grips Nina’s mind. And the turny-twisty revelation at the end might be believable (I’m not talking about realism but about what is credible in the world established by the film) in opera, but decidedly less so in this movie.

What doesn’t do the film any favours is the spectre of better films that haunts it: All About Eve and obviously Powell’s The Red Shoes. And no hot (though imaginary – oops, did I give it away? The film already does a good job of doing so…) bedroom scene straight out of Lesbian Spank Inferno III: The Birds can banish these ghosts completely. There’s even a hint of Buffy‘s Faith, although that is one ghost that makes Black Swan look good by comparison – Mila Kunis is both hotter and a more convincing actress than poor Eliza Dushku.

So what about that much praised performance by Natalie Portman? She definitely does a very good job, but she’s not always helped by the script, which keeps the character samey for the first half, varying between forte and fortissimo, and then escalates it for too short a time. Portman finally makes for a magnificent black swan, but it’s difficult to say how much the performance is bolstered by make-up, costume and CGI effects.

So, who will win? Hmm… From the films I’ve seen, I can’t really say much about the nominated actors, having seen too few of them in these specific performances. I also don’t think all that much of a “Best Picture” category, since the best films in different genres can hardly be compared. (Is Chinatown a better film than Raiders of the Lost Ark? Does it matter?)

I am rooting for L’Illusioniste, though, because its doomed, beautiful magic has given me one of the most enchanting cinematic experiences, not only this year, but ever. Pixar’s got enough of those little golden men on their mantlepiece, after all.

What’s the Czech for “Beautiful movie”?

I’ve pretty much given up on the Academy Awards for years now, to the extent that I have no idea whatsoever which films have been winning since that hobbit movie. I did hear about that Irish indie romance Once, though, but I didn’t really follow it. On paper (or, more accurately, “computer screen”) it sounded rather twee.

Then a message board friend of mine mentioned seeing it. He didn’t write much about the film, but from what he’d written it was clear that I wanted to check out the film.

Now I’m in this silly situation: I loved the film and I’d go so far as to say that it’s one of the best, most beautifully told and acted love stories I’ve ever seen on film. I also fear that anything that I might write about it will make the film sound twee. Words such as “sweet” and “charming” come to mind, but they don’t really get at what makes the film work.

It’s funny (in a film nerd way, that is): we watched two films on two consecutive nights last week that were amazingly similar in some ways but couldn’t be more different in others: Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland and, well, Once. Both were filmed simply, going for verisimilitude, especially in the acting and writing. Both were City movies, so to speak, very much rooted in London and Dublin respectively. Both were about people who have to struggle to make ends meet at times, and not the Guardian-reading upper middle class characters of, say, Anthony Minghella’s Breaking and Entering.

Yet Once has an artlessness that in its effectiveness is highly artistic, whereas Wonderland never lets you forget that you’re watching a film by a director who wants his directing to be visible on screen. In its digicam, improv way Winterbottom’s film is as much a director’s film as any movie by Scorsese. It is the sort of film that some people might call “pretentious” because it forms its material in unexpected ways and makes this very clear on every frame. Once, by comparison, wants to be a small film, is a small film and knows it.

But it’s by no means unambitious. Pulling off a simple, bittersweet love story – with songs, no less! – take courage, or stupidity, but whatever it was, they managed it. For lack of a better word, Once may just be the most honest love story I’ve ever seen. And in some ways I hope never to read the words, “From the makers of Once” because I’m afraid that there’s no way they could do anything other than disappoint. Poor buggers…

Anyway, enough words from someone who basically said, “Words won’t live up to the film so I’ll keep this short.” Both films, Wonderland and Once, are very much worthwhile. The former is probably more a matter of personal taste – Winterbottom’s films are not likeable as such, nor do they set out to be – but still a definite recommendation. And now I will leave you with trailery goodness and shut up.