CAPSULE: THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Sally Hawkins, , , Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer,

PLOT: Against a Cold War backdrop, a mute cleaning woman forms a relationship with an aquatic creature she finds imprisoned in a military facility.

Still from The Shape of Water (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although Water gets points for its bizarre premise—which is just enough to get it onto our radar screen—the execution is almost unfailingly conventional. It does feature 2017’s weirdest musical number outside of The Lure, however.

COMMENTS: Give Guillermo del Toro great actors,  cinematographer Dan Laustsen, and the right script, and magic is assured. After an over-extended stay in Hobbiton and some near-misses (Pacific Rim, Crimson Peak) the pop-fabulist is back on track with a unique vision that draws on the auteur’s twin loves of classic horror and fairy tales (the high-concept tagline is “Creature from the Black Lagoon meets Beauty and the Beast“).

It’s a nice role, done nicely, for Sally Hawkins, who conquers the challenge of playing dowdy, mute cleaning woman Elisa while showing moments of passion and even sexiness—all while acting across from a guy in a fish suit. Michael Shannon doesn’t stretch in his role as a sadistic army colonel and vivisectionist, but his innate unhingedness is well-suited to villainy. Richard Jenkins, as Hawkins’ closeted next door neighbor, has his own solid subplot, while Octavia Spencer rounds out the main cast with a bit of light comic relief. Del Toro perhaps humanizes his amphibious monster a bit too much in order to make the inter-species relationship palatable to general audiences, although he does play up the ick (or “ich”) factor every now and then with girl talk discussions of the gill-man’s genital quirks. The Cold War setting adds a tension and texture that would be missing if the story were set in the present day.

Water may not be terribly deep—it’s little more than an ode to unconventionality, and maybe a disguised metaphor for the love that dare not speak its name—but it’s delivered with elegance and panache. It isn’t weird, except perhaps by Academy Award nominee standards. Its thirteen nominations virtually assure it will nab something, with Original Score and Production Design seeming the most likely to this observer. Among the major categories, only a Best Director award seems likely for Del Toro, as a reflection the general level of excellence spread across the film—although there are a surprising number of pundits who consider this bestiality-themed fantasy the “safe, if a little boring” choice. A last-minute, low-merit plagiarism lawsuit may effect Best Picture/Original Screenplay voters, consciously or unconsciously.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…with someone as strange and singular as del Toro, each film is something to anticipate and savor like a four-star feast. The good news is, The Shape of Water doesn’t disappoint. It’s both weird and wonderful.”–Chris Nashawaty, Entertainment Weekly (contemporaneous)

 

NOVEMBER (2017)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Rainer Sarnet

FEATURING: Rea Lest, Jörgen Liik

PLOT: Aided by witchcraft, a love triangle unfolds in an Estonian village in the 19th Century.Still from November (2017)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It’s only February, and November is already our first contender for weirdest movie of 2018. Set in a world where our forefathers’ craziest superstitions are literally true, November weaves a Gothic tapestry of sleepwalking noblewomen, hags, bewitched friars, and dead ancestors who sometimes manifest as chickens. And, of course, kratts that turn into primitive helicopters. You could not have seen that one coming.

COMMENTS: At one point young Hans, listening to magical tales from an unlikely source, proclaims “Unbelievable stories! They’re so enchanting.” There is an overarching plot in November, but it takes a back seat to the enchanting digressions. Set in a 19th century that feels like the depths of the Dark Ages (aside from a few anachronisms like muskets and tobacco), November unspools like a compendium of folk legends. Beginning on November 1, All Souls Day, when the dead join their descendants for a light meal, the story takes us on a tour of peasant beliefs and traditions, with a few mini-tales recounted inside of the main plot: stories of mysterious women seeking passage across the river, of effete lovers mooning in a gondola. The dreamlike monochrome cinematography and a doom-laden musical score nurtures the magical atmosphere, while the griminess of the characters’ hygiene and the baseness of their morals adds a contrasting level of realism that makes this alternate Estonia strangely believable.

The most exotic feature of this magical realist landscape are the kratts, automatons made from whatever farm implements (or, as we see later, other materials) the peasants have lying around, powered by souls that must be purchased from the Devil. Before the opening credits we meet a three-legged monster cobbled together out of broomsticks, metal rods, an axe, a sickle, and a skull; it’s capable of airlifting a cow, and develops a nasty temper when it’s not assigned enough work. The kratts may be the most uniquely Estonian element here, but folkloric magic is an everyday part of these character’s lives: diabolic meetings at midnight crossroads, lupine transformations on the full moon, disgustingly compiled love potions, and a bizarre scheme to trick the plague into skipping over the village all play parts in the story. Persistent pagan beliefs dominate Christian ones, leading to absurdly humorous situations. The villagers see Jesus as a powerful deity who can be gamed for their personal gain, and find non-Church sanctioned uses for consecrated hosts. They’ve adapted the magical elements of Christianity to their own purposes, but haven’t internalized its ethics: they are a barbaric, mean, and backstabbing lot of louts, continually scheming and stealing from both their doting German overlords and from each other. This depraved condition may be imposed on them by the necessity of their hardscrabble existence and servitude. Young love, however, remains a beacon of pure idealism, even in this bleak world; only proving, perhaps, that some ancient superstitions remain with us even today.

Frequently astounding, with a new fabulous wrinkle every ten minutes, November will enchant fans of weird cinema, though its downbeat nature and lack of likable characters may make it a hard sell to your straight cinema friends. Cold, but lovely, like a frosty November morn, its fascinations lie mostly on the surface, but what a surface it is.

November opens in New York this Friday (Feb. 23), expands to Los Angeles on March 2nd, and will play major cities in the U.S. throughout the Spring. See the official site for a list of screenings.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…fantastical, strange, beautifully shot, wonderfully acted, and just the right amount of weird to give us this strange fairy tale that we feel it’s a world we might have inhabited in a past life.”–Shelagh Rowan-Legg, Screen Anarchy (festival screening)

CAPSULE: AMERICAN FABLE (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Anne Hamilton

FEATURING: Peyton Kennedy, Richard Schiff, Kip Pardue, Zuleikha Robinson

PLOT: A 11-year old girl in Reagan-era America wrestles with her conscience when she discovers a man being held hostage on her farm.

Still from American Fable (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although the film pays lip service to magical realism and utilizes some striking imagery, there’s nothing especially weird about American Fable, although it does signal some interesting new voices.

COMMENTS: American Fable lays all its cards out on the table before the movie even begins. After all, the name of the movie is American Fable. Our tale will be fantastical, but highly moral, and with the particular shadings of fierce independence and bull-headed determination that flourishes in the United States. Titles, after all, are important.

They certainly nail the “American” part right away, opening on a family farm in Wisconsin in the early 1980s, where a father reads a story to his daughter while Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” commercial plays in the background. As that combination would suggest, times are tough, with small farmers struggling to fight off the banks and predatory land barons, with increasingly dire results. Indeed, the family of our hero will eventually turn to crime in an effort to buy their way out of the hole.

The “fable” part, on the other hand, is a longer walk. That father is reading tales of princesses and monsters to his daughter, Gitty, and while she is on the cusp of learning harder truths about the world, she still has a childlike attraction to the trappings of fairy tales. As she learns more about her family’s situation, she is inclined to view them through the lens of fantasy.

This isn’t a “Walter Mitty” scenario, though. Aside from a couple dream visions that portray one of her father’s associates as a fantastical witch queen, the elements of fable come through more as tropes played straight. A lonely farm girl with only a chicken for a friend, the discovery of a man in an abandoned tower, a handsome young man who is revealed to be thoroughly wicked: these would be perfectly at home in a Disney feature, but American Fable never winks at them.

The line this film walks is a tricky one. If you take the story seriously, then the plot immediately falls apart. If you insist that it’s merely an ancient tale transplanted to more recent times, then it’s lacking in any real mystery or magic. Director Hamilton tries to help her own script with a genuine knack for visuals. She has a painterly eye, artfully composing every shot and transforming rural Illinois (standing in for Wisconsin) into a setting worthy of the Impressionists. But her story tries to have it both ways, and never really succeeds at either.

Working in the film’s favor is uniformly strong acting, selling situations and characters that don’t hold up under close scrutiny. In particular, Schiff is expectedly reliable as a man by turns wistful and desperate about his circumstances. But the whole enterprise rests on the shoulders of Kennedy, who succeeds completely. Not an inexperienced actor (I encountered her previously in another weird setting as the irascible doctor on the educational quirkfest Odd Squad), she is completely believable, naïve but not stupid, reacting in the best way she knows how to situations beyond her understanding, and torn when she finds herself on both sides of a moral dilemma. American Fable ultimately doesn’t succeed as either the raw drama or the mystical metaphor that it wants to be. As a showcase for its director and star, however, it’s an outstanding calling card.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Anne Hamilton’s first feature as a writer/director… plays out in a landscape aching with beauty and color and strangeness, a vivid Eden about to disappear. Hamilton has created a surreal and magical atmosphere for this melodramatic family thriller, and it is the atmosphere that dominates.” – Sheila O’Malley, rogerebert.com

CAPSULE: KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE (1989)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Minami Takayama, Rei Sakuma, Kappei Yamaguchi; , , Matthew Lawrence (Disney English dub)

PLOT: As a rite of passage, a friendly 13-year old witch sets up a delivery service in a village.

Still from Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It doesn’t have quite the mania or kiddie surrealism of Miyazaki’s wilder works like Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away. We’re covering this one for the sake of Miyazki completeness.

COMMENTS: Kiki’s Delivery Service takes place in Anywhere, Europe—it might be in France, or Italy, or Austria—at a nonspecific time in the 20th century (there are automobiles, dirigibles, telephones, and black and white televisions, but no airplanes). In this alternate world, witches are real, and carry over some of the iconography of folklore, like flying broomsticks and black cat familiars. However, in Kiki, witches are accepted with none of the negative connotations of Häxan—they aren’t suspected of eating children by the light of the full moon. Rather “resident witches” act as public servants, one per town. According to the rules of witchcraft, smartly delivered in the film’s first twenty minutes or so, when a witch turns thirteen she leaves home and serves an apprenticeship. She has to find her own unique eldritch talent, which might be fortune telling, or potion brewing. Kiki’s quest to find out where she fits in this odd society is the engine of this coming-of-age tale (with a chaste, comical boyfriend subplot serving as bonus content).

Miyazaki, the son of an airplane manufacturing magnate whose extensive aviation-themed back catalog suggests he’s a frustrated pilot, creates some of his greatest flying scenes here. The freedom of the highly maneuverable broomstick allows him to “film” not only soaring green vistas, but vertigo-inducing shots from below and scenes of Kiki racing through traffic, levitating just inches above the pavement. The climax is a thrilling rescue as Kiki attempts to pilot an uncooperative broomstick, which keeps plunging when it’s supposed to hover. The excitement of the flying sequences helps win over boys who might be skeptical of a story revolving around a girl who sets up a small business.

I usually like, or am at least neutral about, Disney’s choice of dub actors, but I confess Kirsten Dunst’s voiceover was a little too bubble-gummy for me this time out. At least VO vet Phil Hartman, as the gently sarcastic cat Jiji (with just a touch of in his delivery), is excellent, stealing his scenes. Dunst’s performance is a minuscule nitpick anyway, and certainly nothing to overshadow Kiki‘s achievements as superior children’s entertainment. It’s not a transcendent example of its genre like Spirited Away, but Miyazaki’s craft and imagination never disappoint. Kiki delivers.

In 2017 Gkids got the rights to Disney’s Studio Ghibli catalog and began re-releasing the features on Blu-ray. This edition is almost identical to Disney’s 2014 Blu, right down to the extra features—but the one improvement that devoted anime fans will appreciate is the inclusion of an optional set of literal English subtitles, as opposed to Disney’s “dubtitles” (which often changed the original meaning slightly to make the story more accessible to Western audiences).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… top-drawer kiddie fare both for fans of the exotic and for mainstream family auds.”–Ken Eisner, Variety (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: COLOSSAL (2016)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis

PLOT: An alcoholic woman discovers that she unwittingly controls a giant monster who is attacking Seoul.

Still from Colossal (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The premise is strange, but the execution is not as bizarre as it might have been, tending more to light psychological drama.

COMMENTS: The two opening scenes of Colossal are well-matched. In the first, a Korean girl loses her doll in a park, only to find a giant gray monster looming over the skyscrapers of distant Seoul. 25 years later, a tipsy Gloria (Hathaway) meets her own personal disaster among the skyscrapers of New York City when her boyfriend kicks her out of their apartment and onto the streets after she shows up drunk again.

Two women, facing two monsters, which, the movie suggests, may really be the same thing: the Seoul-stomper is somehow connected to Gloria’s screwed-up life. After her world falls apart and she moves back to her quiet hometown, things go to hell as she takes a job in a bar run by old friend and would-be lover Oscar (Sudeikis). That Korean monster, spotted one night 25 years ago, starts appearing again in Seoul almost nightly, although it usually does little more than scratch its head and stumble around aimlessly. These appearances, which naturally go viral on CNN and social media, all seem to happen while Gloria is blacked out. Meanwhile, Gloria ups her drinking and finds herself a boy toy, a handsome younger man without much backbone. That development doesn’t please Oscar, who’s given her a job, TV, and a new suite of furniture in hopes of finally winning his childhood sweetheart.

After this setup, we expect the movie dive into a wacky kaiju/romantic comedy mashup, but things get darker, as the metaphor extends from the monster merely representing Gloria’s alcoholism to embrace co-dependency and abuse—it a conflation of all of her bad choices, along with some misfortunes that befall her through no fault of her own. The script lets the symbolism get away from it a little bit, and neither the mechanism through which the monster manifests itself, nor its origin story, nor its final disposition, quite live up to the cleverness of the original conceit. The movie has serious (if not colossal) tone problems: too many innocent Koreans are killed for it to be an effective comedy, but the premise is too ridiculous to generate the tension needed for action/horror thrills. Colossal does find a way forward, by staying so committed to its allegory that you keep watching just to figure out how it will all be resolved. Sudeikis provides another reason to tune in, as he turns out to be a powder keg with a secret of his own. Colossal had the potential to level much more real estate than it did—lover’s spats and millennial introspections outnumber kaiju battles by at least two-to-one—but you should still find a lot to enjoy lying about in the rubble.

Spain’s Nacho Vigalondo first burst onto the indie scene with the tightly-wound time travel bibelot Timecrimes. Since then, he’s been continuing to make smart movies with sci-fi/fantasy/horror themes, and someday may produce an oddity ready-make for the List of the Weirdest Films Ever Made. This isn’t it, however.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a unique and bizarre and surprising and original piece of filmmaking… From its weird little prologue to a nearly perfect ending, ‘Colossal’ is a trip in multiple meanings of that word.”–Richard Roeper, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)