Tag Archives: film review

Film Review: “Wine Country” (2019)

IMHO, any film that has both Amy Poehler and Tina Fey in it is worthy of celebration. So, when I heard that Wine Country had both of them in it, and that it had been directed by Poehler, I was thrilled. I read the criticisms of the film that said that it didn’t land as firmly as some might have wished, but I decided to watch it anyway.

And I did not regret it. The film is full of humour, warmth, and girl-power. What else could you ask for?

The film follows a group of female friends as they reunite for a celebration of Rebecca’s (Rachel Dratch) birthday. Each of them has a bit of baggage–emotional and otherwise–that they’re not really dealing with, and this ultimately creates the very friction and negative emotions the weekend is supposed to ameliorate. Through the ups and downs of the weekend, however, they ultimately discover that the strength of their collective friendship gives them what they need to endure all that life throws at them.

There’s a warmth at the heart of Wine Country that is in woefully short supply these days, either in the real world or in popular culture. So much comedy (and virtually all drama) is deeply cynical and always laced with at least a trace amount of venom. And, of course, our politics is about as toxic as it is possible to be. In the film, however, it’s always clear that these women truly love one another, and it’s worth pointing out that, with the exception of Jason Schwartzman–who turns in a solidly funny performance–the women run the show. There is, thankfully, no soggy romance plot to wade through, and while there are no real surprises in the plot, there are many genuine laughs throughout the film.

Despite its rather formulaic plot, there are some notable surprises. For one thing, Poehler gets to play it (mostly) straight for most of the film, and there is a resonance to her plight (she’s lost her job) that plays as sincere. And, perhaps most surprisingly, it’s Rachel Dratch who threatens to steal the show. I’ve long felt that she was one of the most underappreciated female comedians of her generation, and it’s a welcome change to see a film finally shine a spotlight on her considerable talents.

The rest of the cast is uniformly good, of course. You can always count on both Ana Gasteyer and Maya Rudolph can always be counted on; indeed, their feuding is one of the film’s central conflicts and its contours and resolution read as eminently believable. And both Emily Spivey (as Jenny, a shut-in with anxiety issues) and Paula Pell (as the lascivious and bawdy lesbian Val) delivered some of the downright funniest lines in the film. Of course, no review would be complete without mentioning Tina Fey who, like Poehler, turns in a relatively restrained and straight performance as Tammy, the owner of the bed and breakfast the women are staying in.

For me, the bottom line is that this is still a film about a group of women and their contentious but deeply-rooted friendship and love for one another. To my mind, the lukewarm critical reception the film has received revels a great deal about how we view women in comedy. Rather than embracing it as simply a good, simple comedy, there seems to be the sense that we can’t allow these women to just be ordinary. Once again, it seems to me, women are asked to bear the burden of what we as audiences and critics think they should be rather than what they are trying to be. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Ghostbusters, which suffered similarly lukewarm reviews because, I’m convinced, critics just weren’t willing to give it any slack.

So, while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Wine Country is a great film, it is a good film, with solid acting and solid writing. When the end credits roll, you feel good about the world and about what women can do when they embrace their collective strength in one another.

And sometimes, in my opinion, that’s good enough.

Film Review: “The Shape of Water” (2017) and Subversive Desire

Spoilers Ahead

I’ve been a fan of Guillermo del Toro’s work ever since I saw Pan’s Labyrinth as an undergraduate. Though I haven’t kept up with him as much as I should have, I decided that, when The Shape of Water came out, I was going to go see it. After all, it was set in the Cold War, and was clearly an homage to The Creature from the Black Lagoon, one of that era’s most iconic horror films.

I was not disappointed.

Set during the height of the Cold War, The Shape of Water is essentially the story of how Eliza (Sally Hawkins) falls in love with a creature dragged back from the Amazon by Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). Secondarily, the film also deals with the personal lives of Eliza’s friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and Giles (Richard Jenkins), as well as Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg).

As its base, the film is very much about the power of desire to liberate us from the shackles of bourgeois society and its ability to drain the joy from life. In that sense, it’s no accident that the film is set during the Cold War, that most perilous and oppressive of eras, when desire had not only social but grave political consequences. The film rips away the traditional (and irritatingly long-lived) cultural mythology that paints the period as one of dutiful wives and manly husbands, showing us the darker side of this ideology. Shannon’s Strickland is a Cold Warrior of the worst type, his mouth compressed into a grim line, his face bearing the grim imprint of his own pathological repression.

For Eliza, the power of desire lies in its ability to connect her to a being that may not be fully human (though the film also asks us to think about what that designation means). Unlike everyone else in her world, who sees her as just slightly less than human because of her muteness, the creature embraces her difference, desire providing the bridge between them. Indeed, desire in this film seems to exist in space beyond language, a challenge to the limits and the walls that we erect around ourselves.

There is, then, an irony in the title. For just as water always threatens to spill out of its bounds–it is fluid, after all–so desire always threatens to subvert the containers that we erect to contain and channel it. Though some might recoil at the idea that a human woman could find romantic (and sexual!) fulfillment with a man of another species, the film seems to take this particular fact in stride. It feels perfectly natural that Eliza should at last find her happiness with a creature that is as much a victim of the ruthless Cold War ethos as he is the characters’ anthropocentrism.

The Shape of Water repeatedly reminds us of the dangers of erecting walls around how we are supposed to feel, while also shedding a piercing light on the violence and hypocrisy undergirding Cold War America. From Strickland’s rotting fingers (they are bitten off by the creature but sewn back on and rejected by his body) to the empty friendliness of a pie shop clerk who spurns Giles’ advances (as well as a black couple that come in for a piece of pie), this is a Cold War America revealed in all of its artificial brutality. In this world, difference is to be shunned or destroyed and justice, peace, and beauty are (seemingly) doomed.

In the end, though, The Shape of Water is an optimistic film, and it is determined to see beauty and love win out in the end. It’s this sentiment, trite as it may sound, that makes this such a resonant film in our current world. While it’s sometimes very easy to lose sight of the pleasures of desire and the sheer joy of love, this film shows us what that can feel like. It may not be del Toro’s most adventurous film–though it is lovingly crafted, with some exquisite play with shades of green and blue–it is arguably one of his most optimistic.

As a completely useless (I think) aside: I really appreciated the brief snippets of the epic film The Story of Ruth, which I’ve always felt was a vastly unappreciated epic film (and one of the only ones in the latter part of the postwar cycle that actually focused on a woman). It is worth pointing out, though, that reviews of the time particularly praised Elana Eden’s portrayal of the biblical character for its dignity, restraint, and strength, so in that sense the film does serve as a fitting reference point for Hawkins’s Eliza.

All in all, a truly fine film.

Film Review: “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” Reveals a Broken America

For quite a while after I watched Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, I couldn’t quite figure out how I felt about this bleak, scathing, deeply violent, and acidly funny film. It wasn’t until I was chatting with my partner about it, that it finally dawned on me. What was this movie about, really? Sure, it’s about a grief-stricken mother’s desire for justice for her murdered daughter, but to me there seemed more to it, some greater comment that the film was making (whether wittingly or unwittingly remains unclear).

It’s about the brokenness that’s slowly rotting away at the center of America.

To fully understand how I came to this conclusion, it’s important to both know what happens in the film and how it happens. Three Billboards details Mildred Hayes’ (Frances McDormand’s) pursuit of justice for her daughter, who was raped, murdered, and burned. She particularly blames the police chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), who happens to be suffering from pancreatic cancer. Her crusade enrages officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a policeman who has already fallen under suspicion because of accusations that he tortured a black suspect in his custody. As this drama unfolds, we get a tortured, razor-sharp glance into the despair that seems to have set in in this small town in Missouri.

There’s something almost of a Greek tragedy about McDormand’s relentless desire to avenge her daughter. A modern-day Clytemnestra, her daughter’s brutal murder has forged her into a formidable weapon, one that has one destination that she is determined to reach no matter the cost. As capable as she is, however, she has her own prejudices, ones that, I would argue, are built into the privileged position she occupies as a white woman in Missouri. She throws out epithets with a careless abandon that are almost breathtaking in their effrontery, as when she torments Jason with the “n-word,” calls a fellow townsperson a midget (he’s played by Peter Dinklage, whose enormous talents are rather wasted in this role, alas), and she insults the dentist for his fatness. She’s a character so broken that she doesn’t even bother to hide her contempt for those who occupy a lower social strata than she does. The fact that she has black friends doesn’t keep her from using what is arguably the harshest racial slur there is when it suits her. And it also doesn’t keep her from being crude toward her only suitor in the film, whom she casually dismisses when it suits her and uses him in other cases.

Indeed, Ebbing is a town full of broken people. The houses cling to the hills, and the people are beaten down. To some extent, this film has something distinctly noir-ish about it, the sense that there really is no right or wrong, just a bunch of sad folks shuffling through life trying to grab what little bits of meaning they can. For Mildred this is seeking her daughter’s killer, for Willoughby it’s trying to find the killer and enjoy the last bit of time has with his family before his cancer takes him, and for Jason…well, I guess it takes the form of his desire to be a good cop. Whatever that’s supposed to mean.

The film takes great pains to show how truly pathetic Jason is–a 40-something man who lives with his worn-out mother, whose only calling has been as a policeman. Rockwell imbues Jason with a certain ignorant belligerence, the sort of guy who got along well enough in high school but pretty much knew that he wasn’t going to ever leave his hometown. He’s fiercely loyal to his police chief, but I for one found him to be the most infuriating type of character. The film tries to grant him some sort of nobility, but I was left unconvinced.

Harrelson, however, does do a fine job portraying Bill, bringing his characteristic charm. I’ve always been a fan of the sort of careless charisma that Harrelson seems to exude. He’s crude, yes, but also intensely loving and, yes, noble. Of all the characters, he is perhaps the most likable, but he too is broken, his body inevitably failing him. The fact that he cannot solve the film’s central case renders his life tragic.

Three Billboards does possess a certain beauty to it, though, and it contains a number of scenes showing the rugged beauty of the landscape. As I was watching, I kept feeling the unsettling tug of familiarity. These could be people that I had known and grown up with. Part of this, I suspect, stems from the fact that the film was shot in the Appalachian parts of North Carolina, which bear more than a passing resemblance to my own home of West Virginia. Perhaps that’s why I felt (and still feel) a profound ambivalence about the film.

As I think about it, I continue to be perplexed by the film’s seeming agnosticism regarding Jason’s torturing of a black man in police custody. The film clearly has a fondness for even its most reprehensible characters–the redemptive arc it grants to Jason is particularly galling, especially in this political climate–and this leaves a distinctly bitter taste in my mouth.

If the film succeeds at anything, though, it is in showing us the bleak despair that has settled like a miasma into the heart of American consciousness. What we are supposed to do with that realization, however, remains unclear.