Sunday, January 14, 2018

"The Shape of Water" is Amazing

Director Guillermo Del Toro has thrilled us with his visionary style and taken us to some incredible places in such acclaimed movies as The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labryinth, as well as the underrated Crimson Peak. Now he takes his artistry to a new level with his latest release, The Shape of Water. It’s a masterfully realized fantasy and a touching love story, featuring excellent performances by a top-notch cast. The film takes place in Baltimore in the early 1960s, during the height of the Cold War. The story centers on Elisa Esposito, who works as a custodian at a government facility. Elisa is mute, and communicates using sign language. She lives above a movie theatre and has two loyal friends: her neighbor Giles (with whom she shares meals and watches classic movies on TV) and her co-worker Zelda.

One day, an aquatic creature, which was captured in South America, is brought to the facility. The personnel there are studying the “monster” in order to gain an advantage over the Russians in the space race. One staff member, Colonel Strickland, abuses the creature on a daily basis, and sees it only as a means to an end.  Elisa is intrigued by this “monster,” and feels a strong kinship with it. Elisa tries to communicate with the creature, and befriend it. She starts bringing it meals, playing music for it, and teaching it sign language. The two form a close bond, and Elise decides to help the creature escape. That decision will change both of their lives (and the lives of Elisa’s friends) forever.

The cast is excellent. Sally Hawkins is a standout as Elise. She communicates all of Elise’s emotions; loneliness, passion, pain and ultimately joy, using mostly her eyes and her hands. It’s a luminous performance. She’s matched by an excellent supporting cast, including the incredible Richard Jenkins as Giles, and the wonderful Octavia Spencer as Zelda. Michael Shannon expertly enacts the villainous Colonel Strickland. Michael Stuhlbarg does a nice turn as a compassionate scientist who helps our heroes free the creature. Doug Jones, who’s the man inside the monster suit, does a superlative job portraying the creature. He’s done a great job playing monsters in other Del Toro projects (like Hellboy) but in this film he does some magnificent work. He imbues the character with such dignity and humanity that you can’t help but feel empathy for him.

The film also features a subtle message about tolerance and the acceptance of people’s (and other species) differences: Giles is a closeted gay man, and Zelda is an African-American woman. They’re two of the most positive and fully realized characters in the film. Del Toro doesn’t hit us over the head with a “message,” but you can’t help thinking about the time period in which these characters are living (the 1960s) and the things they had to endure from people like the violent and abusive Strickland, who essentially sees everyone else as being beneath him. It’s also a nice touch that the Giles character is an illustrator (like Del Toro) allowing us to see some of the story through his eyes. Giles also opens and closes the film with some marvelous narration, that truly sets the tone for this lovely, powerful and enchanting film.

The Shape of Water is part fairy tale, part love story and part monster movie. Del Toro (who has always felt a kinship with the monsters in stories like this) has stated that he was partly inspired to write the film based on his experience seeing Creature From The Black Lagoon as a child. He wondered why the monster didn’t get the girl. The movie plays to all of Del Toro’s strengths as a filmmaker. He and his technical crew have created a truly original look for the film. Of course, the fact that Elisa lives above a movie theatre allows Del Toro to compare the fantasy of the world of movies with the fantastical events taking place within his story. The Shape of Water is a lovely, emotional and powerful film. If you are partial to love stories, lyrical fantasies, and/or are a fan of Del Toro’s work, this is a must see. It’s hands down one of the best films of 2017. The movie features some astonishing, beautiful and brilliantly realized images that will stay with you long after the movie is over. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XFYWazblaUA.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Is "Jedi" A New Direction for the Saga?

When Star Wars: The Force Awakens opened in 2015, audiences warmly embraced the film as a return to form after the disappointing “prequel trilogy” which began with 1999’s Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Director J. J. Abrams managed to provide fans with a jumping off point for a thrilling new adventure set in the universe created by George Lucas, while also giving them some new characters and storylines. Now the second film in the post Star Wars: Return of the Jedi timeline, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, has been released, and while it’s been phenomenally successful at the box office, it’s also spawned some sharply divided opinions among fans and critics. Many have compared the film to Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (generally considered the best film in the series) while others have pointed out it’s an enjoyable, but flawed, entry in the ongoing saga.

The story picks up shortly after the end of the previous film, with the remaining rebels (led by General Leia) fighting bravely against the evil First Order. Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley) the heroine of The Force Awakens, has traveled to a distant world to find Luke Skywalker, who disappeared after trying (and failing) to train a new group of Jedi. One of those trainees, Kylo Ren, the son of Leia and Han Solo, has turned to the Dark Side, and become a leader in the First Order. He’s hunting down the rest of the rebels, and plans to obliterate them once and for all. Rey wants Luke to return to the fight, and help the rebels defeat the villains, and restore peace to the galaxy. By the way, I’m going to try to stay as spoiler free as I can for the rest of this piece.

We also catch up with several of the other characters from The Force Awakens, including former stormtrooper Finn, who’s now a part of the rebellion, and fighter pilot Poe Dameron, who clashes with Leia regarding strategy during their battles with the First Order.  Of course, the multiple storylines all converge toward the climax of the film, featuring the requisite space battle between the heroes and the villains, with the fate of our heroes (and the future of the Rebellion) at stake. The film is visually striking and features some nice performances, including Carrie Fisher as General Leia (in her final role) and Mark Hamill as an older, embittered Luke Skywalker.

The thing that has many fans buzzing is that the plot seems to ignore some major story elements established by Abrams in the first film, and the Star Wars saga as a whole.  The movie definitely subverts audience expectations more than once, and goes in some directions you don’t expect. There are some exciting sequences, as well as some nice nods to earlier films in the series. However, one subplot involving a visit to a casino slows down the middle of the film, and there’s one moment involving a major character that may give you pause. Ultimately, your own reaction to the film may vary, but the movie is well directed by Rian Johnson (Looper, Brick) who also wrote the screenplay. Johnson does take some risks with the the film, rather than playing it safe. The biggest question is: will Johnson’s take on the story be followed through when J.J. Abrams returns to co-write and direct the third chapter of this trilogy, Star Wars: Episode IX, slated for release in 2019. Only time will tell. Star Wars: The Last Jedi is currently in theaters. Here’s a link to the film's trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q0CbN8sfihY.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Two Series Seek Out "Star Trek's" Legacy

This week, please take a look at one of my recent pieces for Culture Sonar, the awesome arts and entertainment website where I also regularly share my thoughts on music and movies. This article is about two current science-fiction TV series that owe a great debt to the original Star Trek and its spinoffs; click on the link below the photo to access the article. You can also find my other work for the site by going to the main page (http://www.culturesonar.com) and using the search function. Thanks for reading, both here at Eclectic Avenue and over at Culture Sonar


The OrvilleDiscovery and the Spirit of Roddenberry
http://www.culturesonar.com/the-orville-star-trek-discovery/

Wishing my wonderful, loyal readers all the best for 2018!

Monday, December 18, 2017

Remembering the Talented Pat DiNizio

DiNizio (center) performing with The Smithereens in 2016
Since Pat DiNizio of The Smithereens passed away on December 12, songs like "Only A Memory" and "Top of The Pops" have been playing in heavy rotation on my iTunes, in my head, and most definitely in my heart. While we’ve suffered the loss of a number of musical icons over the last few years, this one caught me by surprise, and truly felt like a gut punch. DiNizio and the rest of The Smithereens are masters of that special type of power pop fueled rock and roll that could only be created by disciples of The Beatles, The Who and The Beach Boys, among other 1960s bands that influenced the style of DiNizio and his fellow New Jersey based rockers. A true rock/pop craftsman, DiNizio was equally adept at writing excellent rockers such as “A Girl Like You” and mournful tales of love and loss like “In A Lonely Place” which actually quoted dialogue from the Humphrey Bogart noir film whose title it borrowed. And those are only two examples of the amazing songs penned by DiNizio.

While The Smithereens had some mainstream success in the mid to late 1980s with hits like “Blood & Roses” and “Behind the Wall of Sleep,” the sound of grunge gradually took over MTV and the radio airwaves, and classic guitar based rock temporarily took a back seat to flannel shirted bands (though, ironically, Kurt Cobain was reportedly a huge fan of the band’s debut album, Especially For You). That didn’t deter DiNizio and his band mates from continuing to release excellent records like 11 and A Date With The Smithereens, which showcased DiNizios songwriting gifts and the band’s masterful musical chops. Their rocking sound was honed by years of playing in local bars and working as an opening for other touring bands. The Smithereens’s raucous live shows were always worth seeing, and the band retained a loyal following in the tri-state area. I count myself among those true fans. Not only did I see The Smithereens a number of times throughout the years, but I was lucky enough to meet them and tell them how much I enjoyed their work.

DiNizio also released several wonderful solo albums, starting with 1997’s Songs & Sounds, and did audaciously fun (and amazing) things like “The Living Room Tour” where he would actually perform at your house for you and your friends, hosted songwriting workshops and even tried out for a minor league baseball team. Through it all, he kept his sense of humor, his love of rock and roll and his dedication to his music, his band and their fans. The Smithereens continued to perform live, and released tribute albums to The Beatles and The Who, as well as their most recent disc of original material, 2011, which was one of their best. The band’s music never lost that straight-ahead garage rock sound, and like all great rock and roll, continues to sound fantastic as time goes on. It’s one thing pay tribute to your idols in your music, its quite another to create equally memorable songs of your own. Pat DiNizio and his bandmates managed to do just that for 30 plus years. Rest in peace, Pat. You will most definitely be missed. To paraphrase one of your lyrics, “we’re in a lonely place without you.”

Sunday, December 10, 2017

"Stoker" is Mysterious and Intriguing

Nicole Kidman & Matthew Goode in Stoker
The title family in the movie Stoker (2013) brings new depth to the term dysfunctional. When her beloved father dies in an accident on her 18th birthday, India Stoker is distraught. Tensions grow between India and her emotionally distant mother, Evelyn. Both women are surprised when her Uncle Charlie (who India has never met) comes to pay his respects. Charlie is handsome, good-looking and intelligent. But India is suspicious of him and the true reasons behind his visit. Charlie stays around after the funeral, and sets his sights on Evelyn. When India sees Charlie arguing with their housekeeper, who later disappears, it’s only the beginning of a mysterious and twisted series of events.

As Charlie and Evelyn grow closer, India becomes interested in Whip, a student at her school. Another relative visits, and attempts to warn the women about Charlie, with tragic results. Things aren’t what they seem for any of these characters. Charlie’s motives are far more devious than they appear on the surface, and the complex India may have some secrets of her own. The jumping off point for this intriguing film is the Alfred Hitchcock classic, Shadow of A Doubt (1943). In that tale, Joseph Cotten starred as another Uncle Charlie, who also visited his family, and whose easygoing demeanor hid a darker truth. In fact, this story’s Charlie is named in homage to Cotten’s character in that Hitchcock film. There’s also more than a touch of the movie The Bad Seed (1956) on display in the story here as well.

Mia Wasikowska (who played the title role Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, and was also featured in Guillermo Del Toro's Crimson Peak) is very good as India, finding just the right balance between innocence and sensuality. Matthew Goode is excellent as the smooth talking, devious Charlie. And Nicole Kidman is outstanding as Evelyn, who is initially drawn in by Charlie’s charming ways, but later terrified upon learning his true nature. The film is visually striking, with some startling images of beauty and horror, thanks to the fine work of cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon. The evocative score is by Clint Mansell, and there’s a great choice of songs used in the background of a couple of key scenes. The screenplay is by actor Wentworth Miller, who's best known for appearing in the TV series Prison BreakThe Flash and DC's Legends of Tomorrow. The film marked the American debut of Korean director Park Chan-wook, best known for The Vengeance Trilogy.

To say much more about this film would give away too many of its twists and turns. This is a fascinating and mysterious psychological thriller. If there’s any problem with the the movie, it’s that you may find it a little hard to sympathize with any of the characters. But that’s a minor quibble with this eerie, unusual tale. If you’re a fan of the TV series Bates Motel, American Horror Story or Twin Peaks, you’ll probably enjoy this offbeat film. The movie is well worth a look if you've run out of options on your Netflix, Hulu or DVR queues. Stoker is available on Blu-ray, DVD and for digital download. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MXaanQkzrXU.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

What Really Lurks Inside Room 237?

Have you ever been deeply enthusiastic about a movie, album or book? Maybe you’ve discussed it over and over with friends or fellow fans? Perhaps you've kept thinking about the true meanings of the images, words or music and endlessly considered its real meanings? Well, you’ve got nothing on the people featured in the film Room 237 (2012). This documentary features a group of Über-fans discussing their theories on the subtext of Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 version of Stephen King’s novel The Shining. While the movie wasn’t a huge success on its original release (and King wasn't very happy with Kubrick's version of his novel) the film has gone on to achieve classic status. It's now considered one of the best of it's genre by many fans and critics. But the Kubrick devotees featured in Room 237 think there’s a lot more lurking behind the doors of The Overlook Hotel than Jack Nicholson, ghostly bartenders, corridors of blood and creepy twin girls.

The movie features clips from The Shining and other Kubrick films. It's narrated by these "superfans" and admirers of the director, who remain off camera. They discuss their views and opinions on what they feel are the true themes of the movie. The Kubrick aficionados include Bill Blakemore, Juli Kearns and John Fell Ryan, among others. The theories they put forth about what Kubrick is really discussing beneath the surface include the massacre of Native Americans by the white man, the Holocaust and the possible faking of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Few filmmakers inspire as much intense debate and offbeat interpretations among their fans as Kubrick does, and this group is no exception. It’s fascinating to see what some viewers feel is the true message of this unsettling horror tale. 

To paraphrase one of the Kubrick admirers featured, “Even if my view isn’t what he intended to say with the film, does that make it any less valid?” We all bring our own histories, interests and feelings with us when we watch a movie, see a play, read a book, or listen to an album. My take on a piece of art may be very different from yours, but that doesn’t make it incorrect. While some of these ideas regarding the subtext of The Shining are pretty far out, one thing is for sure: these people are truly passionate about this movie, and Kubrick’s work as a whole. The film’s one drawback is that the same clips are used multiple times to illustrate the theories being discussed.

We’re all fans of something, be it the films of a celebrated director, the performances of an award-winning actor, the work of a beloved author, a specific TV show or film genre, or the music of our favorite bands. Most people don’t espouse theories quite as far out as the ones featured in Room 237, but on some level, we’ve all been deeply affected by our own personal favorites This film celebrates movie fans, movie analysis and movie love, and that’s a good thing. Room 237 was produced by Tim Kirk and directed by Rodney Ascher. It’s currently available on Blu-ray, DVD and for digital download & viewing. One final note that may be of interest to fans: In the original novel, the room number used by King was 217; Kubrick changed it to 237 for the film version. Here are links to the film’s trailers: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rOxukprEwjg & https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rHE5YUNkssQ.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Noir Alley: TCM Explores the Dark Side

This time out at Eclectic Avenue, I'd like to showcase another piece I wrote for the the excellent arts and entertainment website, Culture Sonar. I've been a member of their staff since February, and it's been a wonderful experience. The site has a truly talented collection of writers who cover all kinds of subjects across the pop culture spectrum. The site is located at http://www.culturesonar.com. Click on the link below to view my story about Noir Alley, the Sunday morning film series on Turner Classic Movies, hosted by Eddie Muller. You can take a look at the other articles I've written for the site by using the search function on the main page, and please do look around and check out some of the fantastic work by my fellow writers! Thanks for reading, and feel free to share!


http://www.culturesonar.com/noir-alley/