The Shape of Water (2017)

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I would say take care of your teeth and fuck a lot more. Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute, isolated woman who works as a cleaning lady in a hidden, high-security top secret government research laboratory in 1962 Baltimore. Her life changes when she discovers the lab’s classified asset – a mysterious, scaled amphibian creature (Doug Jones) from South America that lives in a water tank. As Elisa develops a unique bond with her new friend, she soon learns that its fate and very survival lies in the hands of a hostile and violently sadistic government agent Strickland (Michael Shannon) and a marine biologist Dimitri (Michael Stuhlbarg) who is actually a Russian spy. With the help of her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and her next door neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) a gay out of work commercial illustrator, she finds a way to save him and alter her own reality … It all seems so very unlikely – plagiarism suits notwithstanding – Guillermo Del Toro’s homage to his 50s childhood fave, Creature from the Black Lagoon. However this moves like the clappers with just enough time for the very mannered Hawkins to find an appropriate character to suit her mobile features. Tonally it sits somewhere amid the work of Jean-Pierre Jeunet with added masturbation and violence, and the creature – except for one appalling scene which as a cat-lover I can’t even bring myself to recall – is remarkably sympathetic. You might call it a politically correct fairytale about interracial sex (it’s a pretty crass allegory) for the snowflake generation – me, I liked it anywho because it portrays a yearning and an empathy that is very appealing and well played. Co-written with Vanessa Taylor.

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The Invasion (2007)

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Civilisation crumbles whenever we need it most. In the right situation, we are all capable of the most terrible crimes. To imagine a world where this was not so, where every crisis did not result in new atrocities, where every newspaper is not full of war and violence. Well, this is to imagine a world where human beings cease to be human.  In Washington, D.C. psychologist Dr. Carol Bennell (Nicole Kidman) and her colleague Dr. Ben Driscoll (Daniel Craig) are the only two people who are aware of an epidemic running rampant through the city. They discover an alien virus aboard a space shuttle that crashed during an unscheduled landing attempt that transforms anyone who comes into contact with it into unfeeling drones while they sleep. The government is calling it a flu virus. Carol realises her son Oliver’s (Jackson Bond) immune system holds the key to stopping the spread of the plague and she races to find him before it is too late but his father, politician ex-husband Tucker Kaufman (Jeremy Northam) has taken him out of state … The late great Jack Finney wrote some indelible sci fi that could be used to anatomise and exemplify social forces – so The Body Snatchers has had meaning for generation after generation, commencing with its first (quite brilliant) movie adaptation Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This is the fourth effort and its muddled birth in some ways tarnished its critical reputation.  Written variously by David Kajganich and the uncredited Wachowski brothers/sisters and directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel with uncredited reshoots by James McTeigue, the original story’s clarity is both lost and highlighted in its city setting:  the quick slide into conformity is more obvious than in the 1956 classic simply because there are so many more people whose transformation is visible on the streets.  The central irony – that a woman controlling her patients’ minds and feelings with pharmaceuticals is now objecting to a world in which by the icky expedient of vomiting on someone’s face or into their coffee (nice) everyone can live in peace minus their individuality or expressivity – is straightforwardly verbalised by Carol’s ex. But the quick running time and the conclusion – collective amnesia, luckily administered Governmentally with yet another vaccine – means the bigger picture of mind control by Big Pharma and Bigger Government (a nasty coinciding of socio-financial interests since, oh, the 1990s?) is sort of lost in a mish-mash of action with awkward acting compounding the stiff plotting. There is one really silly flash forward. Metaphor? Metonymy? How would I know? I am on Day 30 of Aussie flu and can’t get a shot to save my sniffles. But if I said I was depressed they’d be racing to inoculate, n’est-ce pas???…!!! Uneven, but relevant.

 

The Goddess (1958)

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Portrait of a Young Girl:  Innocent fatherless little Patty Duke grows up in the South with a hate-filled single mother (Betty Lou Holland) to become busty Kim Stanley whose lonely life is transformed when she becomes America’s screen love goddess. Ah, Hollywood. Every actor’s story is a morality tale, ain’t it. It is widely assumed that despite its superficial origins in Ava Gardner’s life, this was about Marilyn Monroe. Monroe was already a legend in the mid 1950s when Paddy Chayefsky decided to write her up as an allegory of stardom, or perhaps a cautionary tale. She’d been mocked in George Axelrod’s long-running Broadway satire, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? where ‘she’ was played by Jayne Mansfield (she of the genius IQ – for real) there and in the screen version as ‘Rita.’  Monroe had acted in the screen adaptation of Axelrod’s play The Seven Year Itch. Then a clever dick journalist wrote a book about her, Will Acting Spoil Marilyn Monroe? because, you know, she was just a dumb blonde, not an actress playing one (in just two films, actually). The big irony was in hiring first-timer Stanley (born Patricia Reid), the renowned stage actress, who was at the Actors Studio at the same time as Monroe, to play Marilyn – here she’s called Emily Ann and her name is changed to Rita Shawn for her Hollywood career. Stanley had been the lead on stage in Bus Stop, which Marilyn produced as a film under her own banner:  not so dumb. Stanley was no beauty and wouldn’t have been able to carry the film. Monroe’s sister in law, Joan Copeland, plays Emily Ann’s aunt here. Monroe’s then husband (and Copeland’s brother), Arthur Miller, thought Monroe should sue over this production (which didn’t stop him from being quids in on several occasions himself).  Portrait of a Young Woman: She marries young to a soldier whose character seems to have been ascribed certain aspects of Monroe’s family history of mental illness. The rumour that Monroe herself occasionally spread that she’d had a baby as a teenager is dramatised but as a legitimate but unwanted product of this unwise marriage – Mom is left holding the baby for a spell before the divorce comes through and the father gets the child. Later she’s married to a boxing promoter – played by Lloyd Bridges, which yields a nice meta reference:  in This Year’s Blonde, 25 years later, the Moviola segment about her in the Garson Kanin TVM adaptation, Bridges plays Johnny Hyde, the agent with whom Marilyn lived on and off for two years while he tried to build up her screen career. Portrait of a Goddess:  Installed in Hollywood, friendless Emily Ann/Rita’s had a nervous breakdown and delayed a film and her now deranged religious fanatic mom comes to visit and her daughter wishes her dead. The film concludes in very downbeat fashion following the mother’s funeral when the loneliest star in the world only has her entourage for company and a secretary tending to her.  There is not a laugh to be had and Stanley decried the way the film was edited, draining all humour from the work in which she was in any case obviously miscast. Chayefsky’s screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award. Blacklisted John Cromwell directed this major production, his last time in Hollywood after a seven-year block on his career. One can only shudder at the creative licence so many men took in interpreting their distressing version of Hollywood’s greatest legend in her lifetime, short as it would be: her first husband describes 1957 as “this year of suicide and insanity.” They wanted to illustrate the dark side of the American dream. Those ugly men got their revenge on all the uppity women who abhorred them, didn’t they. Ironically, for all her acting skill, Stanley herself had a major mental breakdown when critics in London trashed her performance in an Actors Studio production of The Three Sisters in 1965 and retired from the stage for good. There really are no happy endings.

 

 

Runaway Bride (1999)

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Julia Roberts famously did a runner from her fiance Kiefer Sutherland on the eve of their wedding a quarter of a century ago; it became part of what theorists call her star text and was wrapped into this delightful romcom, reuniting her with her Pretty Woman director Garry Marshall and co-star Richard Gere. He’s jaded NYC journo Ike who always files at the last minute and his attention has been drawn to a smalltown woman Maggie Carpenter working as a lighting designer who jilts men at the altar:  when he runs the convenient unresearched story he exaggerates the facts so she complains, his ex-wife editor Rita Wilson fires him and the photographer Hector Elizondo (a Marshall staple) encourages him to dig up the real dirt. Upon his arrival in smalltown Maryland her friends are protective and the hairdresser Peggy Fleming (‘not the ice skater!’) (Joan Cusack) together with Julia gives him a pastiche of the Pretty Woman makeover – only with red dye in his hair not his apparel. Her dad Paul Dooley (how nice is it to see him?) unwittingly aids his research by giving him the VHSs of the three weddings she ran out on but slowly Ike falls for her as he prepares to write the truth and she prepares for her wedding to mountaineering enthusiast Bob (Christopher Meloni). She runs out on Bob and Ike proposes and then she runs out on HIM …  She turns up at his apartment in NYC and explains … This seems like it was made for the cast but in fact is a screenplay by Josann (Three Men and a Little Lady) McGibbon and Sara Parriott that had been in development for more than ten years with so many different actors attached it would make your eyes water:  Anjelica Huston, Mary Steenburgen, Lorraine Bracco, Geena Davis, Sandra Bullock, Ellen DeGeneres, Tea Leoni … Christopher Walken, Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Michael Douglas … And yet Roberts and Gere with Marshall in the hot seat is a combo just seems so obvious and right. McGibbon and Parriott would go on to adapt Gigi Levangie’s brilliant Hollywood satire The Starter Wife for TV (with Debra Messing in the lead) but for now this is light as a summer breeze and quite as refreshing.