Michael Stuhlbarg

Shirley

06/11/20

Curzon Home Cinema

The Shirley of the title is, of course, Shirley Jackson, the much lauded author of short horror stories and novels, now back in the public consciousness after the recent success of Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House.

As portrayed by Elisabeth Moss, the author is a bundle of neuroses, afflicted by agoraphobia, alcoholism and a seeming inability to stop smoking for more than ten seconds at a time. It’s the 1960s and Jackson is living with her pompous and manipulative university lecturer husband, Stanley (Michael Stulhbarg, brilliantly insufferable). She’s also struggling to rediscover her writing mojo.

And then along comes Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman), an aspiring junior professor and his pregnant wife, Rose (Odessa Young). Fred is seeking Stanley’s endorsement for a post at his college in Vermont and the young couple have been invited to live in the rambling family home. This initially seems appealing, but the upshot is that poor Rose finds herself cast as a kind of housekeeper, cooking meals and cleaning up around the place, while her husband throws himself headlong into the world of academia, (which seems to mean throwing himself at some of his young female students into the bargain.)

Rose also finds herself fascinated and disturbed in equal measure by Shirley’s writing, and it isn’t long before she’s become some kind of muse to the older woman. As their relationship deepens, it initiates changes in Rose’s persona and prompts her to look more deeply into the ‘based-on-true-life’ story that Shirley is currently working on…

This is a complex piece that takes its own sweet time to set out its stall and, in the process, it manages to create a convincing and suffocating world that is shot through with toxic domesticity. However, though it occasionally seems to hint at revelations hovering just out of our reach, it never seems to quite deliver them. This is a shame, but there are compensations, not least the performances, which are all accomplished.

Moss gets the showier role, portraying a character who can be as sweet as apple pie one moment and spitting venom the next, but it’s arguably Young who has the most difficult part, showing Rose’s gradual transition from a glamorous, passionate young woman into the twitchy, nervy receptacle of all of Shirley’s insecurities.

Based on a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell and adapted by Sarah Gubbins, the plot also seems to take a few liberties with the truth, but – when the main subject is a writer of fiction – perhaps this is excusable. In many ways, the film reminds me of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, another story where an older university lecturer and his alcoholic wife leech all of the life out of a younger, more optimistic couple.

Shirley may not quite add up to a perfect movie, but its nonetheless worth your attention, if only to relish those fine performances.

3.7 stars

Philip Caveney

The Shape of Water

30/01/18

The release of a Guillermo del Toro movie is generally a cause for some excitement, but The Shape of Water arrives in the UK already garlanded with 13 Oscar nominations – this year’s most nominated film. It’s an unusual state of affairs because fantasy movies rarely get much of a look in at the Academy Awards, apart from the occasional grudging nod for special effects and cinematography. It doesn’t take long, however, to appreciate how this film has managed to garner so much acclaim. It’s a gorgeous, multi-faceted allegory that isn’t adverse to taking risks – The Creature From the Black Lagoon dancing in a Busby Berkeley routine? Hey, no problem!

To my mind, there are actually two del Toros out there – the one that creates eerie fairytale fantasies like Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone, and the one that offers us the likes of Pacific Rim, where giant robots punch colossal lizards repeatedly in the head until (eventually) they die. Take a wild guess as to which del Toro I personally favour! I’m glad to report that The Shape of Water falls squarely into the former category.

We’re in Baltimore in 1962 at the height of the Cold War. Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a reclusive mute woman, works as a cleaner in a high security government laboratory, alongside her supportive friend, Zelda (Octavia Spencer). When a mysterious new life form – simply referred to as ‘The Asset’, arrives for safekeeping – it is accompanied by its keeper, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon, excelling in what must be his most repellant role to date). It turns out that the lab’s new addition is some kind of amphibious man, captured in the jungles of South America, where he is worshipped as a god – and it soon becomes clear that Strickland’s job is less to find out about this new acquisition than to make sure the Russians never do. Resident scientist, Dr Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), is interested in studying the creature, but the American military seems determined to view it as a suitable candidate for vivisection. Meanwhile, Elisa is beginning to establish a strange and deepening friendship with it…

The outline of the story itself may sound vaguely ridiculous, but it simply cannot prepare you for how utterly compelling del Toro’s film is. It’s a multi-layered affair, beautifully shot and cleverly scripted. Elisa is an outcast, watching from the edges of society, and her best friend Giles (Richard Jenkins), a graphic designer, is in a similar position, exiled from his regular place of work because he is secretly gay. The claustrophobic atmosphere of the early sixties is brilliantly conveyed. All-American diners seem friendly as they sell their day-glo green pies, but won’t allow black people to eat alongside their white customers. The old-fashioned cinema above which Elisa and Giles live plays to nearly empty houses every night because of the growing power of television, and yet every TV screen we see displays a series of classic movie comedies and sumptuous musicals. The Asset too is an outcast, a creature that doesn’t belong in this blinkered, paranoid world. Little wonder then, that both Elisa and Giles fall under his spell.

I cannot recommend this film highly enough. Every frame of it bursts with creativity, the performances are exemplary (special mentions should go to Hawkins – who manages to convey so much without the luxury of words, and to del Toro regular, Doug Jones – who makes us care deeply about his scaly bug-eyed character and about what will ultimately happen to him).

I appreciate that not everybody is going to love this as much as I do. It requires an almost total suspension of disbelief; this is in no way a realistic film. It’s a fantasy that deals in archetypes, a contemporary reworking of a tale that could have bled from the pens of the Brothers Grimm, juxtaposing scenes of beguiling sweetness with ones of graphic violence. I watch it spellbound. I had thought that del Toro couldn’t possibly improve on Pan’s Labyrinth, but you know what? I rather think he has.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Call Me By Your Name

08/11/17

This slow, languorous, coming-of-age film by Luca Guadagnino has been stirring up some Oscar buzz recently, but it’s been a hard film to view with only one showing a day at the multiplexes – and even that in the morning! It’s easy enough to appreciate why it isn’t considered a ‘bums on seats’ vehicle – weighing in at two hours and twelve minutes, it certainly takes its own sweet time to play out and with not an awful lot in the way of storyline, it was never going to drag in the superhero crowd – but it recounts a tale of a young boy coming to terms with his own burgeoning sexuality, eloquently and without sensationalism. And that’s surely something worth supporting.

Set in Northern Italy in 1983, this is the story of seventeen year old Elio Perlman (Timothy Chalamet), a talented young musician who leads a very privileged existence in the country house belonging to his parents, a Professor of Classical Antiquity (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his wife, Annella (Amira Casar). With a cook and a gardener to cater for their every whim, there isn’t much to do to pass the time but lounge indolently around in the sunshine, eating, drinking, reading books and occasionally splashing about in a whole host of watery locations. Things change dramatically, however, when young and impossibly handsome American research assistant, Oliver (Armie Hammer) arrives at the house for a six week stay. At first, Elio finds the newcomer brash and arrogant, (and so do I, come to think of it) but as the barriers gradually start to come down, the two young men bond over their shared Jewish heritage and their love of music – and it isn’t very long before Elio realises he is falling hopelessly and wretchedly in love with Oliver…

That’s pretty much it as far as story goes, but there’s plenty here to enjoy, not least the ravishing cinematography that will have you pining for a long summer holiday in Italy. Chalamet is clearly something of a find, managing to convincingly demonstrate all of Elio’s doubts and fears, while Armie Hammer has clearly come a very long way since The Lone Ranger. A concluding speech by Stuhlbarg’s character felt a little overcooked, but I was nonetheless glad it was there, because here was a parent being completely non-judgemental about the sexuality of his son, which is a pretty rare, but very welcome thing to witness in a film.

There probably isn’t a great deal more to say about this, except perhaps, that in these short-attention-span times, films like this don’t often see the light of day – and if cinema chains won’t offer people enough opportunities to see them, they certainly aren’t going to survive for very much longer. If this comes to a screen near you, do take the opportunity to see it. It’s really rather charming.

And as for that Oscar buzz? Well, we’ll see in the fullness of time. It’ll be rather ironic if it wins something – a film that hardly anyone got the chance to see.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Trumbo

STILL-01STILL-02

16/02/16

Despite a couple of well-deserved Oscar nominations, Trumbo didn’t trouble the multiplexes for very long at all – perhaps it was a tad too political to draw in the crowds, even with Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston in the lead role, but you can still catch it on the big screen at independent cinemas (it’s showing at Home, Manchester until the 23rd Feb.) It’s essentially a biopic of screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo and if the name doesn’t mean an awful lot to you, certainly some of the movies he wrote will – Roman Holiday, anyone? Spartacus? Exodus? 

The film begins in the late 1940s, when Trumbo is one of the most respected and successful screenwriters in the Hollywood cannon. He is also, like many of his friends,  a member of the Communist Party. As the ‘House of Un-American Activities Committee comes into being, such people are increasingly regarded with hostility and suspicion. They are seen by many as the ‘communist threat,’ secretly planning to overthrow the USA. Such suspicions are further fuelled by the scurrilous (and openly racist) rants of Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hoppa (played here with venomous relish by Helen Mirren.) Trumbo is the man with the guts to stand up to the committee and for his pains is imprisoned for several years, even though he hasn’t actually broken any laws. On his release, his career in tatters, he’s  obliged to ghostwrite cheap movies for the unscrupulous producer Frank King (John Goodman) for a fraction of his former salary. He goes on to create similar opportunities for his other friends who have been similarly shafted, in each case ascribing authorship to a non-existent screenwriter. But when one of his films, The Brave One, is nominated for an Oscar, it’s clear that something has to change…

Biopics are tricky creatures, but Director Hal Roach does a good job with this one, aided no end by a scorching performance by Cranston  – his chain-smoking, wisecracking personification of the great man never fails to entertain, even as it informs. Roach has also made a decent fist of casting actors to play movie icons – Michael Stuhlbarg is terrific as Edward G. Robinson and Dean O Gorman’s turn as the young Kirk Douglas is extraordinary – just check out the sequences from Spartacus where he interacts on screen with Woody Strode – you literally cannot see the joins.

More importantly, perhaps, Trumbo takes a cold hard look at one of the most shameful eras in American history – and with the irresistible rise of Donald Trump to provide contemporary resonance, its message has never been more timely. Do take the opportunity to see this film, it’s really is worth the effort.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney