Review of reviews: Film & Music
The Shape of Water
Directed by Guillermo del Toro (R)
A woman learns to love a monster.
Not since Pan’s Labyrinth has Guillermo del Toro created such a “weird and wonderful” movie, said Chris Nashawaty in Entertainment Weekly. As it did in that dark fantasy, “a childlike sense of wonder” pervades the director’s new adult fairy tale about a mute cleaning lady who falls in love with a fishlike creature imprisoned at the government lab where she works. Set in Cold War–era Baltimore, it’s a bizarre tale, but it’s also “poignant, funny, romantic, and flat-out breathtaking in its shoot-the-moon ambition.” Sally Hawkins’ powerful lead turn “reminds us how intense silent films could be,” said Joe Morgenstern in The Wall Street Journal. Without speaking, she delivers the year’s best screen performance, while Michael Shannon—as a boss bent on vivisecting the fish- man—elevates villainy “pretty close to high art.” At times, the movie’s allegorical allusions to mid-century America’s prejudices are overplayed, said Dana Stevens in Slate.com. Still, del Toro has created “such a sumptuous visual world” that “it’s impossible to take your eyes off the screen.” The final shot—of the lovers embracing underwater— will “send you out of the theater floating.”
The Disaster Artist
Directed by James Franco (R)
The making of a movie so bad it’s good
“While mediocrities are a dime a dozen, a genuine, off-thecharts fiasco is something to cherish,” said Justin Chang in the Los Angeles Times. James Franco has found one in the 2003 independent film that inspired his own new feature, a “shrewd, affectionate, and squirmingly funny” portrait of a do-it-yourself director. Tommy Wiseau was a long-haired, talentless nobody when he cast himself as the star of The Room, a movie of such “transcendent, Olympian awfulness” that it attracted an enduring cult audience. By casting himself as Wiseau here, Franco “has hit a kind of meta-moviemaking sweet spot.” His making-of scenes score plenty of laughs— “albeit fewer than you’ll find at an actual screening of The Room,” said Michael O’Sullivan in The Washington Post. Franco replicates Wiseau’s demented laugh and garbled speech “with poker-faced glee.” But he leaves us with a big unanswered question: Is Wiseau delusional or did he make a terrible film on purpose? Franco gently mocks him, said Scott Tobias in NPR.org, but having undertaken a few ambitious but misguided ventures of his own in recent years, he clearly respects Wiseau’s capacity to pursue his passions despite the naysayers. “In that respect, Wiseau isn’t a case study. He’s a kindred spirit.”
From a Room: Volume 2
It’s no mystery why so many country fans have embraced Chris Stapleton’s music, said Jewly Hight in NPR.org. “There’s no clutter to it, nothing to hide behind, nothing competing with the furnace-blast force of Stapleton’s belting.” The 39-year-old singer’s reliance on a small band and his resistance to beat-driven pop-country showcase his songwriting gifts, and on his second nine-track release this year, the Kentucky native again plays an appealingly tortured soul, one who sabotages all that’s good in his life. But here he’s also singing about meaningful relationships, and the focus on others “lends greater emotional weight to his entire body of work.” Stapleton has also found a way to better mix traditional country with Southern soul, said Walter Tunis in the Lexington, Ky., Herald-Leader. That “plays out brilliantly” on the last four tracks, starting with “A Simple Song,” a whispery parable of faith. For the finale, he imbues Pop Staples’ “Friendship” with “a rural, rustic R&B charm” that recalls the Band.
Björk’s 10th album is a rare beast, “both resolutely avant-garde and absolutely beautiful,” said Terence Cawley in The Boston Globe. Emerging from the dark place she explored in a post-divorce 2015 album, the Icelandic singer and producer “wastes no time rededicating herself to the pursuit of rapture.” From its first moment, Utopia uses harps, birdsong, and a 12-woman flute ensemble to evoke joy and optimism, and the result is “a triumph on all counts.” On first listen, the 71-minute work is “as forbidding a record as any Björk has made,” said Mikael Wood in the Los Angeles Times. Her vocal melodies “seem to meander almost arbitrarily,” while the skittering electronic beats woven into the music refuse to establish regular rhythms. “Keep listening, though—keep putting in the effort of your attention—and Utopia slowly reveals itself.” Björk’s lyrics are “among her most intimate and affecting,” and the song cycle effectively dramatizes her recovery from trauma and her vision of a more heavenly way to live.
Songs of Experience
“Our planet is on fire, so thank goodness Bono is here to smother the flames with a new collection of crossstitched pillows,” said Chris Richards in The Washington Post. On U2’s first album in three years, the singer and his mates answer the geopolitical crises of 2017 with “perversely” optimistic bromides about love’s healing power. And as thin as the lyrics are, “the music sounds even thinner.” For three-plus decades, “U2 has proved itself capable of achieving a monumental sound with incredible economy,” but here the Edge’s guitar solos sound like imitations of the real thing. That said, Songs of Experience “has moments of grandeur,” said David Sackllah in ConsequenceOfSound.net. “The Little Things That Give You Away” is the band’s best song in more than a decade, a slyly majestic ballad that shows what the lads can still do when they build from a truly personal place. Unfortunately, they keep trying to heal the world with would-be arena anthems, and “the triumphs are few and far between.” ■