Josephine Decker’s ‘Shirley’ Presents Elisabeth Moss as Shirley Jackson in Her Latest Acting Tour de Force

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CREDIT: NEON

Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, Odessa Young, Logan Lerman

Director: Josephine Decker

Running Time: 107 Minutes

Rating: R for Acid Tongues and Sexual Encounters in Multiple Directions

Release Date: June 5, 2020 (Hulu, On Demand, and Drive-Ins)

When writing a movie review (or a review about anything, really), it is wise to focus on the details that you care about most. So with that in mind, after watching Elisabeth Moss play Shirley Jackson in the Josephine Decker-directed biopic Shirley, I must say: I love the shirts! Shirley favors short-sleeve button-downs, including an absolutely tremendous one with a mallard pattern. The film takes place in Vermont, but you wouldn’t know it from all the exposed forearms. In another context, her sartorial choices could easily fit on a painfully ironic hipster or a dad joke-spewing goofball, but when Shirley wears them, they say, “This is who I am: deal with it. Or don’t. Either way, I’ma do me.”

That vibe of defiance is thick in the air of Shirley, in which the writer and her Bennington College professor husband Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg) “welcome” newlyweds Fred (Logan Lerman) and Rose (Odessa Young) as guests into their home. If that setup has you thinking Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, you’re in the right area. If you’re also thinking there might be a heavy influence of Jackson’s most famous works, that, however, is not precisely accurate. There’s no stoning of anyone like in the short story “The Lottery,” nor are there any hints of the supernatural akin to her oft-adapted novel The Haunting of Hill House (save for the ghosts of marital discord). Despite the lack of one-to-one connections, the Jackson home is plenty scary, which Rose and Fred soon discover as they get caught up in a swirling psychosexual adventure.

When it comes to successful visionary movies, they let audiences in on a way of feeling that they fundamentally just get in their psyches (or souls, or hearts, or whatever) without necessarily having to understand the logic of it all. And that’s Shirley for me (and perhaps for some of you as well). I didn’t quite feel that way with Decker’s last film, Madeline’s Madeline, which struck me as a bit too foreign (at least on first viewing) to truly attach to it. But with Shirley, I have the key to open its lock for the cinematic language to feel just right. The psychology of why Stanley feels compelled to torture Fred over his dissertation or why Shirley and a very pregnant Rose find themselves frolicking by the bathtub is not spelled out in concrete terms. Travelling into this abode is like a trip through Hades. It’s pretty exhilarating, at least if you know you’re going to come out eventually. But for those stuck there, it’s a little more exhausting, and my mind will be stuck on them for a while.

Shirley is Recommended If You Like: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Making sarcastic comments at a party, Patterned Short-Sleeve Button-Downs

Grade: 4 out of 5 Typewriters

This Is a Movie Review: With ‘The Shape of Water,’ Guillermo del Toro Re-Molds the Classic Creature Feature According to His Vision

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CREDIT: Fox Searchlight Pictures

This review was originally posted on News Cult in November 2017.

Starring: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, David Hewlett, Nick Searcy

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Running Time: 123 Minutes

Rating: R for Penetration From a Monster, Both of the Variety That Causes Massive Bleeding and Frustrated Profanity and the Kind That Results in Ecstasy

Release Date: December 1, 2017 (Limited)

If you are a fan of ’50s and ’60s creature features but wish that they concluded with the heroine and the monster consummating their love, then it should be not surprising to discover that you have a kindred spirit in Guillermo del Toro. With The Shape of Water, there is now proof of that truism in feature-length form.

Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute woman working as a custodian at a government research facility in 1962 Baltimore when an amphibious humanoid referred to as “The Asset” (Doug Jones and a bunch of movie magic) is brought in from South America. With a condition that renders her an eternal outsider, it only makes thematic sense that Elisa would be drawn to The Asset. Now, my natural inclination would be to push against such a longstanding trope, but when one half of a coupling is a fantastical being, symbolic meanings are hard to avoid. And in this particular case, Elisa and The Asset’s attraction does appear to go deeper than their shared general abuse at the hands of society. Words cannot capture it, but it is undeniable that they see the world in compatible ways.

There are plenty of other sci-fi B-movie hallmarks blown out to full intensity to provide color around the monster shagging. As a colonel in charge of The Asset, Michael Shannon runs around barking orders at everybody, and I’m not sure if that’s more of a B-movie trademark or a Michael Shannon trademark, or just the perfect marriage of the two. As the lead scientist with a secret identity who wants to preserve The Asset, Michael Stuhlbarg gets a two-for-one deal of nuclear era tropes. Octavia Spencer, as another custodian and Elisa’s closest friend at work, does not necessarily fit into the mold of a classic creature feature character, but her presence is invaluable. And being that this is mid-century America, Richard Jenkins plays the tragically closeted artist; his story is saddest when he is no longer able to have any of his beloved diner-fresh slices of pie.

But this is Elisa and The Asset’s story through and through. Everything else is important, but in the grand scheme of things, they are all just in service of the lovingly shot, artfully composed, and almost too indulgent (but not quite) sex scenes. Let’s just say that Sally Hawkins is not shy. But hey, when you find love that is this real and unbridled, you owe it to yourself, like Elisa, to be rid of all timidity.

The Shape of Water is Recommended If You Like: Creature From the Black Lagoon but wish it had been more explicitly romantic

Grade: 4 out of 5 Slices of Key Lime Pie

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Call Me by Your Name’ is a Quietly Desperate Plea to Place No Limits on Love

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CREDIT: Sony Pictures Classics

This review was originally posted on News Cult in November 2017.

Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel

Director: Luca Guadagnino

Running Time: 132 Minutes

Rating: R for Sticky Solo Sessions and Unbridled Pairings

Release Date: November 24, 2017 (Limited)

At the end of Call Me by Your Name, Oliver (Armie Hammer) checks in with Elio (Timothée Chalamet) over the phone. Elio’s parents join in on the call for a bit. After they hang up, Oliver notes how they talk to him like he is a member of the family. This accomplishment might seem small, but this sort of comfortable intimacy is a profound state that should not be discounted. Plenty of people in human history have achieved it, but many others have not. For Elio and Oliver, this is a postscript, but what they have shared is lovely enough to cherish forever.

Call Me by Your Name’s message is clear enough without having to be directly stated, but I appreciate that it is gently stated in the way that it is, thanks to Michael Stuhlbarg’s tender delivery. As Elio’s dad, archaeology professor Mr. Perlman, Stuhlbarg conveys an unforgettable treatise on why life is worth living. Simply by the power of observation, he knows what has been going on. It is the summer of 1983 in the northern Italian countryside, where Elio is living with his parents, and Oliver, an American student, is the latest houseguest they have invited to stay with them. Elio and Oliver spend several passionate nights and days together. Maybe they have fallen in love, maybe it is too soon to say so. Either way, their relationship is not fated to last beyond the summer. And in this situation, what Elio and the audience could use more than anything is assurance from his father that all is right. So many people make choices that leave them “bankrupt by the time [they’re] 30,” he tells us, but Elio has chosen love, and there is no reason to regret that.

There are few people who have loved anything as much as Mr. Perlman loves discovering and examining new artifacts. But loving another human being is a little harder, what with the back-and-forth, and the confusion, and the hormones, and the jealousy flare-ups. Love is not always easily strictly defined, either. Elio and Oliver may or may not both be bisexual. They certainly appreciate the female beauty around them; Elio even has a pretty intense fling with a girl close to his age (Esther Garrel). But they both gravitate most heavily to the most intense attractions, and that means plenty of fun but also plenty of sticky situations (and commensurate teasing), as we are all slaves to our bodily fluids. The whole of Call Me by Your Name, in fact, is a mix of pretty and sticky, a tapestry we ought to embrace if it is ever available to us.

Call Me by Your Name is Recommended If You Like: Moonlight, Any great romance with lovely cinematography

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Nosebleeds

This Is a Movie Review: Arrival

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arrival_movie

This review was originally published on News Cult in November 2016.

Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Running Time: 116 Minutes

Rating: Rated PG-13 for Visceral Disorientation

Release Date: November 11, 2016

Arrival takes the novel approach of making translation the focus of an alien invasion movie. Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a renowned linguist hired to attempt to communicate with extraterrestrials to understand the purpose of their visit to Earth. This may sound like a formula profoundly devoid of excitement, but if you believe that, then you are vastly underestimating humanity’s potential for paranoia, as well as director Denis Villeneuve’s (PrisonersSicario) proven knack for drawing out intrigue by just lingering on the vastness of his settings. Also, if you can get over the lack of typical sci-fi action, Dr. Banks’ sessions with the two main “heptapod” aliens (dubbed “Abbot and Costello”) are a lot of fun, in a Sesame Street-edutainment sort of way.

Ultimately, Arrival justifies its existence by demonstrating that the question of how to talk to the aliens should pretty much always be one of the most pressing concerns in this genre. More fantastically inclined entries may get away with universal translation devices, but the road to such an invention, as presented here, is a thrilling triumph of human ingenuity and transcendent gumption.

Cracking the code of whether or not the aliens are friend, foe, or something else entirely requires an entirely new way of thinking. Understanding context is always important when it comes to communication, but this is a film about when context does not exist, which is existentially terrifying. In the fight to create context, what emerges is a holistic approach that is simultaneously not at all about cracking any code and entirely about cracking a code that both exists and does not exist. To truly understand Arrival, you must accept that it can never be understood. This is filmmaking at the crossroads of theoretical physics, hope, and the sublime.

Arrival is Recommended If You LikePrimerClose Encounters of the Third Kind, the quieter moments of 2001

Grade: 4.5 Out of 5 Droopy Forest Whitaker Eyelids