‘Spencer’ Goes in Deep and Claustrophobic on Princess Diana

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Spencer (CREDIT: NEON)

Starring: Kristen Stewart, Timothy Spall, Jack Farthing, Sean Harris, Sally Hawkins, Jack Nielen, Freddie Spry, Stella Gonet, Richard Sammel

Director: Pablo Larraín

Running Time: 111 Minutes

Rating: R for A Little Bit of Salty Language

Release Date: November 5, 2021 (Theaters)

If you go see the new Pablo Larraín-directed moving picture Spencer, there is one scene I can pretty much guarantee you won’t be able to forget. I’m talking about the moment when Princess Diana (as played by Kristen Stewart) announces that she is going to masturbate. Self-pleasure is not typically a topic broached in polite company, and the British royal family is perhaps the most stifling of polite company. That moment also sticks out because it’s the only time that Diana says anything like that during the whole movie, and you get the sense that it’s the first time she’s said anything like that in the past twenty years or so, or quite possibly her entire life. It’s hard to break loose when someone’s always watching.

Larraín is adept at crafting claustrophobic environments, and the one in Spencer is like an alternate reality that everyone except Diana has accepted as normal. The action takes place in the days leading up to Christmas, and let’s just say it’s not the most festive atmosphere. Timothy Spall shows up as a new employee whose job it is to “watch,” and I would venture to guess that he was transferred from the Overlook Hotel. He has a knack for always showing up during Diana’s most vulnerable moments, like when she’s binging on sweets in the kitchen in an episode of bulimia. This scene isn’t played as a moment of concern, or an offer for treatment, or much of anything really, except perhaps as a reminder to remain on schedule.

I found the toxic environment constructed in Spencer compelling, but its portrait of the woman at its center didn’t strike me as especially insightful. It didn’t necessarily have to be that way to be successful, but we do spend a lot of time with Diana, so it would be nice to get to know her (or at least the version of her that Larraín and Stewart have created) beyond the public figure. Although, perhaps that lack of clarity was by design. Maybe she was supposed to be opaque all along. If that’s the case, then mission accomplished. But as a viewing experience, it makes for a movie that’s difficult to connect to, though interesting to consider.

Spencer is Recommended If You Like: Ghosts stalking the royal abodes

Grade: 3 out of 5 Christmas Dishes

Movie Review: ‘Godzilla: King of the Monsters’ Delivers What it Promises, But It’s a Huge Mess

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CREDIT: Warner Bros./YouTube

Starring: Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, Millie Bobby Brown, Bradley Whitford, Sally Hawkins, Charles Dance, Ken Watanabe, Thomas Middleditch, Aisha Hinds, O’Shea Jackson Jr., David Straitharn, Ziyi Zhang

Director: Michael Dougherty

Running Time: 132 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Monster-on-Monster Smashing and Even Some Human-on-Human Violence

Release Date: May 31, 2019

As promised, there are plenty of massive beasts in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, but there are also a lot of human beings, and they’ve got plenty on their to-do list. They debate which monsters are friends and which are foe, and they retrieve some objects that may or may not be MacGuffins, and honestly I could not make heads or tails of what they’re trying to do. This is a murderer’s row of heavy hitters wading through incomprehensibility. That’s not necessarily a dealbreaker, though, because when you come to see a Godzilla movie, you’re there for the monsters.

But here’s the thing: the fight scenes are just as incoherent! They’re distressingly dark, and edited way too quickly to make sense of what is going on. Every once in a while, there’s a really satisfying chomp or smackdown, but for the most part the splendor of the kaiju is obscured by too much visual clutter. King of the Monsters put me most in mind of the third Transformers flick, Dark of the Moon, a good chunk of which was an interminable clash of metal on metal. King of the Monsters is marred by sound design that is just as off-putting. In theory, I can understand why people would enjoy Godzilla getting into a battle royale with Mothra, Rodan, and the like a lot more than I can understand the appeal of robots clanging against each other. But this numbing onslaught is far from the best that this genre can offer.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters is Recommended If You Like: Non-stop giant monster battles

Grade: 2 out of 5 Roars

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Paddington 2’ Sends Our Very Special Bear to Prison, But Truth, Common Decency, and Marmalade Prevail

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CREDIT: Warner Bros.

This review was originally published on News Cult in January 2018.

Starring: Ben Whishaw, Sally Hawkins, Hugh Bonneville, Hugh Grant, Brendan Gleeson, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters, Peter Capaldi

Director: Paul King

Running Time: 103 Minutes

Rating: PG for Cheeky Humor and Threats of Violence Appeased by Marmalade

Release Date: January 12, 2018

The first Paddington film was a clear refugee allegory, with the titular “very special bear” (voiced then and now by Ben Whishaw) looking for a new home in England after his home in Peru is destroyed. The coded language about what happens to neighborhoods when bears move in was an obvious stand-in for how some actual Londoners (and other native residents around the globe) feel about the arrival of immigrants. Paddington 2 – in which the raincoat-sporting, marmalade-loving bear is imprisoned for grand theft despite his innocence – is not quite so stark in its messaging. It may have something to say about profiling, though Paddington’s wrongful arrest has more to do with misleading circumstantial evidence moreso than ungenerous assumptions about bearfolk. Still, for a family-friendly flick that distinguishes itself with a gentle touch, it is notable how much it does not hold back from some genuinely unsettling moments.

It all starts out pleasantly enough. Paddington, now living with the Brown family in London, wants to get his Aunt Lucy, the bear who raised him, a truly special present for her 100th birthday. He comes across a rare pop-up book in an antique shop, but it is a bit out of his price range, which is to say, he has no money (unless the Browns have been giving him an allowance). So he sets out to join the workforce, which begins with an abortive stint as a barbershop assistant (make sure to keep what appear to be narrative detours in mind, as these adventures are all intricately and carefully plotted) but then ultimately leads to an entrepreneurial effort as a window-washer. This segment is most memorable for Paddington’s improvising by rubbing the soap against the glass with his bum, which explains why this is rated PG and not G.

It gets a little scary from here on out, though. Considering the genre, there’s no need to worry that it will all descend into a bloodbath, but in the course of the narrative playing out, the danger does feel real, and fitfully intense. The main baddie is Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant), a washed-up actor who is now best known for appearing in hacky dog food commercials. He’s the real thief behind the crime Paddington has been charged with, a villain in the Scooby-Doo mold, though a tad more competent: awfully silly but a master of disguise and escape. Grant has a blast with all the dress-up and smoke-and-mirrors.

But the most worrisome threats come during Paddington’s prison stint. He runs afoul of Nuckles (Brendan Gleeson), the inmate assigned to cooking duties, who is legendary for dispensing with those who question his culinary decisions. It really does feel like Paddington is just one false move away from Nuckles beating him to a pulp. This is the neat trick that P2 pulls off. We really do believe that Paddington’s fellow inmates are capable of the crimes they are guilty of (though we would surely never see them happen in a film this), while simultaneously we believe that they would indeed befriend a fundamentally decent, very special bear.

Aesthetically, attention must also be paid to Paddington 2’s artful compositions. Director Paul King was no slouch in the first Paddington, with a whimsical architectural style indebted to Wes Anderson. This time around, he grows even more confident, assembling artfully arranged close-ups: single characters take up the ideal frame space and there is still an impressive amount of background information. London can be harsh, but the care apparent in Paddington 2 makes it much easier to bear.

Paddington 2 is Recommended If You Like: The first Paddington, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Family films that don’t hold back

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Marmalade Sandwiches

 

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