Tag Archives: Michael Stuhlbarg

Ms. Jackson, If You’re Nasty

Shirley

by Hope Madden

I’m not sure which thrilled me more, that Elisabeth Moss was set to portray the great Shirley Jackson, or that Josephine Decker was slated to direct.

If you’re not familiar with Decker, give yourself the gift of her 2014 minor miracle Thou Wast Mild and Lovely. Decker’s languid style seduces you, keeps you from pulling away from her films’ underlying tensions, darkness, sickness. She specializes in that headspace that mixes the story as it is and the story as it’s told, which makes her a fitting guide for Susan Scarf Merrell’s fictionalized account of this slice of Jackson’s life.

Which brings us to Moss, quickly ascending the ranks of “best actors of our generation” into the rarified air of “genius.” Moss has proven time and again that she can inhabit any character with a fearlessness that allows her to disappear and the character to emerge, fully human. Such is the case with the enigmatic, damaged and brilliant Jackson.

Shirley takes us into the period where the already reclusive writer begins work on her novel Hangsaman

This stretch of time coincides with the arrival of some help for Jackson’s husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg). The couple will be opening their home to Stanley’s new teaching assistant (Logan Lerman), and his pregnant wife, Rose (Odessa Young).

The film’s plot follows Jackson’s relationship with Rose, which develops in tandem with her newest manuscript. The friendship unveils unkind truths about power, sexual politics and other uglinesses that Jackson always mined so formidably in her creepiest work.

Decker manipulates the pacing, melancholy and sensuality of her tale beautifully, drawing a stirring performance from Young. But my god, what she gets from Moss and Stuhlbarg.

To witness two such remarkable talents sparring like this, aided by a biting script that offers them ample opportunity to wade into the sickness and dysfunction of this marriage—it’s breathtaking.

The result is dark and unseemly, appropriately angry and gorgeously told—fitting tribute to the author.

Sowing the Seeds of Love

Call Me by Your Name

by Hope Madden

It’s a languid Italian summer circa 1983 and everything is just so ripe.

Call Me by Your Name, the coming-of-age drama from Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash), swoons. Precocious seventeen-year-old Elio (an utterly astonishing Timothée Chalamet) is surrounded with luscious fruit from the trees, lovely girls from the village, books and music to fill the hours spent with his parents (Amira Casar, Michael Stuhlbarg) in the rural villa where they research Greco-Roman culture.

Then their seasonal research assistant Oliver (Armie Hammer) arrives.

Awash in sensuality, Guadagnino’s love story is unafraid to explore, circling Oliver and Elio as they irritate each other, then test each other, and finally submit to and fully embrace their feelings for one another. Theirs is a remarkable dance, intimately told and flawlessly performed.

Enough cannot be said for Chalamet’s work. He is astonishingly in control of this character, and were that not the case, the age difference between the two characters (Oliver is meant to be 24, though Hammer is 31 which makes the gap seem more disturbing) would have left things feeling too predatory.

Hammer has never been better. Though the young Chalamet’s performance is Oscar-caliber, Hammer matches him step for step, creating a character both vulnerable and authoritative.

A standout in a solid ensemble, Stuhlbarg, looking almost alarmingly like Robin Williams, brings a quiet tenderness to the proceedings, a tone he elevates in a late-film monologue that could not have been delivered with more compassion or love. It’s breathtaking, perfectly punctuating the themes of acceptance and self-acceptance that permeate the film.

But even before Hammer or Chalamet can seduce you, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom does, lensing a feast for the senses. Together he and Guadagnino immerse you in this heady love story, developing a dreamy cadence and alluring palette that invites you to taste.

 





Swimming in Romance

The Shape of Water

by Hope Madden

In its own way, The Creature from the Black Lagoon is a tragic romance. But what if it weren’t? Tragic, I mean. What if beauty loved the beast?

It seems like a trend this year.

An unforgettable Sally Hawkins—an actor who has never hit a false note in her long and underappreciated career—gets her chance to lead a big, big show. She plays Elisa, a mute woman on the janitorial team for a research institute in Cold War era Baltimore.

Enter one night a malevolent man (Michael Shannon), and a mysterious container. Color Elisa intrigued.

Writer/director Guillermo del Toro is an overt romantic. So many of his films—Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, Crimson Peak—swim in romance, but he’s never made as dreamily romantic or hypnotically sensual a film as The Shape of Water. And he hasn’t made a film this glorious since his 2006 masterpiece, Pan’s Labyrinth.

Del Toro favorite Doug Jones—Pan’s Pale Man and Hellboy’s Abe Sapien—gets back into a big, impressive suit, this time to play Amphibian Man. His presence is once again the perfect combination of the enigmatic and the familiar.

The supporting cast—Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins and Michael Stuhlbarg—are among the strongest character actors Hollywood has to offer and del Toro ensures that they have material worthy of their talent. Each character is afforded not only his or her own personality but peculiarity, which is what makes us all both human and unique—important themes in keeping with the story. With Hawkins and Jones, they populate a darkly whimsical, stylish and retro world.

Characteristic of del Toro’s work, Shape of Water looks amazing. Its color scheme of appropriate greens and blues also creates the impossible truth of sameness within otherness, or the familiar with the alien.

The aesthetic is echoed in Alexandre Desplat’s otherworldly score and mirrored by Dan Laustsen’s dancing camera.

The end result is a beautiful ode to outsiders, love and doing what you must.





Beltway Badass

Miss Sloane

by Hope Madden

I’m curious. Is every film going to take on sharper, darker political meaning post-election? Because Miss Sloane definitely does.

First time screenwriter Jonathan Perera’s much-lauded screenplay documents Elizabeth Sloane, DC super-lobbyist. Driven and single-minded to a nearly sociopathic degree, Sloane finally finds a line she’s unwilling to cross when the gun lobby wants to hire her to make guns more appealing to women.

She abandons the big time firm that demands she rethink her gun-control stance and goes to work instead for the liberal opposition.

Though far from flawless, Miss Sloane has a lot to offer. Mainly, Jessica Chastain.

Her fierce performance and comfort with ambiguity come together in a turn that mesmerizes. This is an anti-hero, and Chastain gives her enough savvy, contempt, drive, self-loathing and vulnerability to make her fascinating. Not knowable, but forever provocative.

Though no other character in the film is nearly so fleshed out, a game supporting cast – including the welcome Michael Stuhlbarg and a pitch-perfect Mark Strong – help balance Chastain’s blistering presence.

Director John Madden – whose work tends toward the safer and tamer (Shakespeare in Love, Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) – here amplifies Chastain’s fiery delivery with frenetic camera movement and sudden close ups. He creates a pace that keeps attention, even when the screenplay begins to slog.

What’s exceptional about the film, aside from Chastain, is the way its core plotline and its greater themes work together. The us-versus-them battle, with each lobbyist one-upping the other in the most unconscionable (yet clever) ways, commands attention. But beneath all that Miss Sloane clarifies the way in which the American public is never privy to true information.

What we get, in its stead, is the narrative being pushed in increasingly obfuscated ways by different stakeholders.

The film builds to speechifying and heavy moralizing, often feeling too clever for its own good. It settles, while its titular firebrand would not. But before all the self-righteous Aaron Sorkinisms, Madden, Perera and Chastain get an awful lot right.

They push envelopes when it comes to a female anti-hero, answering only as many questions as necessary and leaving room for Chastain’s performance to fill in some gaps.

Together they also unleash an appropriately cynical view of a political system that is rotten.

Verdict-3-0-Stars