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Guillermo del Toro did it again with ‘The Shape of Water’


The best thing about The Shape of Water is the movie’s name. The photography is great, too, and so is the music. There are also a couple of lines that are memorable. And that’s pretty much it.

If you loved Pan’s Labyrinth, there is a good chance that del Toro’s film that premiered at the Venice International Film Festival is a right match for you. But if dark fantasies about lonely women falling in love with monsters are not your cup of tea, you will probably be checking your watch every few minutes. Unless you are one of those brave souls ready to walk out after the movie has started, you are in for the ride for an endless two hours. And even if you have agoraphobia, the cavernous settings will leave you claustrophobic.

That the unlovely sight of the Baltimore decks for a few seconds comes as a relief says a lot. Oh yes, we need to say what’s the movie about.

It is 1961 0r 1962. The U.S. government has captured a monster in the Amazon River that local tribes venerate as a god. The creature, an abominable biped that predictably looks like a reptile, is kept at a secret U.S. facility. But a mute cleaning lady takes pity on him and ends up falling in love. She is abetted in her attempt to free the Amazonian god by a colleague in the janitorial services and by a Russian spy who works in the scientific team. All three conspire against the truly very evil lead U.S. investigator, Strickland, superbly played by Michael Shannon.

For make no mistake: the extraordinary cast makes the best of a very weak plot. Octavia Spencer, the romantic janitor’s coworker and accomplice, is outstanding. She steals the show. Yet Elisa, who along with the monster is the main character and is played by Sally Hawkins, and Richard Jenkins (as Elisa’s neighbor and second accomplice) are well reproach, too. But when all is said and done, The Shape of Water is still a horror blockbuster on steroids making up with fabulous production the lack of substance.

A parody of a parody, it had the right elements the be something worth watching. It’s the American military-industrial complex run amok a few years after Eisenhower’s stunning warning. A lot of money has been poured into something that could be a great film, for on one level it is a parable on loneliness and sex, or at least sex as a proxy for love, with a lot of self-stimulation that really has no place in the plot and that does the audience no favor. Yet it ends up being a cartoonish story of unidimensional characters, acting out on tired metaphors. It does not take long to feel that the joke is on you. You would be much better getting a copy of Marvel Comics and enjoying the adventures of the Spider Man. And if you are looking to lift your spirits with a story built around the beauty in ugliness, you will get much better value with Batman Returns. It’s been some time, but it holds up pretty well.

No worries, Del Toro’s film has a fair amount of FGF, the feel-good factor that at least makes some of your dollars well spent. That, and the stupendous score. Music always redeems it all.

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Downsizing: Alexander Payne’s Lilliputian dystopia

It may be misleading, but certainly tempting, to attribute American filmmaker Alexander Payne’s extraordinary sensitivity for drama to his Greek origins (his ancestors anglicized the last name from Papadopoulos). Whatever his motivations, in Downsizing, that premiered at the 74th Venice International Film Festival, the director of Sideways and About Schmidt has refined his dark humor to such a degree that it would be misnomer to call his film a satire, and too narrow a definition, too.
For Payne’s filmography encompasses all the classical types of drama, the arc that goes from comedy to tragedy, seen through the lens —sometimes unbearably too pristine— of irony. He also incurs in the genre of science fiction, albeit slightly, without letting futurism interfere with the story, as the director would later explain in a press conference. His is a genre of its own, so rich in its Shakespearean ambiguity, that no attempt at definition would do it justice.
In Downsizing, Paul Safranek, superbly played by Matt Damon, is an Omaha occupational therapist who decides to undergo a downsizing procedure, by which men are reduced to Lilliputian dimensions. The technology was devised at Norwegian research center that has concluded that the only remedy to the ills men have inflicted on the environment —abusive exploitation of natural resources, overpopulation— is shrinking men to the size of a thumb.
The humorous twists are too many to delve in. The Norwegian researchers make their surprise announcement at a conference in Istanbul, the quintessential example of urban sprawl and overcrowding. The setting is autobiographical, too: Omaha is Payne’s hometown. At the end of the farewell gathering in a local pub after Safranek and his wife have decided to downsize, a barman takes it on them. But not for a choice that goes against their very essence, but for money: the downsized people pay a fraction on the dollar in taxes. The sarcasm may be lost on many an American who may be used to a system in which most considerations are measured against the sole benchmark of money.
And that goes to the gist of the theme. People downsize because the trade-off is raising their standard of living. Your wealth grows tenfold if you go into the miniature world of Leisureland (is the faint echo of Lilliput casual?).
But this is more than a song of angst to the souls toiling in American suburbia. What matters the most about the movie is the poignancy of the characters’ lives. These are the struggles most of us will relate to: the hardships we endure to make ends meet; how the grind of daily life slowly may erode love, friendships and the hope of a better future, for which we keep plodding forward through it all. In the spoonful of this drama, some will taste the honey, and some others the poison.
In the end, people will read into this movie what they invest in life. If they have an eye for the tragic, they will feel for the Vietnamese environmental activist who was downsized against her will in prison, played by Hong Chau, the true heroine. But that should not stop us from laughing when she goes on to describe the eight types of “f*!k” Americans presumably practice in bed: “love f*!k”, “hate f*!k”, “last f*!k”, and other types. Still, curb your enthusiasm. At the press conference following the screening of the movie, Damon said Downsizing was Payton’s most optimistic movie. A journalist took issue with that: it was truly dystopian, she said. People who were poor when they were normal size still are poor in their reduced selves: there is downsized Latino community that lives in a real-size prefabricated house turned into a seven-floor slum that looks poignantly like an American inner city. As Dušan, a Serbian character in the movie, says, the middle class people became rich when they are downsized. “The poor stay poor: they just get small.” Even this character, so fabulously developed, shows Payne’s genius. Anyone who is familiar with the peculiarly pugnacious Serbian sense of humor will recognize in Dušan a quintessential expression of it.
At the press conference, Payne obstinately remained ambiguous, refraining from elaborating on interpretations of his movie. He leaves that to the audience. In response to a question, Payne recognized a fondness for Chekhov, “never losing humor, but going deeper and deeper.” In Leisureland Estates, the city for the downsized, the bus going from the ritzy part of town to the slum goes through a water drain, a long tunnel. In the movie, Damon looks ahead concerned, at the light at the end of it. Like Payne’s other movies, Downsizing, too offers a light at the end of the tunnel. But in this film, the tunnel is very long and dark, and that light is dimming.

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Five lessons from the violin maker of Florence

There is a shop in Florence that is so tiny that most pedestrians pass it by without even noticing. Yet when they do, they will stop by, bewitched. It is as wide as a cupboard from the outside. Inside, it is smaller than most walk-in closets in houses of the United States. That minute space encapsulates the stuff of legends and more magic than Aladdin’s lamp. Atop the entrance, a sign says “Liutaio”, the word for luthier in Italian.

The master violin maker is Jamie Marie Lazzara, who left her native Southern California for the homeland of her ancestors in 1987. After studying her craft in Cremona, the Lombardy city made famous by Stradivarius and some other of the finest violins in the world, she set up shop in Florence. She made a violin for Itzhak Perlman that rivals his Stradivari of 1714, a “Soil.” She has also made a violin for Malia Obama, a daughter of former U.S. President Barack Obama, that has a market value of $64,000, Lazzara says.

Lazzara’s speech is unencumbered by false modesty yet is plain and straightforward, with a natural humility that comes to her as naturally as her talent for making the violins. “All my instruments have one price: $12,000.” The backlog of her waiting list is at least two years long.

Here are five lessons we draw from her experience:

  1. There is a market for handcrafted, unique goods. People will pay up for things that are worth it. That is especially true for Italy generally and Florence, home of some of the best shoes, furniture and instruments in the world. “When you are paying more you are paying less,” says Romano Livi, a now retired merchant and restorer of antiques in Tuscany. “You are buying it for a lifetime.” Even if or when robots start making violins, there will always be discerning customers who will pay a premium for luthiers like Lazzara. Those are the ones who judge things by their value rather than their price.
  2. Size does not matter. Not in the case of violins, at least. Small as they are, the music that expert hands get out of them is immeasurable. Moreover: Lazzara has turned her cupboard-sized workshop into such an enchanting venue that not even a store a thousand times its dimensions could match it in beauty and magic.
  3. Migrations may enrich the world. Anybody would find it curious that anybody would leave America back for the Old World. Yet Lazzara did, to the benefit of everyone: Italy and Florence, certainly, but also her customers all over the world.
  4. “Find the genius in you.” Lazzara said so with forceful conviction. In her talk with your correspondent, she said everybody must search within themselves what their true calling is. We add: hard work will bring the genius out of them. You will hardly see Lazzara lifting her head when passing by her store. She is always leaning over her desk, making violins.
  5. “Don’t give up.” These were the parting words from Lazzara after your correspondent told her that the violin was one of his childhood, and hence lifetime, passions. As your writer confided to her, circumstances conspired against the fulfillment of this ambition. His grandmother was going to bring him a violin from Armenia in 1974, but thieves entered her house and took it with them a few months before her flight to Argentina. And after that, one thing or the other always stood in the way of it. In 1991, at the late age of 23, your correspondent bought a violin in Prague but it was confiscated by Czech border guards at the border with Hungary. Two years later he bought a new one at the same store in Prague and took up lessons with violinist Abraham Buchhalter in Buenos Aires. Yet he had to quit when he won an scholarship to study in England. And the violin has now passed to the much better hands of his nephew. But the words of Lazzara are still echoing in your correspondent’s head. And who knows, he may still find in Venice a violinist patient enough to teach this old dog a new trick. At the right price, obviously.