Review: Your Name

After fully establishing its premise, in which village girl Mitshua occasionally and involuntarily swaps bodies with a Tokyo boy named Taki,, the animated feature Your Name provides some warm and comic character moments. While indulging in the city life she’s dreamed about, Mitshua helps Taki garner attention from his crush by imbuing him with a sensitivity the hot-headed boy normally lacks. Likewise, Taki helps Mitshua stand up against the bullies her mock the usually meek girl. Through diary entries the duo leave each other on their phones and notebooks, the two teens, separated by distance and gender and cultures, find themselves dependent on one another.

All of this happens in the span of about five minutes, mostly told in pop-music montage. In fact, montages are director Makoto Shinkai’s favored storytelling device, the way he moves the plot along and sets up the movie’s many other premises, involving the end of the body switching, time travel, a destructive meteor, and a five year time jump. It’s a lot of story, inelegantly crammed into 107 minutes.

Your Name is a bona fide blockbuster, out grossing all of other anime, having just surpassed the Miyazaki classic Spirited Away, and a favorite among critics worldwide – it currently has an average rating of 4.1 stars on Letterboxed. Clearly I’m the outlier here, but I have a hard time seeing a moving story under the film’s adherence to plot and reliance on montage and voice over. Look, I’ve been a teenage boy like Taki, and I understand too well their tendency toward inappropriate exploration, but I still struggled to connect with a movie that skips over most character moments, but lingers not once, not twice, not three times, but four times to show him playing with the breasts of the body he gets to inhabit.

Which isn’t to say that nothing on-screen is of value. Shinkai places fluidly animated figures in front of detailed backgrounds, saturating it all with colors to match the story’s emotional intensity. A particularly remarkable scene occurs when the film stops for a moment to watch Mitshua and her sister perform a ritual at a village shrine. Shinkai lets his virtual camera trail just behind Mitshua’s hand motions, as if it were tethered to her wrists, highlighting the grace of her movements.

And the film does feature one very effective montage, organized not around a pop song, but the image of a hairband the characters share. The band not only visually recalls a comet shooting across the sky, but also the loom Mithsua’s grandmother uses while telling ancestral legends. More than any other part of the movie, the image succinctly illustrates the movie’s theme about entanglement and interdependence.

Were all the montages as powerful as that, then I would have likely loved Your Name. But it was an exception, soon forgotten as the film rushes to its next plot beat, brushing over what could have been something moving and humane.

Review: Call Me By Your Name

From its opening credit sequence onward, the Luca Guadagnino film Call Me By Your Name is filled with classical art. And that makes sense, as the movie takes place in Italian home of an American archeology professor whose teenage son Elio (Timothée Chalamet) embarks in a brief, passionate romance with Oliver (Armie Hammer), the grad student who comes to visit. But, save for a couple of mini lectures by Michael Stuhlbarg’s professor, high art serves as little more than set dressing, as movie messily evokes pieces from vastly different eras and regions, all under the rubric of “impressive old stuff.”

Instead, the piece of art the movie actually cares about (outside, of course, of the non-diegetic Sufjan Stevens song that plays over the film’s heartbreaking final moments) is classical only by modern pop-radio standards, not to the film’s 1983 setting – “Love My Way” by the Psychedelic Furs.

The difference in these two forms helps us think about the movie’s core romance. In a wonderful speech toward the end of the movie, Stuhlbarg describes the relationship between Elio and Oliver in terms he reserves for the art he studies: eternal, powerful, and deep. But what we actually see on screen is closer to a pop song – short and electric, uncomplicated but potentially life-changing, especially to a 17-year-old like Elio.

Most of the time, Guadagnino recognizes the importance of his movie’s youthful nature puts Elio in the foreground of the shot or focuses the camera on him, leaving everyone else in a blur to visually communicating an adolescent’s self-absorption. Chalamet impressively handles the attention, capturing the brashness and fragility of an arrogant teen experiencing something he doesn’t quite understand.

In lesser hands, a moment in which Elio plays a musical piece for Oliver, changing it each time and lecturing about how each variation mimics a great composer, would be no more than an attempt at bourgeois seduction. But when Chalamet varies between literal fist pumping bravado and self-conscious downward glances, he communicates his character’s lack of self-awareness, not even sure that he’s attracted to the man across from him, let alone that his tactics will work. Shifting between boyish clumsiness and an artist’s bravado, a man’s confidence and a teen’s worry, Chalamet’s physicality tells the story of transformation just as well as Stuhlbarg’s speech.

Furthermore, this focus on Elio redeems Hammer’s fairly one-note performance by making him less a person and more an object of desire. Wielding his baritone voice and confident stride like an intellectual Don Draper, Hammer serves as Elio’s dream man – the embodiment of everything he wants and wants to be.

But when Oliver gets more attention in its last third, the movie falters, and not just because of Hammer’s limitations as an actor. Audiences understand what Elio sees in Oliver, but it’s not at all clear why the older man wants in the younger. More importantly, Oliver’s agency highlights the age difference between the two men, an issue the movie handles poorly. Oliver repeatedly expresses fear that his advances will somehow damage Elio or get him in trouble. He may refer only to emotional devastation, the same way Elio mistreats a local girl he’s sleeping with; but when Oliver acknowledges that his touch may be tantamount to molestation, viewers cannot help but think he’s right, even more so than the movie is willing to deal with.

Fortunately, such moments are few, and the story remains largely that of a young man whose life is changed by his desire for an older man. And, in that context, Call Me By YourName plays like the best pop songs: it makes you hurt, it makes you smile, it makes you want to dance. And while it may only last a few moments, it will, without a doubt, get stuck in your head again and again.

Review: The Shape of Water

In her role as Elisa Esposito, the mute cleaner who falls in love with the Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) held in the government facility where she works, Sally Hawkings conveys passion and compassion without uttering a word. This feat is particularly impressive because Elisa shares several scenes with Richard Strickland, a cold war era government official played by Michael Shannon at his Michael Shannon-est. His character boils with barely contained contempt until finally exploding in volcanic rage at his perceived inferiors, but Elisa’s anger and ardor outpaces Strickland’s bloviating.

The clash between insiders and outcasts drives Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water, even more so than the romance plot that provides the film’s most memorable moments. A powerful man in the the early 60s US government, who lives with his attractive family in a fully mod-conned home, Strickland knows only the privilage he confuses for morality. To justify his lack of compassion toward the Amphibian Man, Strickland reminds Elisa and her partner Zelda (Octavia Spencer) that “the Lord looks like you and me,” before realizing that he’s addressing a mute and a black woman and clarifies: “A little more like me than you.”

But while Strickland’s certainty makes him competitive and cruel, Elisa’s condition allows her to bond with Zelda, with a gay struggling artist played by Richard Jenkins, with a Russian spy who puts love of nature over love of country, and with the Amphibian Man himself. Keenly aware of how her conditon marks her as inhuman to people like Strickland, Elisa finds other signifiers of humanity, those that Del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor highlight throughout the film: a love of art, sexual desire, basic empathy.

Del Toro further rebukes Strickland’s egoism in the way he presents the film’s world. Using almost nothing but tracking shots, holding still for only seconds at a time, Del Toro floats his camera along the sets that cinematographer Dan Laustsen bathes in greens and yellows and blues, replicating the Amphibian Man’s habitat. Strickland, and the US government that employs him or the Soviet forces who oppose him, may think that he runs the world, but every time the camera drifts from an overflowing tub to a spilled glass to a rain-soaked window pain, we’re told just how much these forces are out of their depth.

I know I’ve hardly said anything about the romance aspect, which is, obviously, a pretty important part of a romance story. But it’s the way that Del Toro reimagines power structures that makes the romance work. An unconventional love story, in part, shows us how loveless our conventions can be. The Shape of Water creates a world in which these conventions get washed away.