Dispatches from IFFAM 2017 – From The Arthouse to The Grindhouse

Short reviews of ‘The Shape of Water,’ ‘Foxtrot,’ ‘Beast,’ and the insane ‘Mom and Dad’

by Philbert Dy

On just its second year, the International Film Festival and Awards Macao has kind of developed an identity. If in the future, things carry on like they did this year, the IFFAM could become a regional destination to catch up on some of the best films from all around the world. They screened some really incredible films that will undoubtedly factor into many conversations about the most sublime, most high-minded cinema of 2017. But it also leaves room for stranger, more visceral fare. There’s something really remarkable about an international film festival recognizing the career of someone like Udo Kier, and screening Brawl in Cell Block 99 instead of one of the films that the general public might consider “respectable.”


So from the arthouse to grindhouse, this festival kind of has it all. And those sensibilities weirdly intersect in Guillermo del Toro’s latest film, The Shape of Water. We’re scheduled to have this film in our cinemas around February, and it can’t come quickly enough. It’s a story of a young mute woman (Sally Hawkins) in cold war-era America who works in a government facility that is studying a captive fish man (Doug Jones in a remarkable costume). The young woman is drawn to the monster, and begins an unlikely romance with him.



So it is a movie that prominently features a fish man. And it isn’t some handsome actor who just has gills painted on him. The film clearly takes inspiration from rubber suit monster movies of the 50s and 60s. But it takes those aesthetics and just brings it all to another level. In a video introducing the movie, del Toro talked about the film as an “adult fairy tale,” and it’s an apt description. The film swims deep into the waters of that kind of simple mythology, with people pure of heart going up against destructive forces. But then it keeps letting the real world intrude into this magical milieu, finding brilliant ways to insert grownup ideas into this otherwise straightforward narrative. It becomes this grand story of acceptance rooted not only in the logic of timeless magical stories, but also in the very tangible experience of our current existence, particularly in an America that romanticizes the past in strange and disturbing ways.


As of this writing, Samuel Maoz’s Foxtrot has been shortlisted for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. To anyone who’s seen the Israeli film, it probably comes as no surprise. The film is split up into distinct portions. The first part begins with parents being told that their soldier son has died in action. The second portion involves scenes of said son serving in the military, at a supply checkpoint in the middle of nowhere. The last part deals with the aftermath of everything that went on.



It’s best not to talk about the details of the plot. The whole thing seems designed to do a couple of things: highlight the absurdity of constant war, and to put to question the ways in which a masculine force can get things done. The camera in this movie keeps shooting the characters from overhead, lending a god’s-eye-view to the proceedings, and providing a sense of perspective to the little dramas that are going on. It’s a smart, darkly funny film that has already ruffled feathers in its native Israel. And one imagines that it might spark some much needed discourse once the Academy gets around to wrestling with the movie’s stances.


Michael Pearce’s directorial debut Beast feels like the arrival of a new arthouse darling. The British film tells the story of Moll (Jessie Buckley), who starts up a relationship with local outsider Pascal (Johnny Flynn), much to the dismay of her family and the community at large. The film makes it clear that Moll was raised under a manipulative mother that’s put undue pressure on her to be “good.” Moll finds an escape from all that with her new man, but has to confront some dark possibilities when Pascal is accused of murdering several young girls in the area.



Beast is one of those debuts that just makes people stand up and notice. There’s a compelling rawness to it, a willingness to go to places that more seasoned filmmakers just aren’t able to, anymore. Some of the things it ends up implying can feel questionable, but it is that edginess that ultimately gives the film its strange lift. It’s able to conceive of a level of depravity and tendency towards violence that deserves some sympathy, drawing lines in the sand between different kinds of abuse, driving at complexities that movies aren’t necessarily great at depicting. It’s also the debut film of Jessie Buckley, who ended up taking the best actress prize here in Macao. And she deserves it, too: her gripping, remarkably generous performance holds the film together even as the plot threatens to break it all apart.


I mentioned earlier that the festival screened Brawl in Cell Block 99, which is essentially a modern day grindhouse movie. But in comparison to Brian Taylor’s Mom and Dad, which also screened here in Macao, it comes off as positively restrained. Mom and Dad is about a signal that makes parents go berzerk and want to kill their children. The bulk of the movie involves teenager Carly (Anne Winters) trying to fend off her parents (Nicolas Cage and Selma Blair).



The film has clear grindhouse ambitions, its opening titles a clear reference to the movies to that era. But more than that, the movie seems to have been conceived as a platform for yet another unhinged Nicolas Cage performance. This is one of this films where Cage is allowed to just go completely nuts, and the actor does not waste a moment of this opportunity. The film is funny and actually gets to some interesting ideas regarding the feelings parents actually have for their children, but it is really just Cage that captures the imagination here. It’s just a joy to watch him go as far as he does.