Eighth Grade

Directed by Bo Burnham

Starring – Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson

The Plot – Thirteen-year-old Kayla (Fisher) endures the tidal wave of contemporary suburban adolescence as she makes her way through the last week of middle school; the end of her thus far disastrous eighth grade year before she begins high school.

Rated R for adult language and some sexual material

POSITIVES

– ‘Eighth Grade’ feels like an authentic experience that goes far beyond being an entertaining piece of cinema. This movie immersed me right away to the very feelings of isolation and awkwardness that plague early adolescents, and lifted some of those repressed memories from my own developing childhood that were stored in the back of my psyche. Burnham never relents in his documentation for this important time, placing it ideally right in the final steps of middle school, before the change takes full course in high school, where you can re-create yourself. That idea of metamorphosis surrounds this film, and leaves our youthful protagonist drowning in this sea of change that feels laps ahead of her.

– My biggest respect to this first time Youtube star-turned-director, is what he manages to accomplish in terms of atmosphere, that constantly shapes differently throughout similar set-ups. Burnham doesn’t turn away from those down-time moments of boredom where a kid is shown playing with their face, or a random voice yells something to throw a teacher off. Instead Bo frames them to feed more sternly into that authenticity of environment that I mentioned earlier. What is so brilliant about this take is that it establishes a layer of relativity to Kayla’s own experiences with social anxiety, forcing us to see things in the same way that she does without sacrificing storytelling elements.

– The performances couldn’t be better, most notably from Fisher and Hamilton, who live and breathe these vital roles. Fisher’s timid posture speaks volumes to what she’s feeling inside, but it’s the way her facial expression reads and how they study and react to a room that truly captures this lamb being led to slaughter. Hamilton as well channels the sometimes intruding parent, who just seeks answers without trying to diminish the cool factor in how his daughter views him. When these two are together on-screen, it’s pure magic, especially that of a long-winded exchange in the closing moments that really tugs at your heart strings. Aside from these two, I also greatly credit the supporting cast around, as every child actor looks and feels synthetic to that of the role they are supposed to be playing. This is nothing like other movies who cast 18 year olds models to play 13, this is the real deal. As to where aspects like facial acne and bodily scars would be taken out of a typical sterilized Hollywood rendering, Burnham embraces the struggles of teenage growth, giving a feeling at times of a documentary instead of a picture with a script.

– Much of the musical score by Anna Meredith in the film also strikes a similar chord in mirroring the ever-changing atmosphere that Kayla partakes in. Sometimes it is loud and abrasive to commute Kayla’s dread, and other times it can be tender and smooth when she sees a certain boy she has a crush on. Even more beneficial and cerebral is how it only pops up when Kayla is full steam into a situation that has previously been playing out, serving the film as more of an extra emphasis factor instead of something that caters to the presentational benefit of the film. Enya’s “Sail Away” is the only familiar song played in the film, and even its gentle strokes balance Kayla’s escapism into the internet perfectly, in an almost hypntozing sense.

– As for the self-help Youtube element itself, Kayla disappears in this recorded personality that differs so far from who she is in her own real life. This gives the subplot an intentionally hypocritical, yet therapeutic feeling, in that all of this advice she dishes out is really more for her than it is her sparse social media following. She knows how fake her demeanor comes across on-screen, yet can’t escape this overwhelming demand from within to conform to what society wants her to be, creating this battle for struggle with the real Kayla lying somewhere in between. I love my flawed protagonists, and this one is the very definition of that angle.

– This film is time-stamped to this particular generation, most notably in the measures that adults take in trying to relate to kids, with all of their “cool lingo” like slang and dabbing, but its intended humor succeeds despite the fact that Burnham was nowhere close to growing up in today’s scholastic landscape. His greatest ability as a screenwriter is his handle on the material, and how it constantly feels like he wrote this while shadowing an actual middle school. It’s second to none in terms of its genuineness, and highlights Burnham as a major force to be reckoned with in the Hollywood landscape.

– When you speak of important movies that should be shown to our youths, ‘Eighth Grade’ is certainly among the best and most important in this regards. Its message is easily transmitted without feeling spoon-fed or forced, and it’s one that isn’t afraid to show the decay of interaction because of dependency upon social media. Like our very kids growing up in 2018, there is advancement, yet great warning that comes with great technology, and as a screenwriter Burnham perfectly expedites this by comparing this delve with the ages-old wish of wanting to be popular, marrying the two in a frought ceremony that only further advances and enhances the inevitable confrontation that Kayla is faced with, and who better than one of Youtube’s own (Burnham) in capturing that pressure.

– While I could be wrong, ‘Eighth Grade’ feels like the first movie that takes a touchy subject such as the struggles of junior high, and orchestrates it in such a way that is entirely serious regardless of the sometimes humorous experiences. Because of this mature approach, it stands out from plots similar to this in approach, that market itself as the very same comedy that diminishes the importance of what it’s documenting. ‘Eighth Grade’ instead feels comfortable in what it is, and never backs down in putting the moment first.

– While I don’t fully understand why this film is rated-R, I support that stamping because it will require adults and kids to see it together.

NEGATIVES

– A24 always has problems ending their film, and unfortunately ‘Eighth Grade’ continues this direction. I won’t say the ending was entirely unsatisfying to me, but it feels every bit as unresolved as it does unaddressed. One could interpret this as adolescence more times than not as feeling unsatisfying, but there’s a subplot involving Kayla in a car that never gets addressed any further. It’s an important scene because it underlines the issues of truth to our youth, but its lack of weight or consequence feels irresponsible in its teaching. The rare blunder that I had for this otherwise outstanding film.

9/10

Three Identical Strangers

Directed by Tim Wardle

Starring – Silvi Alzetta-Reali, Eddy Galland, Ron Guttman

The Plot – New York, 1980: three complete strangers accidentally discover that they are identical triplets, separated at birth. The 19-year-olds’ joyous reunion catapults them to international fame, but it also unlocks an extraordinary and disturbing secret that goes beyond their own lives, and could transform our understanding of human nature forever.

Rated PG-13 for some mature thematic material

POSITIVES

– Masterful storytelling in the form of the brothers, as well as the dozens of family members, doctors, and authors who played a pivotal role in this one-of-a-kind story. Eddy in particular, has such a unique tone of voice and passion when he describes someone he loves or a particular event in how it went down, and that kind of energy being tapped into played wonders in keeping me engaged in them throughout the picture.

– Articulate dramatizations that play hand-in-hand with the storytelling being told audibly. Most biopic documentaries use this feature, but use it in a way that is corny or comical in presentation to the way that takes away the focus on the details. But in ‘Three Identical Strangers’, this aspect in visual storytelling captures the essence involved with the atmosphere that feels honest to the imagining.

– A surprisingly big budget feel in musical favorites. Even if music isn’t the prime focus in a story like this one, the inclusion of tracks like disco and southern rock that were all the rave at the time of this discovery, do wonders in immersing us into the right time and place for this setting. Beyond just the triplets, this is a story about pop culture in the 80’s, a time when people started understanding that you don’t have to be in the movies to be considered a celebrity.

– There’s a rich combination of humor and dramatic material in the film never stumbles or cuts short the power of the other. For as much as I was authentically laughing during the first act of the movie, the evolution of maturity in material during the second and third acts when the relationship of the brothers becomes tested, felt very compelling in the sense of heartbreak for my immense interest in this uncovering of the truth that the trailer promised us endlessly.

– Speaking of that mystery, the less you know about these brothers and their circumstance, the better. I myself knew absolutely nothing about these triplets, other than what I was told in the trailer, and even that might be too much. In my opinion, go into this film completely blindfolded, because only then will the impact of helplessness cast upon these three gentlemen reach its boiling summit, and you’ll be moved to the point of being an information seeker because of it. Sometimes 91 minutes of a film just isn’t enough, and you’ll find yourself searching for what has happened since the cameras got turned off.

– With spoiling as little as I possibly can, the material focuses on the age old debate of nature versus nurture, and while the final verdict doesn’t feel anymore conclusive because of this shining chapter, the many ups and downs of uncovering this dark past certainly provide plenty of ammunition for both sides. Throughout the movie, I was debating with myself, occasionally changing sides with the more I knew about what these brothers had been through, pointing to that aspect of genetics that lies somewhere in the middle. Engaged and enraged, this film played chess with my opinions, and even still I’m as confused as ever.

– BAFTA nominated filmmaker Waddle does a superb job at piecing together the facts and the vast collection of TV appearances and newspaper articles of this story, while leaving his finger firmly on the pulse of human psychology. Selflessly, Waddle never allows himself to be much of a presence on-screen, albeit in just brief question deliveries that he has for his guests, but instead spends his time preserving the thriller aspect of the real life story that sometimes feels too compelling to be a true story, proving that drama plays for stronger stakes in the world far beyond the silver screen.

– Something interesting happens with the dialogue throughout the film that required you to constantly pay great attention. The only thing I could compare it to are the Saw movies, when a line of dialogue is re-inserted during the closing moments of the film to add new meaning to the clues it gave early on. That same thing happens many times in ‘Three Identical Strangers’, and does so without ever spoiling what’s to come, because most phrases in human conversation have double meanings when played out of context. Truly provocative in how it forces you to hang on to every word.

– Doesn’t waste time in getting to the meat of the story. What you do learn from reading the synopsis above, happens in the first twenty minutes of the documentary, leaving that inevitability that something bigger and darker lies just underneath the surface of human interest pieces. What evolves, does so without taking away from the luster of the enchanted tale, all the while harvesting this level of regret in somber details that only gains our interest so much more.

NEGATIVES

– In the heated debate throughout the film of nature versus nurture, there is one disappointing aspect, most notably in the time devoted to the lives of these kids and their adopting families. Everything is summarized briefly, but I feel like this particular angle needs more attention paid to it, especially during the third act, when we start to see the laces of theories and narrative thesis being tied together. Some more family experience or elaboration could’ve done wonders in making this a perfect film, but as it stands it is the only aspect of the movie I was disappointed with.

9/10

Sorry To Bother You

Directed by Boots Riley

Starring – Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Jermaine Fowler

The Plot – In an alternate present-day version of Oakland, black telemarketer Cassius Green (Stanfield) discovers a magical key to professional success, which propels him into a macabre universe of “powercalling” that leads to material glory. But the upswing in Cassius’ career raises serious red flags with his girlfriend Detroit (Thompson), a performance artist and minimum-wage striver who’s secretly part of a Banksy-style activist collective. As his friends and co-workers organize in protest of corporate oppression, Cassius falls under the spell of his company’s cocaine-snorting CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), who offers him a salary beyond his wildest dreams.

Rated R for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, graphic nudity, and drug use

POSITIVES

– Boots Riley is one of those film revolutionaries when it comes to the way he views the world. Considering this is the musical maestro’s first effort behind the director’s chair, it’s astonishing the way he blends colorful chaos and air-tight editing to feed into the absurdity of channeling a world so satirically unbalanced from our own, while leaving enough truth in the material to see the similarities. This is a music video director who transitions over to the big screen, and he does so without it ever feeling minimal like a music video, nor sacrificial for his volume of art that he unleashes.

– The material itself (Also written by Riley), ages like a fine wine, initially feeling like a full-on comedy that eventually morphs into horrific circumstance. While a film like ‘Get Out’ opened the perspective on interracial relationships, ‘Sorry To Bother You’ does so much more in exposing the delirium in the workforce that minorities wake up to every day. It’s every bit as smart as it is precise with its focus, feeling like the most elaborate episode of ‘Black Mirror’ that you will ever find.

– Beyond the confines of corporate consumerism, Riley also points a finger at slavery-like business models, corporate racism, dumbed down media programming, and even the blurring of lines between what really makes a celebrity. The thing is that the material is done in such an originally metaphorical sense that it will more than likely fly over the heads of a majority of its audience, but I found it to be very much intelligent and even brave for the way it takes the tense initiative and uses humor as its own kind of puppet to enhance the lunacy.

– As far as performances are concerned Stanfield might be my absolute favorite one so far this year. In emoting Cassius, Stanfield’s transformation and his vibe change so frequently throughout the film to mirror his corporate influence, and he never misses a single note. Everything is finely timed out and crisply directed for him, and Lakeith himself has plenty to add in animated facial reactions that tell the story of how the heart is feeling inside. This leaves you plenty of empathy to donate to the character, all the while he isn’t making some of the best decisions that we as an audience agree with.

– Not since ‘Requiem For a Dream’ has an environment surrounding our story felt so reactionary and ever-changing on the same path that our protagonist takes. As the film finishes up its pivotal second act, we barely start to recognize any of our characters, and it overall feels like the world could burn down around them at any time. The most impactful storytelling takes one person’s angle and enriches the volume to feel suffocating, and there were many times in Riley’s film where I felt like the progression of this future will do more harm than good to these people striving for the American dream.

– One interesting tidbit to the transition sequences involving Cassius talking on the phone to his customers, is that it is actually a practical effect. Boots hired many strong men to lift the desks at the beginning of every sequence, giving Lakeith that frazzled and shook feeling that could only reach for the kind of authenticity that comes with practicality.

– Never anywhere on this planet will you find someone who can even remotely label this film as predictable. The trailer itself is done in such a clever way that only showcases much of the first act shenanigans, leaving plenty along the way that transforms this story in the most weird and elegant of ways, creatively. This is a very quickly paced 100 minutes that look like two completely different films from start to finish.

– My favorite scene of the film is a transition montage sequence that I really don’t want to give too much about it away. What I will say is that it represents the rags-to-riches story that Cassius embarks on, duplicating the change in material things that spring up in his own life, done in the most elaborate and beautifully eye-hatching method of visual storytelling.

– My hat is off to any film that figures out yet another way for Danny Glover to utter the line “I’m too old for this shit”. Cliche? YES, Overdone? YES, Funny? Even still. It’s every bit as expected by now as Tom Hanks urinating in a movie, and it’s definitely my favorite of obvious Easter eggs in the movie.

NEGATIVES

– I hate even mentioning a negative in this film, because it’s so close to perfection for me, but the love triangle between three central characters was definitely the sloppy weakness of the film. Because of its lack of resolve and inconsequential weight within this story, it feels almost pointless to even introduce this subplot into the script. It is mentioned once during the third act, but then never elaborated on, leaving a noticeable flaw with some of the way these characters shake out in the end of the film.

9/10

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Directed by Morgan Neville

Starring – Fred Rogers, Joanne Rogers, Francois Scarborough Clemmons

The Plot – From Academy Award-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom), Won’t You Be My Neighbor? takes an intimate look at America’s favorite neighbor: Mister Fred Rogers. A portrait of a man whom we all think we know, this emotional and moving film takes us beyond the zip-up cardigans and the land of make-believe, and into the heart of a creative genius who inspired generations of children with compassion and limitless imagination.

Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and adult language

POSITIVES

– Assertive, informative, and moving . Won’t You Be My Neighbor is the perfect documentary for all kinds of fans, passionate or occasional, who wish to immerse themselves one more time in their childhoods. It’s a heart-warming dissection of the man who refused to change in an ever-changing world, giving way to the kind of loving and supportive ideals that some in 2018 still struggle with.

– Documentaries often follow chronological time as their directing narrative for storytelling, but that predictable spin gets lost in favor of Neville’s focus on the impacts with the world at hand that only Fred could commute. In his unmatched relationship with his youthful audience, Rogers because a pioneer with a lasting legacy for positivity, something that figures from our childhoods are quickly being removed from.

– With any documentary about a particular person, I look forward to information about that person that I rarely knew about, and this film accomplishes this in spades. Aside from our own intimate portrait of Fred front-and-center, the film also has several deep psychological spins for what the many characters in-and-around the neighborhood represented.

– There is that stirring feeling watching the film, when you almost forget that Rogers has been deceased since 2003, and this is because of the masterful editing by Jeff Malmberg and Aaron Wickenden, that manipulates that feeling of real time. Aside from this consistent bending of time, there’s also an innovative way that the visual effects puts you in the seat of watching this on your own television, giving off that live vibe before our very eyes.

– With absolutely no shortage of scenes to reach for tissues, it specifically was the scenes of Fred supporting a gay cast member, as well as a child confined to a wheelchair where I lost it like I haven’t in years during a film. What’s even more credible is that these somber instances have absolute zero to do with negativity of the situation, and more to do with how truly beautiful Fred’s one-of-a-kind outlook on life truly was. If this movie doesn’t make you smile at least once, you should have your pulse checked.

– Wide assortment of friends, family, and colleagues that vividly paint the picture. It’s no surprise, nor small feat the kind of legend that Rogers became saddled with, but in hearing the perspectives of so many adults who he helped along the way, you start to understand that while children were his pedigree, the universal language of love was something he lived every single day of his life.

– Intercut during several points during the film, are some experimental animation with Daniel Tiger that added a layer of independent cinematic depth to perfectly capture the roller-coaster of moods that the film takes with its material. These illustrations by Jason Fruchter offer a kind of mature shading palate of the typical Daniel Tiger cartoon that can currently be seen on modern day PBS, where the color scheme breeds more psychadelic effect here that visually pleased.

– What was most impressive to me is that even though Rogers lacked the kind of controversy or trouble that a protagonist in these films always seems to have, the movie never lost steam to me in following along. This is proof that good storytelling doesn’t require a juicy circumference to hook its audience. Positivity still holds a place in this world, even though that aura of good does omit itself a bit after you leave the theater.

– Tons of behind-the-scenes footage that offer us that rare glimpse of him enjoying the many passions in his life. Even more beneficial in this aspect is the fading effect of this wall that divides character and person, reminding us of this rarity of them being the same person. Rogers lived and breathed his daily life lessons to those he constantly spoke to beyond the camera, giving much credibility to why his show worked despite the fact that it went against everything that was defined as great television for the time.

NEGATIVES

– Although I felt like the stuff involving Fox News certainly added a dimension of unnecessary backlash to Rogers consistently inspirational message, the focus aimed at the many shows and people who parodied Mr Rogers is something that I felt was strongly unnecessary during this particular film. Lashing out against these misguided comedians who are only doing it for a laugh makes Rogers almost come down to their level, and if it were up to me, I would be fine with Neville ignoring them all together instead of wasting minutes to even give them recognition. Even with Rogers comments on them, it never feels consistent with the rest of the film’s positive message of nothing coming between Fred and the kids.

9/10

American Animals

Directed by Bart Layton

Starring – Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Ann Dowd

The Plot – The unbelievable but true story of four young men who brazenly attempt to execute one of the most audacious art heists in US history. Determined to live lives that are out of the ordinary, they formulate a daring plan for the perfect robbery, only to discover that the plan has taken on a life of its own.

Rated R for adult language throughout, some drug use and brief crude/sexual material

POSITIVES

– Because the words “Based on a True Story” have become an overdone cliche in Hollywood cinema, Layton instead capitalizes on the direction of this real life heist by valuing the reality about its jaw-dropping details. As to where most films will let the A-list cast tell the story, Layton instead as a writer brings forth the real life figures involved in the story to narrate us in a dramatization-meets-feature-film kind of marriage that holds our interest for nearly two hours.

– Even more respectable is the impeccable use of artistic direction that adorns the picture and depictions from the people telling the story. There’s great use in the ability of change and almost erasing something out of frame all together when a character doesn’t remember it going down a certain way, and if this wasn’t enough, the backdrop in canvas stylization breathes that immersive touch. Each location feel like it radiates its own color palate, controlling the very aura of a room with its mesmerizing allure.

– Sharp editing. More so in the first half of this film, the story feels like it’s breezing to its robbery destination, and while this is true in terms of the overall pacing for the film, the answer in reality lies with the sequencing of each scene by master editors Nick Fenton and Julian Hart that makes the previous one feel overlapping. Because of this, the film’s events offer very little breathing time along the way, replicating the impending clock that feels hot on the tails of these animals whether they embrace it or not.

– What I loved about this screenplay is that the robbery is only half of the story. The real drama and traumatic experiences come AFTER the robbery, paying homage to a film like Alpha Dog that this film constantly reminded me of, although done so much better. Because much of Layton’s script is so cerebral in the mind of our deviants, we start to see the consequences of such a plan once step two comes into focus. It all feels like an exceptionally balanced beam of paranoia and inexperience that constantly play off of one another.

– Most surprisingly was the level of humor that the film harvests, despite this being a mostly serious narrative. The humor works because it feels authentic with the personalities and speech patterns amongst this tight little group, and less like it was written by some screenwriter in a chair. Its awkwardness amongst the unfolding madness demands you laugh at the sheer stupidity of it all, giving us that much needed moment of release amongst the ensuing pressure that keeps building.

– For my money, the work of Keoghan and Peters easily maintains control throughout for completely different reasons. For as much as Keoghan’s subdued curiosity spins the necessities of empathetic protagonist that the film so desperately needs, Evans Warren is the devilishly delightful antagonist of sorts on our left shoulder who forces us (As well as everyone on screen) to indulge in riches so close that we can reach out and touch them. Evans brings with him the same endless charisma and untimely rage from American Horror Story that has made him a household name in just over seven years.

– What this film does that benefits its heist scenes so much more than a film like Ocean’s 8 is that it maximizes the intensity of these environments and shifts that prove no matter how much you plan something, shit happens. In fact, it’s in the boys ability to adapt that makes this thinking-on-their-toes ideal spring those feelings of anxiety that we get while watching them get through the movements. The less you know definitely works for the better, but even if you know everything there is to know about this true American heist, Layton’s soaking up of environmental sights and sounds, when combined with Anne Nikitin’s musical drum-building triumph, makes for the perfect time to rid yourself of the facts and just get lost in matters so surreal that they could never be manufactured.

– Much appreciation for the tiny Easter eggs that were sprouted as a result of classic heist films. I won’t spoil them all, but a couple of examples come in the form of Blockbuster Video titles that the guys watch to prepare them for their big day, the use of ‘A Little more Conversation’ by Elvis Presley during a montage sequence (Ocean’s Eleven), and of course my personal favorite, the use of codenames that bares a striking resemblance to one of my favorite Tarantino flicks. This film not only homages, but it echoes these films effect on white suburban Americana.

– There’s an overall sense of feel in the film that relates this to a dream-turned-nightmare scenario that these kids can’t wake up from. Because so much of what we’re seeing is true and actually happened, the audacity of such twists and turns give off this narcoleptic state that we as an audience wait to be pulled back into a dream, only the horror gets worse the longer we stay under. This is something that most horror films can’t even attain, but Ann Dowd films have already managed this feat twice this year.

NEGATIVES

– If I had one problem with the film, it’s in the inability to relate to the thinly-layered oppression that this privileged group suffers from to make them feel motivated. No one between them ever feels truly desperate by their college lives to really need this heist, and because of such, the mission itself can’t escape this unshakeable feeling that this is all character boredom, omitting some of the momentum needed later when the sanctions come down.

9/10

Revenge

Directed by Coralie Fargeat

Starring – Matilda Lutz, Kevin Janssens, Vincent Colombe

The Plot – Jen (Lutz) is enjoying a romantic getaway with her wealthy boyfriend, Richard (Janssens) which is suddenly disrupted when his sleazy friends arrive for an unannounced hunting trip. Tension mounts in the house until the situation abruptly, and viciously, intensifies, culminating in a shocking act that leaves Jen left for dead. Unfortunately for her assailants, Jen survives and reemerges with a relentless, wrathful intent: revenge on those who left her for dead.

Rated R for strong bloody gruesome violence, a rape, sexuality, graphic nudity, drug use and adult language

POSITIVES
– From a presentational standpoint, ‘Revenge’ is the single best film of 2018. Sleek, transfixing sexy style in camera and color coordination that speaks vibes to 70’s exploitation horror with a French style of cinematography. Great close-ups on the Lutz’s body for how males in the film see her, and great close-ups on the males for how disgusting and predatory their long stares equate

– Measured, meticulous performance by the talented Lutz. Her transformation is one that is slowly calculated, and never feels superhuman once the turning point happens. She still very much feels pain, and that fact alone keeps this film from ever being predictable. Likewise, the male antagonists share a stark contrast in personality from beginning to end that reminds audiences that behind every warm smile is a hunter not afraid to get his hands dirty. It almost forces you to go back and watch the film again to see how elaborate the act of a pervert truly is.

– Fargeat is as ferocious as it gets as a director. There’s a fine mixture of feminist onslaught, combined with bloody brutality that not only satisfies audiences, but also has something to say about modern communication between the sexes. In addition, she never sacrifices style for substance, instead proving that a game of aggressive vengeance can feed into both.

– My early favorite for best musical score of the year by Robin Coudert. These tones capture a techno/new wave synth that command the strings of tension for each inevitable conflict. Even more impressive, Robin’s numbers are never redundant or derivative of the same ten seconds of audio on repeat. They very much expand in the same way the violent sequences do.

– There’s almost a satirical aspect to the screenplay that brings together every stereotype for white, rich males, but the air of familiarity keeps the impact of illusion firmly at bay. Sometimes the most difficult things to express are the loudest truths, and this film gives you more than a few perspectives at female dating that so-called ‘Chick-flicks’ just can’t capitalize on.

– The title is short, sweet and straight to the point. I don’t often give points for a title, but ‘Revenge’ hits the nose with everything the film encapsulates.

– Carnage candy for days. Even for a horror enthusiast like myself, there were two scenes in this film that made me wince in agony. Fargeat is happy to oblige in giving us the most disgusting and volatile angles that she can muster, choosing to never look away or put on the brake pedal from karma’s greatest game. Beyond this, each form of revenge in the film is a form of penetration, and that’s something that I don’t think was an accident when you consider the touchy subject matter of the first act.

– What is so astonishing about Fargeat as a first time director is not only her ability in giving genre enthusiasts what they want, but also the twists with genre cliches that she offers another take for. In this film it is the man who bares his body. In this film it is the men who make the stupid decisions. In this film the rape sequence doesn’t need as much spoon-feeding as in other films like ‘I Spit on Your Grave’ to be effective. The way it is shot and focused upon proves that the implication is more than enough to get her audience so invested in the moment.

– Much of the sound mixing here offers a stark contrast than what we’re used to, in that it heightens those moments of quiet in which characters are known to hide or plot to offer us a perspective into blood-rising or adrenaline boiling over. This made for some of the more exciting scenes than even that of the attacks because a volcano won’t blow if it’s not given the pressure to rise to the top, and the payoffs each time are that much more stimulating because of the poking and prodding to the audience.

NEGATIVES

– Some of the imagery edited into frames are a tad bit too practical for my taste. While they all make sense from a creative standpoint, I couldn’t escape this taste of obviousness a time too many. I feel like the film works best when its social commentary feels earned and not forced, and sometimes these brief moments of inclusion soiled the impact of letting Lutz take the reigns for herself.

9/10

Avengers: Infinity War

Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo

Starring – Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Chris Pratt

The Plot – As the Avengers and their allies have continued to protect the world from threats too large for any one hero to handle, a new danger has emerged from the cosmic shadows: Thanos (Josh Brolin). A despot of intergalactic infamy, his goal is to collect all six Infinity Stones, artifacts of unimaginable power, and use them to inflict his twisted will on all of reality. Everything the Avengers have fought for has led up to this moment; the fate of Earth and existence itself has never been more uncertain.

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action throughout, some adult language and some crude references

POSITIVES

– You have to admire the task that the brothers Russo are faced with, combining 10 years and 18 films worth of characters to an explosive destination that packs the most dynamic of scopes in a superhero film to date. The Russo brothers establish the fun and surreal nature in combining our favorite personalities together to share the screen, and in doing so establish the exclamation point on a decade of this cinematic universe.

– Because this is an action flick first and foremost, the decision to shoot the entirety of the film with IMAX cameras is one that I greatly admire. Much of the tight-knit shots, as well as rocky camera work are traded in for smooth, wide-angled lens captures that allow you to keep your eye on everything in frame, despite the overwhelming nature of it all.

– Much of the C.G work is done beneficially enough, despite a few brief glare-ups that stick out like sore thumbs. Much of my problems dealt with a certain Avenger donning the Hulkbuster armor, in which the face of said actor looked jarringly hollow. Thankfully, the C.G landscapes and backdrops all capture the versatility in worlds that the film invades, and the destruction and devastation move mountains with their believability in weight impact.

– Best Marvel Villain to date. What makes Thanos such a great villain isn’t just his ability to adapt to the many fight styles that each Avenger member brings, but also his speed for a man his size that impresses and makes it easier to comprehend how he can keep up. Besides this, his backstory is one that allows plenty of empathy in respecting the tough decisions that this character has to face. In my opinion, the sign of a good villain is when you still see those brief peaks at the human side of emotions still yearning to get out, and Thanos rides this difficult roller-coaster commandingly, reminding us that big rewards come with punishing sacrifice.

– Speaking of Thanos, the overall makeup work here masters peak status for the entire Marvel series. In their prized antagonist, we get a mountain of a man with muscles stacked to the sky, but it’s in his facial features where I felt most impressed. Despite the immersion in this character from another planet in all of the purple makeup, there’s still enough definition in Brolin’s facial features to remind you that this is being played first-and-foremost by a live actor and not just a computer hologram.

– Anyone who reads my writing knows that my biggest problem with superhero films in general is that there is rarely any consequences to what transpires, and ‘Infinity War’ leaves this concern in the dust tenfold. I won’t spoil anything, but if you think this many characters will just glide through this movie unscathed, you’ve got another thing coming. There were grown men crying in my theater during the somber concluding moments, and this only further establishes the power that Thanos has not only on his prey, but also on the adoring audiences who have witnessed this super-villain come to life before our eyes. My only fear is that a convenient plot device within the Infinity Gauntlet might soil this in the second part of this film.

– Surprisingly, the many different tones are juggled wonderfully in this film. For some like the Guardians of the Galaxy or Iron Man, comedy has always been the dominant tone to their respective series, yet the serious dramatic take of ones like Doctor Strange or Captain America compliment these without alienating the former. I’ll mention a problem I have later with the immense number of characters, but I feel like the tone never suffered, nor did it separate the feeling that you might be watching five different movies stitched together.

– Because of the volume of A-listers sharing the screen, there are few chances for anyone to truly breakout performance-wise, but this is definitely Brolin’s film for the taking. Not only does Thanos receive the entirety of the backstory in exposition, but Josh’s careful juggling of menacing presence covering up a map of pain and sorrow just beneath the surface, is something that articulately illustrated levels of depth to his range as a performer. I honestly think this will go down as one of his best performances when his career comes to an end someday.

– As with other Marvel films, this too has some poignant social commentary conveniently rising to the surface. Some themes within the film that we see in our own world involve suicide bombers dying for the cause, heaven and hell, and most obviously the use and necessity of nuclear weapons (Infinity Stones). On the latter, there’s much reflection that the Russo’s offer in suggesting that we get rid of these objects that we have sworn will protect us that might ultimately be our undoing, and these serious issues never weigh down or preach their intended message to soiling the overall atmosphere of the thrills they accompany.

 

NEGATIVES

– There are obviously no shortage of superheroes sharing screen time here, and while that does wonders for the overall pacing of the film (Even at nearly two-and-a-half hours), it only hurts the movements of each respective subplot. With there being seven different groups of stories being told simultaneously, the uneven time deposited to certain ones clearly become obvious, making it feel like ages before your personal favorite story arc is returned to again. My solution is that some of these could’ve easily been converged with others, improving the interactions as well as trimming a few minutes off if you feel necessary.

9/10

Ready Player One

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Starring – Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn

The Plot – In the year 2045, the real world is a harsh place. The only time Wade Watts (Sheridan) truly feels alive is when he escapes to the OASIS, an immersive virtual universe where most of humanity spends their days. In the OASIS, you can go anywhere, do anything, be anyone-the only limits are your own imagination. The OASIS was created by the brilliant and eccentric James Halliday (Mark Rylance), who left his immense fortune and total control of the Oasis to the winner of a three-part contest he designed to find a worthy heir. When Wade conquers the first challenge of the reality-bending treasure hunt, he and his friends-aka the High Five-are hurled into a fantastical universe of discovery and danger to save the OASIS.

Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action violence, bloody images, some suggestive material, partial nudity and adult language.

THE POSITIVES

– The aesthetic touch couldn’t be better, bringing to life the vibrant visuals of the OASIS with a synthetic gaming feel. I would normally call out other films that depend so much on C.G graphics, but this kind of effect was made for a film that almost entirely takes place in a world so foreign from our own.

– Art imitating life?? Because of the beauty and adventure involved in the OASIS, the real world is associated with a bleak, almost hopeless feel by comparison. There’s a real sense of escapism with this gaming world, and while that comes with endless exhilaration for our protagonist, it ignores the real problems that have doomed society because of their dependency upon this magical place. This responsible take is every bit as refreshing as it is vocal about our own addictions to technology.

– There’s no secret that this film could easily be called ‘Easter Egg: The Movie’ because of its endless displays of pop culture icons from film and gaming that give it an overall big budget feature. What’s surprisingly pleasing however, is that with the exception of one scene, their appearances feel necessary in upping the ante of importance to Halliday’s future and never steal the film’s focus for themselves. In catching them all, this film has outstanding replay value, and will welcome hundreds of upcoming Youtube videos to point out the ones that are extremely obscure.

– Spielberg has directed adult or child protagonists before, but surprisingly never teenagers until now. In doing so, it feels like he has a real grasp on their psychology and mannuerisms when it comes to their overall sense of spontaneity. ‘Ready Player One’ could easily pass for a teenage genre film in any of the eras it homages, and it’s clear that Spielberg’s latest awakens the adolescent from within him that has constantly kept beating through over forty years in cinema.

– This film is a collective audio scrapbook of 80’s synth hits that each meet their desired emotion in their respective scenes without feeling topical. From Van Halen, to A-Ha, to even Twisted Sister, this soundtrack mirrors that of the fictional star power shown in the film, and serves as a respectable nod in our present day to the past era of music that felt bigger than life.

– Sound mixing at its finest. You have to listen and pay attention closely, but the sound effects in the OASIS that serve as a reaction when something has been hit or destroyed also borrows from film, carefully placing a sound that the audience is familiar with into a new atmosphere to give it a new lease on life. For instance, the fading picture noise in ‘Back to the Future’ is now used for the key reveals.

– Precise casting. I have only read ‘Ready Player One’ once, but for my money the casting of Sheridan and Cooke feels right on point. The two emote an on-screen chemistry that radiates without being forceful. What’s even more impressive is that these two must connect on a spiritual level and not a physical one since a majority of the film takes place in the OASIS. It’s also in the care and backstory of their respective characters that the film takes in drawing them together. You feel strong empathy and investment into their conflicts because of their conflict with this major corporation that has taken everything from them.

– It’s not often that I get edge-of-my-seat giddy during a film, at the age of 33 years old, but the second key challenge in the film had my eyes glued to the screen with anticipation. Many people will be raving about the third challenge in this film, but my vote for coolest scene goes to the second challenge that bends the pages of historical film without desecrating them.

– If you listen to me about anything, hear me when I say that ‘Ready Player One’ is the film you go all out for and pay top dollar. This is a film that deserves to be seen by as many eyes on the biggest screen possible. The 3D actually added effects work to the outline of characters and backdrops that put you front-and-center inside of the game, and for once the colors don’t diminish or fade with the thick lenses of these theater goggles. Treat yourself, you deserve it.

THE NEGATIVES
– A majority of the action sequences are shot a bit too close for my taste. What this does is make it slightly more difficult in registering each deciding blow with the kind of clarity needed in keeping the audience’s focus. Because so much of these scenes are cluttered with characters, I could’ve used that wide angle shot in seeing things from the grander scale, instead of feeling like I was holding the hand of the main character.

THE EXTRAS

– It hit me about midway through that this is a modern day ‘Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’. Five kids work closely together while mining through a series of tests for the prize of winning a genius’s empire. Sound familiar?

9/10

Phantom Thread

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring – Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville

THE PLOT – Set in the glamour of 1950s post-war London, renowned dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Lewis) and his sister Cyril (Manville) are at the center of British fashion, dressing royalty, movie stars, heiresses, socialites, debutants, and dames with the distinct style of The House of Woodcock. Women come and go through Woodcock’s life, providing the confirmed bachelor with inspiration and companionship, until he comes across a young, strong-willed woman, Alma (Krieps), who soon becomes a fixture in his life as his muse and lover. Once controlled and planned, he finds his carefully tailored life disrupted by love.

Rated R for adult language

THE POSITIVES

– Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood with another truly mesmerizing musical score for his friend, Anderson. Greenwood always feels like he has his hands on the pulse of the films he accompanies, but it sounds like his piano-dominant numbers breathe life and narration into the picture, following along our group of characters through their rocky tribulations that heighten our experience. He’s simply needed more here than ever before.

– The trio of performances by Lewis, Krieps, and Manville that all bring their best game to the forefront. If this is Lewis’s rumored final film, then he goes out on top, breathing life into the workaholic Woodcock that depicts a man burdened by his passion. Together with Krieps, the film’s couple feels like the most honest depiction of love on the screen that we have seen in a long time, channeling a kind of childish bickering between them that gives the audience plenty of innocent giggles. Krieps herself has such rendering facial expressions that she could play her part without ever vocalizing a single word.

– Anderson is impeccable as a triple threat, commanding the camera, screenplay, and helming the luxurious cinematography for the first time. On the latter, Paul uses soft, dreamy backdrops to accentuate the vibrancy that the fashions that adorn. This makes the work of Woodcock pop that much more to the naked eye, and blossoms what I feel is Anderson’s best feature of the irreplaceable work that he takes on.

– Costume designer Mark Bridges and his elegant styles that immerse the film with such first class tastes. Bridges uses layers to sell his gifts to the audience, and if there’s any film that appreciates his artistic vision, it’s one that values and depicts what goes into the perfect dress.

– The screenplay hints that every beautiful gift that is bestowed upon someone can in turn be a curse that renders them lost in their work. This gives our protagonist a kind of man-becomes-monster kind of feel, in that it’s great to see him work, but we know it’s a cancer of sorts to his own well-being.

– I greatly appreciated that this film never took the low hanging fruit that was quietly hinted at especially during the second act. There are enough twists and turns that keep this sometimes redundant screenplay infused with the spark needed to get through the dry spots, and it gave the film enough momentum to carry over into hour two.

– There’s a kind of awkwardness in the idiosyncrasies that surround Woodcock’s lifestyle and routines that value this as anything BUT a casual 20th century love tale. Once we delve deeper, we come to understand the reasons behind this abstract man that stands before us.

– One of the messages that I took away from the film was when you’re in love with someone, you must tailor yourselves to each other. There’s further argument that opposites may attract, but those opposites must learn how to merge together to create something beautiful for all to adore. Sounds like one of Woodcock’s creations, eh?

– Because of so many seamless tonal shifts, there’s more uncertainty as to where this film is headed. There are times of laughter, sadness, and even horror that spring to life, and all of it feels like the necessary ingredients needed for the mental game of chess in the finale that will leave you frozen in your seat.

THE NEGATIVES

– It’s a small problem, but I almost wish that the film would’ve explored the secrets that Woodcock stitches in every creation a bit more. I just feel like to bring it up and use it very little for the remainder of the film makes it either a lost opportunity or a pointless conversation piece.

9/10

I, Tonya

Directed by Craig Gillespie

Starring – Margot Robbie, Allison Janey, Sebastian Stan

THE PLOT – Competitive ice skater Tonya Harding (Robbie) rises amongst the ranks at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, but her future in the activity is thrown into doubt when her ex-husband (Stan) intervenes, paving a road of faith to this moment that has taken her through a lifetime of mental abuse from her Mom (Janney), and physical abuse from her husband. When all is said and done, Tonya will be one of the most memorable names in the sport….for better or worse.

Rated R for pervasive adult language, violence, and some sexual content/nudity

THE POSITIVES

– The decision for a two hour runtime allows the WHOLE story to be told, feeding into the before, during and after of the famous incident that will label her for a lifetime.

– Even Hollywood writers can’t make up the absurd chain of events depicted in this film. Stories like this are movies before they ever see the light of day on the screen.

– Exceptional production qualities like stage lighting and versatility in camera angles and framing, keep this biopic from ever garnering a typical movie-of-the-week artistic vibe

– The transformative performances of Robbie and Janney that take no prisoners with their audience. Janney is the devil incarnate, channeling the worst parenting job since ‘Mommy Dearest’ with a fiery register behind rimmed glasses as big as her ego. Robbie originally felt too beautiful for this role, but she won me over in juggling the emotional roller-coaster that is Harding, who truly always feels alone in what she endures.

– Presents a refreshing angle to Harding that offers an empathetic take without framing her in innocence. This highlights the idea that she is a product of her environment, and never shook the ideals instilled upon her by her mother.

– Harding’s underdog story of sorts for competing against an entire organization and their precious traditions. Revealing looks at historical events like this one certainly provide insight into the pre-determined mindset of the judges who wanted Tonya to fail before her skates ever hit the ice. This makes it easier to stand behind her.

– The precise editing of the skating sequences, conjuring up an intensity in performance that I never paid attention to for the sport.

– Screenwriter Steven Rogers unshaken direction to leave the truth somewhere in the middle, between what actually happened on that fateful day. The interview style leaves just enough room for there to be skepticism provided by the questionable characters telling it.

THE NEGATIVES

– The facial C.G animation during the skating sequences is jarring. There are often scenes where a huge head feels like it is plastered on a small body, giving the authenticity a cartoonish vibe that is not needed in the otherwise perfect production value.

– Too often the narration cuts in, limiting the story from playing out in real time. Only half a point was taken off here because the problem fixes itself in the third act.

9/10

Molly’s Game

The high stakes gamble of a no limit poker game in Los Angeles, rests in the hands of a confident woman named Molly. ‘Molly’s Game’ is based on the true story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), an Olympic-class skier who ran the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker game for a decade before being arrested in the middle of the night by 17 FBI agents wielding automatic weapons. Her players included Hollywood royalty, sports stars, business titans and finally, unbeknownst to her, the Russian mob. Her only ally was her criminal defense lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), who learned that there was much more to Molly than the tabloids led us to believe. Over the course of the on-going investigation, Molly is held at threat to give up the names of her clients or face devastating consequences that will ruin her life tenfold. ‘Molly’s Game’ is written by critically acclaimed screenwriter Aaron Sorkin who is directing his first film. It is rated R for adult language, drug content, and some violence.

Aaron Sorkin goes all in on ‘Molly’s Game’, the directorial debut from the academy award winning screenplay writer who has crafted some pretty immense presences in on-screen domination. Molly Bloom might be his single greatest achievement to date, echoing the vibes of a female heroine who has a dominating presence over her male clients in a way that you wouldn’t see right away when you hear the basis of her real life story. The film itself in a transfixing dive into the seedy underground world of illegal gambling, complete with the styles and environments that embrace such a closed-off place. With his first time in the directing chair, Sorkin’s detailed writing carries over into lifting straight from the pages vividly, and when you can capitalize on the writer and director being the same person, it benefits the project in spades because there’s no dissention in communication between one direction versus the other. As far as biopics go, this one is every bit as entertaining as it is inclusive to anyone who does or does not have a vast array of knowledge with the game of poker and all of its terminology. Sorkin politely grabs our hands and refuses to ever let us get lost, despite the fact that the sequences are almost as quick as the witty banter that Sorkin has always been known for.

To that degree, the fast paced nature of conversations vibrantly paint a secretive world, while also harvesting the positive entertaining nature in telling a story between us and the title character. Sorkin is clever when it comes to teaching you much about his good or bad characters, making them practically leap over the boundaries as to what translates accordingly to the silver screen, and in his 135 minutes of film, he teaches us everything that there is to know about Bloom without it ever feeling like a slideshow presentation. If there was a weakness that I had in the film, and this is just nit-picking, it would be the dialogue sometimes coming off as too pandering to the entertainment spectrum. What I mean by this is that it can sometimes break the viewer’s immersive benefit within the film to reminding us that this is first-and-foremost a movie, and not the feeling of an actual conversation taking place. It’s almost too cool or hip to be honest, and Sorkin could take great feedback in learning to scale it back a bit, especially between the scenes that Chastain and Elba share that feel like a game of one-upping the other player.

Besides that though, ‘Molly’s Game’ is overall one of my favorite films of 2017 because of its versatile on-going storytelling that never feels counterproductive or plodding because of how much is included. For the entirety of the film, there’s really two different timelines being played out; one in Molly’s present with the unfolding court case ahead of her, and one in her past a few years back when she took up this streaky hosting gig. In addition to this, the film also spans back occasionally to show us a scene or two of Molly’s teenage career as an amateur freestyle skier. It may sound like a lot to take in, but each of these angles are not only pivotal to understanding the kind of environment that trained Molly to thrive under pressure, but also one that makes you fully engage in her character that makes some risky decisions. What’s even better is that Sorkin makes each transition from tier to tier feel seamless, using background locations as well as consistency amongst wardrobe in reminding you where you are at during that point of the script. The film is very well paced despite its ambitious runtime, and there wasn’t a single thing that I would’ve cut from the film to make it run slightly smoother. Everything here appropriately builds the expositional blocks of character tremendously, and it’s a constant reminder that Aaron’s first profession doesn’t go abandoned for his greener pastures at the top of the crew list.

Beyond the story, the technical spectrum here entices the audience fruitfully as well, building a consistency in the combination of lighting and editing that should both be no short of award deserving. The cinematography here is by Danish camera artist Charlotte Christensen, a magician behind the lens who has done work in ‘Fences’ and ‘The Girl on the Train’ to name a couple. I say that because like those other films, ‘Molly’s Game’ as well feeds into its luminous environments that articulately absorb for the audience the champagne wishes and caviar dreams that surround the sport. Christensen herself also knows where and how to shoot Molly from the best angles, bringing out the best in visual qualities (wink wink), as well as facial emoting that constantly relate what the character is feeling at all times. As for the editing, this is bar-none the very best that I have seen this year. The trio of Alan Barmgarten, Elliot Graham, and Josh Schaeffer all have their hands beautifully full here, inserting a barrage of colorful clips to Chastain’s verbal heavy narration that feeds into the lesson being taught before our very eyes. The differences between telling someone a story and showing them go a long way in how the audience can pick up on an area in knowledge that they aren’t familiar with, leaving them visually stimulated through each transitional edit that bridges the gap smoothly. Beyond that, I also think the trio offer versatility in their direction on when to cut during quick-cut dialogue scenes. Sometimes the quicker cut is better in keeping the consistency flowing in back-and-forth execution, but there are times when they leave the camera on Chastain for just a second longer, to read her reaction to the madness that is unfolding, and its those subtle instances that I approve on for these men never sticking to just one style in the long term.

As for performances, there are two leads and two supporting characters to praise here. On the former, Chastain continues to be a thunderous presence on-screen, commanding Molly with a combination of wits and beauty that make her easy to fall under her commanding spell. That’s not to say that Jessica is all looks, quite the opposite. She’s dangerous because of her beauty, but she’s hypnotizing because of the way she reads the board and gets to know her players one-by-one as they enter the room. If it wasn’t for Frances Macdormand in ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’, Chastain would be my Oscar favorite for the year, but even still her intimidating presence upon the character is something that shouldn’t be downplayed, and works wonders in inspiring the female audience who seek a credible female lead. Idris Elba is the other lead who I think really comes on in the second half of the film as Molly’s lawyer. Elba’s character feels like the only person who can match Molly for intelligence, and through two scenes of long-winded release that left me breathless, Idris proves that shouting is never necessary in grabbing the attention of the audience who eat out of his hand. His one negative is that his British accent does sometimes seep through, but it’s never enough to ruin the quality of his powerful performance. Likewise, Michael Cera and Kevin Costner are also both vital parts to the film, despite them only being in a few scenes each. For Cera, this is the best that I have ever seen him. As this nameless movie star (Rumored to be Tobey Maguire), he is cunning and persistent, breaking out of the Cera stronghold of characters that have unfairly judged the previous part of his career. This is proof that he has plenty to give to a film, and just when I fell in love with his character, he goes away for good. Finally, Costner again accepts an against-type role as Molly’s hard-nosed father who pushed her to her limits mentally and physically. The chemistry between them is alluring because they don’t have the best relationship. His character isn’t someone you ever support or take wisdom in, but by the end of the film, Kevin’s watery deposition reminds you of the parent who is dying to get out, even if it goes against type for much of Molly’s earlier life. Great performances all around.

THE VERDICT – Through an intriguing protagonist and an intelligent screenplay, Aaron Sorkin not only throws all of his chips in, but he also takes home the pot with one of the most strategically entertaining films of the year. Chastain and Elba dare you to take your eyes off of them, breathing in two characters who can’t be bluffed in all of their stage-feeling focus. Sometimes the dialogue can sour a scene or two too much with its wink-and-nod qualities, but ‘Molly’s Game’ is too snappy and stylish not to indulge in, giving us one game where we all win.

9/10

The Shape of Water

The relationship between human and monster comes full circle, in Guillermo Del Toro’s newest adult night-time fairytale, ‘The Shape of Water’. The film is an otherworldly fable set against the backdrop of Cold War era America circa 1962. In the hidden high-security government laboratory where she works as a janitor, lonely and deaf Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is trapped in a life of isolation. Elisa’s life is changed forever when she and co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) discover a secret classified experiment. At the helm is a hard-nosed government doctor (Michael Shannon), who is hell-bent on keeping this devastating secret just that; a secret. As Elisa gets closer, the threat of the unknown becomes even more apparent, setting those closest to her on a trail to discover just what she is hiding. ‘The Shape of Water’ is written and directed by Del Toro, and is rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence, and adult language.

‘The Shape of Water’ is an enchantment under the sea kind of engagement. Through a love for the tinseltown age of Hollywood cinema, Del Toro instills a lover’s kind of tale that challenges all kinds of barriers both mentally and physically that are pre-judged by the kind of society that seems intrusive to judge who they can and can’t love. But far beyond that, this film dazzled me with an insane amount of versatility in its creative structure that caters to many more genre fans than just those who came looking to be charmed by the connection that Hawkins and Doug Jones (The creature) share for one another. Far beyond its gentle touch in crafting an unorthodox love angle, the film is also compelling in the science fiction department for the kind of rules and worlds that it opens up within its pages. Finally, ‘The Shape of Water’ also triumphs as a heist movie for the first half of the picture that questions just how far those of us would be willing to go to live that feeling for the rest of our lives. Del Toro indulges in these many faces and doesn’t require us to ever choose just one, conjuring up his single most inclusive film to date that doesn’t alienate any spectrum of audience members who are taking it in for whatever reason.

In turning back the hands of time to an almost parallel universe of 1961, Del Toro harvests enough confidence of magic in pop culture cinema and teasing of illuminating levels of green in tickling us visually with this adult bedtime story approach. There is a kind of dreamy, spell-binding quality that exudes itself upon introducing us to this dark setting visually, yet compromising in tone for the airy feeling of whimsical that overtakes us thanks to the power of love and how it can trap us whole. This feels like a screenplay where there’s constantly music in the air, echoing vibrantly the toe-tapping sensation that electrifies one’s spirit in overcoming the paralyzing spell of loneliness. Del Toro interjects scenes and moments from past Hollywood pictures to keep this effect consistently, but it’s in his symbolism for the often times color of jealousy that truly enlightened me. Green is definitely the most dominant color and shade used throughout the film, and early on we find out that this is to represent the future. My take on this is that Del Toro feels very progressive in breaking down the shackles of a definition by love that doesn’t and shouldn’t settle for just one singular meaning. The color is everywhere throughout the film, even generating madness from Shannon’s character every time he sees it. This is clearly to prove and cement that his character represents the world that doesn’t move on with the concepts of change, having very much grown up in a world that caters to one sole demographic.

The performances are riveting from a complete ensemble cast that each bring something vital to the table. Hawkins is a revelation as the muted Elisa, holding the emotional prowess of her character solely in her facial features that are meant to display so much. This is a very difficult thing to do because Hawkins never feels confined to just one emotional response, so her range has to be on point in every scene, and she’s no short of Oscar brilliance for what she does with a coy look. Michael Shannon again continues to be one of my favorite actors going today. Shannon is his usual slimy antagonist for the film, but as this doctor, we start to see the line of distinction between human and animal fade away each time he’s on screen. Michael is every bit as menacing as he’s ever been, and it’s through him when we get a few brunt reminders of the R-rated feature that we’ve gotten ourselves into. Doug Jones (like Hawkins) also does so much with a look, but does so under layers of makeup and prosthetics that fade away everything but Jones signature glassy eyes to the forefront. The chemistry between he and Hawkins warmed my heart and effectively removed the pre-conceived fears that I had for how unusual the love between them would look on-screen.

There’s a lot of love that I have for the script and the way that it slowly began to transfix me into this love story that didn’t feel forced or phony by how it was presented. These two people are definitely outcasts by a society that demeans them for their anything-but-handicap. It’s in that comparison where we learn front-and-center why these two share such a tender sentiment that presents them as souls with bodies and not just bodies with souls. In this regard, I felt a strong taste of films like ‘Creature From the Black Lagoon’ as well as ‘King Kong’. Two films also set-up by this conundrum, but held prisoner from their release dates that kept them from going all the way. ‘The Shape of Water’ goes all the way, and it does it in a way that is unapologetic for what it shows. If you feel awkward, then your stances on love probably need updating. For it’s not the monster, but the depiction of an outcast by society who deserves the same gifts that anyone else does. During this whole thing, there’s also the age of paranoia playing out with the Russians and where they play into this creature. This proved to me that the film wasn’t just resting on the laurels of being a love story, and that Del Toro uses just as much emphasis in the world around them as he does with the couple in their own bubble that no one can touch. What very small problem that I had with the film was during the third act when it feels like it becomes more about Shannon’s character instead of Hawkins and Jones. This inevitably won’t bother much people, but I feel like some more emphasis was needed from Hawkins point of view in the inevitable confrontation that she must face. This isn’t a major problem, but it stands out from the first two acts that are so structurally sound that the first 90 minutes flew by like a gust of wind.

THE VERDICT – If it’s a controversial quote that you want, then it’s one you will get; this is Guillermo Del Toro’s single best film to date. ‘The Shape of Water’ confidently balances enough absorbing style and poignant substance in the ineffective way that his previous few films have petered away with. Hawkins is a whirlwind revolution, offering a slice of innocent humanity to her hushed exterior that makes her unavoidable to not fall in love with. The film is a purified beauty of Del Toro’s visionary compass that proves he can still swim with the best of them.

9/10