The Shape of Water (Del Toro; 2017)

Guillermo Del Toro’s style is easily and immediately recognizable but is also uniquely his and hard to definitively describe.  His stories are urban period faerie tales, but the period is never too far in the past.  His visuals are somehow disturbing and whimsical at the same time, which makes sense since his favorite subject matter is to follow an innocent character undergoing terrifying situations.  How great of a filmmaker he is is still very much up to debate, but even his harshest critics will admit that what he does behind a camera is impossible to imitate.  Del Toro’s imagination is distinctly and uniquely his.

In his latest film The Shape of Water, we are given the story of Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman whose job is to clean at a secret United States government facility.  It takes place during the height of the Cold War, so security at the facility is tight and paranoia is rampant.  The story begins when Elisa and her closest work friend Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) witness a large container being brought into the facility by Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon).  Inside the container is a dangerous aquatic creature the likes of which no one outside the South American tribe which worshipped it as a god has ever seen before.  Elisa and Zelda are charged with cleaning the room the creature is housed in, and over time Elisa finds herself drawn to it and feels the need to spend as much time in the creature’s company as she can.

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In interviews, Del Toro has said that one of the major themes in The Shape of Water is that the only characters in the film who have no trouble communicating with each other are the two who are incapable of speech.  If I hadn’t heard him say it I’m not sure I would have gotten that exact interpretation of the film, but I did see something very similar and that is that the two who are looked down on by others as lesser find in each other the drive and strength to overcome those very people who think so little of them.  It’s a common theme in a romantic faerie tale but in Del Toro’s hands it ascends beyond its common roots, really allowing us to experience the unusual nature of the central relationship while still being able to truly empathize with their plight unlike the majority of films which give us a very standard situation and merely use a character quirk here and there or an exaggerated adventure in order to make people and events seem unusual.

None of this could have worked at all if not for Del Toro’s talent with visual arts and the incredible performances of The Shape of Water‘s cast.  Art director Nigel Churcher and his crew give us a world at once familiar and fantastic.  It uses sewers, industry, and urban sprawl in a way a typical faerie tale would use dungeons, castles, and forests.  They are places of both beauty and danger but here the dragon is a sociopathic boss, the princess an isolated mute, the prince a South American fishman, and the father a homosexual artist who needs to hide his nature from the world.  The special effects in The Shape of Water are used to fantastic effect.   The fishman really comes to life through the incredible motion capture of Doug Jones and the aquatic scenes are things of tranquil, slightly surreal beauty.  Finally, the cinematography by Dan Laustsen is among the best we’ve seen this year and Sidney Wolinski’s film editing literally had me dropping my jaw in amazement on quite a few occasions.  Most impressive of all is that never once does Del Toro use his visuals to impress or to brag, but only to tell the story in the best way possible.  He doesn’t seek to wow us with his technical skill.  He seeks to let his story wow us with its depth of emotion and realizes that the visuals are one of the best ways of conveying that, but it is the story not the special effects and camera work that should be the focus.

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You can’t have depth of emotion without people, and the actors’ performances in the film rival the visuals in quality meaning they are also some of the very best of the year.   Octavia Spencer and Michael Shannon are the veterans of the award circuits here, and they give as excellent a performance as we have come to expect from them which still means that they give the weakest performances in the ensemble.  Yes, everyone else is that amazing.  Richard Jenkins is absolutely phenomenal as the gay artist who lives down the hall from Elisa and acts as a sort of combination best friend and father figure.  The way is homosexual is only an element of his personality, but the element that makes him a pariah, and not the focal point of his character is written and performed with exactly the nuance more roles like this should be.  Not once does the film call attention to his sexuality, if it weren’t for one scene it would be more wondered at than confirmed, but while the film never makes the mistake of suggesting that his sexuality is anywhere near the entirety of his character it does recognize that if it weren’t for his sexuality his life would be very different.

Michael Stuhlbarg is excellent as Dr. Robert Hoffstetler.  To say too much about his character and what makes his performance so spectacular would be to delve too deeply into spoiler territory.  He is one of the few characters who shows an honest affection for the creature and adds a fascinating dimension to the Cold War element of the story.  He’s one of those actors who has been around a while, and you will recognize his face, but never remains memorable.  I don’t know if The Shape of Water will change that for most audiences as his role is a non-flashy supporting one, but he certainly made me sit up and take notice.

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Then there are Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones as the cross-species lovers.  Both are entirely mute and able to communicate only with action and some sign language and both give a performance that despite, or perhaps because of, this handicap show just how fake and manufactured most Hollywood romances are.  Without speech, we have to understand what draws these two together, what makes them perfect for each other, and what it is that makes them love each other so much they would sacrifice their lives for and entrust their lives to each other.  They not only pull it off, they make it so seamless and look so effortless that by the film’s end it doesn’t even seem unusual.

Final verdict:  The Shape of Water does for “Beauty and the Beast” what many were hoping the live-action Disney version would do earlier this year, though this version of the story is far too adult and candid for most children.  The Shape of Water may not be quite the masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth was, but it is definitely one of the best films in Guillermo Del Toro’s repertoire.  From script to visuals to acting there is not a single element in the film which isn’t masterfully done and the performances, in particular, are some for the ages.  The Shape of Water isn’t one for those who don’t like Del Toro’s style as this movie is his through and through, but for everyone else this is a brilliant, moving, and unique love story which will be remembered as a great film for a very long time.

 

American Made (Liman; 2017)

Doug Liman, the director of this latest Tom Cruise vehicle, has a fairly hit or miss career as a director to date.  The Bourne Identity is now a classic which revitalized and revolutionized the spy genre, Swingers is a cult comedy classic, and Edge of Tomorrow (also titled Live, Die, Repeat in one of the worst marketing blunders in film history) was one of the biggest surprises of 2014 and is destined to become something of a sci-fi classic in its own right.  He also brought us Go, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and Jumper, and I’m betting the only reason you remember one of these movies is more for behind the scenes tabloid level drama than the film itself.  So, I wasn’t sure which Doug Liman we’d be getting as I went in to see American Made, I kept my expectations moderate, and leaving the theater I was pleasantly surprised having seen a film that I would rank up there amongst the films I just called classics – and while it’s going to take some more time and perspective to really classify American Made, my first impression and instinct is that I like it even more than two of those three great ones.

American Made is the Hollywoodized true story of Barry Seal, a TWA pilot recruited by the CIA to spy on the Soviet backed Nicaraguan Contras toward the tail end of the ’70s.  It’s the story of the beginning of the War on Drugs and its connection to the Iran-Contra scandals, but it’s the story told through the point of view of one of its lesser known central figures, which makes for an experience that’s both familiar and fresh at the same time.

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I probably shouldn’t have been so tepid in my expectations for American Made since it is pairing up Cruise and Liman for a second time, and Cruise has always shown he can give one hell of a great performance when paired up with a director who understands him, and Liman has already proven once before that he works really well with Cruise.  I won’t oversell Cruise’s performance here as one of the best of the year, but it is quintessential fun, charming Cruise.  Most of what Cruise gives us as Barry Seal is the manic charm that seems to take far more energy than a man in his 50’s seems capable of giving, but there is a nuanced vulnerability here, as well, that we see in many of Cruise’s best works. While he’s always go-go-go, we can also sense that Seal knows he is capable of making a bad decision despite his chutzpah and talent, and that bad decision which could ruin his life and his family is a nearly visible burden Cruise manages to subtly portray giving Seal a dimension which is all too often absent in your typical Tom Cruise action thriller.

The supporting cast also does a wonderful, if never quite spectacular, job bringing us a group of characters which are familiar enough to ground us but never dip into stereotype.  Domnhall Gleason as Schafer, Seal’s CIA recruiter, is definitely the shifty, never know exactly what he’s up to character we’ve come to expect from a middle-man secret agent type, but he also displays a lack of confidence in his own abilities that is incredibly rare in this same type of character making him a unique, memorable figure.  Sarah Wright as Lucy Seal, Barry’s wife, is also excellent truly embodying a family focused woman who loves her husband and children more than anything, hates what he’s doing, but is blinded by the money coming to the family so much she overlooks her own values and instincts.  She, in fact, is probably the most three dimensional and well acted character in the entire ensemble, and if I were to pick out a possible award winner to come out of this film, it would be her.

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The visuals of the film are excellent.  While I’m sure there is some CGI in the film, a scene in which two planes touch wings is one instance that comes to mind, it’s not at all obvious and it seems like what we are viewing is a combination of excellent cinematography combined with practical stunts and effects.  The cinematography really is excellent with its combination of gorgeous aerial shots and more practical yet still stylistic work when the action is grounded.  It’s nothing I would ever call truly artistic, but it most definitely has a style which meshes perfectly with its screenplay.

That screenplay is the most stand out element of American Made, a film which I obviously feel has quite a few stand out elements.  The tone and structure is one which reminds me a great deal of The Big Short from a few years back in that it educates its audience on a series of events that we are familiar with but may be lacking on details unless we are a scholar on the era and events, that education is not just on the history but also looks forward to how those events effect us today, and it does it all with a light, entertaining touch which makes the lesson oh-so-easy to take in that we don’t even realize we’re learning as much as we are until the film is over.  Combine that with the excellent character work mentioned earlier and snappy, witty dialogue, and you have the makings of a truly memorable bit of writing.

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Final verdict:  American Made is yet another highlight in a year filled with so many of them.  It’s an important film with not an ounce of pretentiousness.  It’s a film with true weight and depth, but with such a light touch there is nearly no effort on the part of the audience to take in its insight.  It’s a film which is equal parts comedy, thriller, biopic, crime film, spy movie, and true history, and it works on every single one of those levels.  There are not many audiences I would not recommend American Made to, though I have a feeling those with a kinder vision of the Reagan era than the movie portrays may be offended by some of what the movie has to say, but I will also say that as fantastic as the film is, I don’t think many, if any, would pick it as their favorite film of the year.  As odd as it sounds, the film may be perhaps too well made because it seems to lack the spark of humanity present in the greatest works of art.  Still, this is one hell of a well made film, and if the premise interests you in the least I’d have to think you will get a lot out of it.  It’s good enough that I think it will even thrill a great many who find nothing to grab them from the marketing campaign alone.

Atomic Blonde (Leitch; 2017)

The year is 1989, the Soviet Union’s collapse is all but done with revolutions happening throughout their territories and communist regimes toppling left and right.  In Berlin Russian, British, and American spies are all trying to get their hands on “The List”, a comprehensive registry of all known intelligence agents for every country involved in the Cold War, including the real name of “Satchel”, a double agent all sides have an interest in getting their hands on.  Charlize Theron is Lorraine Broughton an M.I. 6 Agent who has the talents her bosses need when the man who had The List, who also happens to be a former lover of Lorraine’s, is killed in East Germany.

Atomic Blonde is the major motion picture directorial debut  of former stuntman David Leitch (he has directed a Deadpool short and parts of John Wick previously).  The stunts are top notch, of course, given his background, but even more impressive is his camera work.  He and director of cinematography Jonathon Sela give us a film which appropriately mixes up its styles to give us some really impressive visuals including one ten to fifteen minute long fight sequence in an apartment stairwell which seems to have been done in one long cut.  Directors are commonly known as having a type and Leitch seems to be a natural when it comes to the art of action from the standpoint of both the people and the visuals involved.

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Charlize Theron has been impressing me for decades giving us hardly a bad movie and never a bad performance going all the way back to the early 2000’s and her turn in Monster which impressed the world with her talent and her bravery.  In Atomic Blonde she shows off her bravery yet again as she bares everything and does her own very physically demanding stunts in her 40’s.  Theron has long been showing she’s more interested in her reputation as a serious actress than as a beautiful woman, and while her performance here is certainly more about plot and action than it is about character, one of Atomic Blonde’s main weaknesses is a lack of real character development, she once again proves her dedication to the craft of acting.

James McAvoy performs our other primary character David Percival.  McAvoy is another actor who is known for his talent  when he could be coasting by on his good looks.  Here he does his job well giving us person whom we cannot nail down.  In a film which relies on suspicion to move the story, McAvoy gives us someone we want to trust but know what a bad idea that would be.  His performance is one which relies on body language and glances, and subtle variations between the words he is speaking and the actions he performs.  He perfectly treads the thin line between subtlety and obvious to give us the necessary doubt without ever having to figuratively give the audience a wink.

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The story is a straightforward one with not a single subplot to be found, but the main story is intricate and winding enough that you could get lost if you’re not paying attention to details.  There are revelations made which can change the way earlier scenes and characters needed to be viewed, and after the fantastic finale to this film when we think the final piece of the puzzle is put into place, we realize just how much of what we experienced was a game meant to deceive us through tropes and misdirection.  In a way the plot is the most simple of all, find and bring home “The List” is really its entirety, but there’s genius in the way this simplicity can lead us down so many misleading paths.

A definite make or break element of Atomic Blonde is its soundtrack.  As someone who did the majority of his growing up during the 1980’s I was really into the movie’s use of it’s music made up entirely of 80’s dance club tracks.  The film has a constant beat, and much like Baby Driver, the action moves along to that beat and there is more than one scene obviously choreographed to match the music which accompanies it.  I thought it added to the already dynamic action of the film, but if 80’s club music isn’t your thing, I can see where the non-stop barrage of it could become an annoyance as the film moves on.

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Final verdict:  Atomic Blonde won’t give you deep characters to study nor enlighten you with its nuanced world view, but if you can live without intellectualism you are in for a treat as it is a really smart, non-stop action film with a very recognizable style.  It can be absolutely brutal at times, and Atomic Blonde earns its R-rating more than perhaps any other spy film I’ve seen, and that element is what keeps the movie modern when everything else about the film is a throwback to 30 years ago when synthesized music reigned, cigarettes were cool, break dancing was in, and the motto world wide was “it’s all about me.”  I not only highly recommend Atomic Blonde, but I predict that this is a film that will one day reach a classic of the spy genre status.

Hidden Figures (Melfi; 2016)

Hidden Figures focuses on three major themes:  the brainpower needed to get the American Space Program literally off the ground, racism, and sexism.  All three of these themes are attacked from the very first second of the film in which we see the three main characters of the film, Katharine Johnson played by Taraji P. Henson, Dorothy Vaughan played by Octavia Spencer, and Mary Jackson played by Janelle Monae, stranded on the side of the road with a broken down car.  The three African American women deal with the situation in their own way, Katharine studies for her job later, Dorothy is underneath the car fixing it, and Mary stands behind the car smoking and considering hitching a ride when a white male police officer pulls up behind them lights flashing.  He tells them they can’t be there and they have to move along, and the girls tell him they work for NASA.

“I didn’t realize NASA hired…” (pregnant pause)

“Oh yes, lots of women work for the space program, officer.” (with a polite, but knowing smile)

The police officer then lets them finish working on their car and gives them an escort into work, lights flashing and siren blaring, so that they can get those American boys up in space.

This is a perfect example of a film opening setting the tones and themes of the film to come.  The girls are confronted with a problem, the problem becomes exaggerated because of racism and sexism, the girls use their skills to get them through the problem, and they’ve earned the respect of the white men whom they work with.  The writing is efficient and entertaining, if often a bit saccharine and overly safe.

Looking at the three major themes of Hidden Figures separately, we see first off that the topic of sexism is barely touched on.  When Katherine first meets Colonel Jim Johnson, the man she eventually marries, he seems incredulous of her talents due to her gender, and this gets them off on the wrong foot, and looking at the various departments around NASA, women and men most definitely have their own sectors and only rarely do they mix, but these subjects are only hinted at and touched upon due to the era, but are never explored in any depth.  Johnson quickly gets over his sexism and sees Katherine for the intelligent person she is without any real fight or struggle, and there are no Mad Man type moments in the rest of the film looking at women as objects or inferiors aside from just portraying the mores of the time accurately.  This is enough for an active watcher, and spending more time on the sexism angle of the story would detract from the other two major themes, but don’t expect Hidden Figures to make much of a statement nor shed much light on a feminist front.

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The rhemes of racism are handled with more care and attention.   Modern Hollywood is evolving when it comes to these themes, not focusing as much on the hatred and violence that marks racism at its most extreme, but giving us stories that shed light on the far more common every day racism that nearly every single one of us furthers and accepts whether we know or like it or not.  Hidden Figures can sugar coat the message, but that is not altogether a bad thing as the whole purpose of sugar coating is to make something easier to swallow, and this a message that needs as many people to swallow it as is possible.

A great example of how Hidden Figures approaches the topic is the subplot of Katherine having to use the rest room while working for the department of calculations.  This was still the era of segregation, so white and colored bathrooms were still very much a real thing, and the nearest colored women’s bathroom is on the opposite end of NASA’s campus, making for nearly a mile walk when both directions are taken into account every time Katherine has to pee.  Several times throughout the course of the film we see a scene in which she has to gather up her piles of books containing the figures she has to check and make the half mile each way trek all the while trying to keep her bladder under control.   When things start getting particularly tense because the calculation team is falling behind getting John Glenn’s orbital launch ready, Al Hamilton, Katherine’s boss played by Kevin Costner, blows up at her demanding to know why she disappears for 40 minutes every day when she knows what tight deadlines they are working with.  Katherine responds in kind, screaming at him about what she has to go through just to use the bathroom (among other racist, but socially accepted, double standards she has to endure).  Shortly thereafter we see Hamilton destroying the sign over the restroom which says Colored Ladies’ Bathroom in front of all the African American women who work at NASA and announcing that no longer will the bathrooms be separate, that everyone at NASA is part of the same team, and the women can use whatever bathroom they want, all to thunderous applause (both by the characters in the movie and by the real audience watching the film if my audience is any indication of what to go by).

If this seems a bit too easy and pat, it is.  Two temper tantrums and suddenly years of policy are overwritten?  Even if it is someone very high up in the organization making the decision, there will still by naysayers and complaints, but here it’s just two people yelling at each other, one realizing that he didn’t understand the other’s position, and suddenly everything is fine.  On the other hand, handling the theme in this manner does make it more easily relatable to a larger audience.  The problem with focusing purely on the hatred and violence of racism is that people never see themselves as such, and showing the extremes of racism makes it easier to deny in yourself.  Showing racism as something far more insidious and accepted gets one thinking about their own prejudices, and exaggerating the ease with which it is overcome makes it easier for people to forgive themselves for their own biases and therefore confront rather than deny something we’d rather not see in ourselves.  Should racism always be dealt with like this in film?  Absolutely not.  Harsh reality must be confronted, as well.  But, Hidden Figures uses a method excellent at getting the average person to question their own prejudices.

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The story behind HIdden Figures, that of the part three African American women played in the Space Race of the Cold War, is for the most part well handled,  but does fail in a handful of areas.  The pacing of the story is excellent, the amount of time handled on each of the three women is well done with Katherine’s story taking the focus while Dorothy and Mary’s stories are large subplots.  The writers do a great job of letting us know about the story’s multiple and very real stakes to ratchet up the tension, and the racism themes parallel the Space Race plot excellently.

One problem is with Mary’s story.  While Katherine and Dorothy show that they were instrumental in getting the American Space Program up and running between Katherine’s calculations and Dorothy’s creativity, determination, and talent in learning FORTRAN, Mary’s story of becoming the first African American woman engineer is sort of sidelined and seems unimportant to the overall plot.  It is interesting and inspiring, to be sure, and Mary is an excellent character, but her story just seems to be wedged in to add a third subplot.

Finally, I’m not completely sure of the real story behind Hidden Figures but I can tell that much of the plot had to have been manufactured to work for Hollywood.  This is not a problem so much as an observation, if they weren’t manufacturing a plot it would have been a documentary and unfortunately had a much smaller audience for that reason, but it still needs to be pointed out.  I have no doubt that Katherine, Mary, and Dorothy knew each other as they all worked for NASA, but did they all carpool together every day, were they best friends outside of work, and did they really all push each other and inspire each other in their separate pursuits?  It’s possible, but seems highly unlikely, certainly unlikely that things happened in exactly the way the film portrayed their relationships.

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As to the remaining factors aside from the themes and story which make up Hidden Figures, all of the acting on display in the film is quite good to excellent.  The true stand out in the acting department is Janelle Monae who steals every single scene she appears in as Mary, making the most of her role which I mentioned earlier may be the least important to the story, but the most intriguing and entertaining as pure performance.  Spencer and Henson are both excellent, and Costner shows that he is still wonderful when he takes on a supporting role.  The only poor performance on display here is Jim Parsons as Paul Stafford, a person who works with the computations with Katherine and resents her.  His character is predictable and uninteresting, around merely to sneer and raise his nose in the air as if something smelled bad near him, and while part of this is the script’s fault, most of the script does tend to the predictable and easily digestible and all of the other actors managed to overcome that handicap.

The visuals are competent, with no scenes or shots particularly standing out in either a good nor in a bad way.  The camerawork has a nice, easy flow to it, the art design does the trick, the costumes look authentic, and the special effects don’t stand out.  All in all what we see on the screen is very competently put together even if there are few out there who would marvel at it as artistic.

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Final Recommendation:  Hidden Figures is a very good film which I recommend to nearly everyone.  If you are a history, and particularly a civil rights, Cold War, or space race, buff then I recommend it absolutely wholeheartedly.  I also strongly recommend Hidden Figures to women of African American descent as this film will make you feel some long overdue power and appreciation.  Perhaps the only group which may not enjoy this film are those whom are sticklers for historical accuracy.  For this group, I’m not sure what to recommend, as I still think you will find the history of the piece intriguing and in my research I was unable to find a documentary which deals with this subject.  Hopefully one day, but for now this is the closest we can get.