Call Me By Your Name (Guadagnino; 2017)

It’s Italy in 1983.  Mr. Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a highly regarded American professor specializing in Greco-Roman culture who summers with his wife Anella (Amira Casar) and son Elio (Timothee Chalamet) at their home in Northern Italy.  It’s a tradition that every summer the family invites one of Professor Perlman’s grad students to spend the summer with them, and this year the student of choice is Oliver (Armie Hammer).  The film opens with Oliver’s arrival and the story is of the events that take place over this particular summer focusing on the relationship between Elio and Oliver.

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Call Me By Your Name is an unusual film in that there is no conflict in the film outside of some short-lived inner turmoil.  Rather than conflict, Call Me By Your Name uses some nostalgia and some wish fulfillment to keep the audience’s attention.  While watching the film, I couldn’t help but think of it as a mirror image of last year’s Best Picture winner Moonlight.  Instead of an urban Florida setting in which a young black man comes to terms with his sexuality while also struggling with his life of poverty and absentee parents, Call Me By Your Name gives us an idyllic rural European setting in which a rich white young man with an incredibly intelligent and supportive family has to come to terms with his.  Where in Moonlight we were transported to a rather dark world and experienced tragedy after tragedy in Chiron’s life until he finally found a way to escape through hardening himself and becoming a man he didn’t really want to be, Call Me By Your Name shows Elio in a world in which his biggest trouble is disappointing the girl who has fallen in love with him and wondering about the appropriateness of his feelings toward Oliver.

The scenery of the Northern Italy village is shot beautifully.  Every single scene takes place either in a setting of small ancient buildings of spectacular architecture or a natural setting so empty of the trappings of society you could believe that no person had been in that locale for years.  The director of cinematography Sayombhu Mukdeeprom takes his time with his camerawork using the slow pacing of the film’s story to allow himself time to revel in the beauty of his surroundings just as the characters in the film do.

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The writing in Call Me By Your Name is borderline pretentious, and I have no doubt there are those who will say it crosses that line, with characters who are capable of gleefully discussing off the cuff the etymology of the word apricot, the reasoning behind decisions made by ancient Greek sculptors, and how a particular song would sound had it been composed by Bach vs Liszt.  But, past just demonstrating how intelligent the characters in the film are, there is nothing about the dialogue in the film that is meant to be showy nor judgemental.  Once we establish that these people are highly intelligent and sensitive, we really don’t get any more intellectual displays as once the intelligence of our characters is established the screenplay leaves those elements behind for the most part and focuses on the relationships between these people.   These relationships are genuine if also idealized and it’s this factor that keeps me from calling this film pretentious and just an honest look at a very intelligent, very well to do group of people.

This honest portrayal obviously could not happen without strong performances, and Call Me By Your Name does give us those.  I wouldn’t call any of the performances on display spectacular, but they are earnest and well thought out.  I have to wonder that Armie Hammer isn’t a larger star than he is, as I have yet to see a performance from him that isn’t at least charismatic, and he is most certainly easy on the eyes where the camera is concerned, and the performance here is good enough that it could lead to the bigger and better things down the road he seems destined for.  The rest of the cast is also captivating and in particular, the intensely vulnerable performances given by the younger cast members Timothee Chalamet and Esther Garrel as Elio’s best friend and maybe more Marzia make me hope we will see more from them in the future, as well.

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Final verdictCall Me By Your Name is one of the sweetest coming of age films I’ve seen.  Its total lack of nearly any conflict works in this case due to its embrace of nostalgia, authenticity, and a true love for its characters and their experiences.  Call Me By Your Name is not a film for everyone, as I believe it will be immensely boring for those not interested in romance nor coming of age films, but for those who don’t need tension in their drama every time Call Me By Your Name will plaster a huge smile on your face while simultaneously putting a lump in your throat with its entirely genuine, familiar, and yet still very personal tale of young love, friendship, and family.

 

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.

 

Battle of the Sexes (Dayton & Faris; 2017)

The story of Battle of the Sexes is a very well known one, well enough that I am going to be a little more free with spoilers in this review than I usually am so consider yourself forewarned on that front.  Battle of the Sexes is a biopic telling the story behind one of the most famous tennis matches in history – the one between fifty-five year-old Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) and twenty-nine year-old Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) which was broadcast to nine million viewers and became a symbol of the entire feminist movement in the United States.   The film starts on the day Billie Jean and her agent Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) find out that the Pacific Southwest Tournament was offering the women participants 15% the prize money men were getting despite the fact that women drew just as large of a crowd as men did for their matches.  They and many other female pros boycott the tournament and start the Women’s Tennis Association with its own tour, and with the first shots fired our story begins.

It goes without saying that Battle of the Sexes has strong feminist themes.  The entire story focuses on a group of women led by one particularly talented and popular woman who decide they’ve had enough with the rules men set down for them, then go on to prove in no uncertain terms that they can get along just fine on their own without the men getting involved, thank you very much, and not only that but that they can literally beat the men at their own game.   It’s also an excellent hindsight view of where feminism stood at the start of 1970’s, a movement which already had a lot of attention and momentum, but which was largely being seen as a faze and something of a joke by the men in power who honestly could not understand what women were upset about.  This story is about a lot more than just feminism in the ’70’s, though, and Battle of the Sexes does its job of showing us the other myriad forces involved admirably.

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While women’s rights were at the forefront of the American consciousness at the time, gay rights were still very much overlooked.  Battle of the Sexes doesn’t address the issue of gay rights as much as it does show Billie Jean King’s very personal journey of her discovery of her sexual orientation and the very personal reasons she had for remaining in the closet as long as she did.  While the mores of the time must have certainly had some influence on Billie Jean, Battle of the Sexes is somewhat remarkable in the way it shows a life where shame is not the primary motivator in hiding your sexuality, but rather respect, love, and professionalism, all positive reasons making for a story causes you to admire Billie Jean King even more rather than pity her or feel shame for our culture.

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The forces surrounding Bobby Riggs also shed light on a hot topic – depression and gambling addiction.  It would be easy given the feminist themes in the forefront of the film to make Bobby Riggs into a villain, but writer Simon Beaufoy dodges that temptation by showing Bobby Riggs to be a person haunted by his past and who will do anything to recapture his former glory and the way it made him feel.  It shows Riggs as a man who has nothing against women nor feminism, but who saw in what was going on in women’s tennis an opportunity to take center stage again and to fuel his love for high stakes competition.  While this makes him a comic character most of the time, the glimpses into his family life show us the greater truth behind a warm, friendly, loving man being chased by demons of his own making.

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With the deluge of biopics being released right now, Battle of the Sexes sets itself apart largely by being the one that tries to most evenly split the difference where spectacle and realism are concerned, and for the most part it manages that.  The big name stars and the comedy and showmanship inherent in the story make for entertaining spectacle, while the screenplay gives us a depth to the characters and themes which could easily have been lacking.  This leaves us with a film that doesn’t have the sheer entertainment value which American Made gave us nor the remarkably insightful character studies of Strongerrather than looking the worse for not leaning one direction or the other, we end up with a film that will never be seen as great, but will have wide appeal.

Final verdict:  Battle of the Sexes gives us larger than life personalities, character studies and themes with true depth, the spectacle of sports, romance, empowerment – in short, it’s a film that very nearly has it all.  While having it all means that it doesn’t truly achieve greatness in any one way, it still gives us a film that should satisfy nearly everyone excepting perhaps the most obsessive action adventure devotee.  Battle of the Sexes is one of the easiest movies in a while for me to recommend, but don’t take that to mean that I think it’s exceptional, just that it’s a very well done film which should please nearly everyone.

Rough Night (Aniello; 2017)

I had some serious reservations regarding seeing this movie despite really liking the cast.  How many mishaps at a party comedies do we really need?  This looked to be a remake of Weekend at Bernies, The Hangover, Very Bad Things, Bridesmaids or any of a number of other more forgettable films along these same lines.  Plus, it has a title so rote and uninspired you have to wonder how good the writing can possibly be, and bad writing makes for a film which is D.O.A.  However, the other films coming out this week were Cars 3, talk about rote and uninspired ideas, and All Eyez on Me, which did interest me the most initially, but its complete lack of critic screenings in addition to some very bad word of mouth made me decide to take a chance on Rough Night.

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Rough Night is the story of Jess played by Scarlett Johansson who is running for state senate and whose wedding to Peter (Paul W. Downs) is impending, so Jess’ four closest friends from her college years played by Jillian Bell, Zoe Kravitz, Ilana Glazer, and Kate McKinnon throw her a bachelorette party in Miami complete with palatial beach house, cocaine, a stripper, and various penis shaped party favors.  When one of the five ladies accidentally kills the stripper, we find that each of the women has a good reason why they don’t want the police getting involved and so hilarity ensues as they try to dispose of the body in a manner no one can find it.

Rough Night‘s tone is all over the place.  We have sly humor as we see the juxtaposition of the wild party atmosphere of the bachelorette party versus the more cultured bachelor party going on back in Jess’ unnamed home town.  We have the over the top characterizations of the always horny and very open neighbors of the beach house played by Demi Moore and Ty Burrell.  Jillian Bell is also very much playing a stereotype more for laughs than character, but Scarlett Johansson, Zoe Kravitz, and Ilana Glazer give us some performances that toe the line between comic and dramatic, and McKinnon’s performance can go in any old direction depending on the scene and her mood.

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But, while the tonal inconsistencies do stand out like a sore thumb, I can’t say that they don’t work.  The film’s story does go all over the place.  The death of the stripper and the immediate aftermath isn’t played for laughs, and that actually gives the situation some gravity.  While the acting styles are all over the place, they all work for the character actress combination.  You look to Bell and McKinnon for the belly laughs, to Kravitz and Glazer for the smarter, more subtle comedy, and Johansson is the anchor that holds it all together.  It doesn’t work perfectly, some scenes such as a bit where Jess’ fiance panics over not being able to get a hold of Jess and decides he must get to her as soon as possible is completely out of character for everything we’ve seen earlier and is not funny largely because of this, but the tonal shifting works well enough that it seems to be the right fit for this particular film.

The rest of the writing in Rough Night is just as inconsistent as its tone, in a way.  We have one of the most worn out, mundane stories in existence with the raucous party gone wrong plot, and nothing about the story itself elevates it all above the banality of the premise, but the dialogue and the deft handling of the overused situations are actually very well done.  Each of the characters really is a character beyond just being a different level on the slapstick scale.  The lesbian and bisexual issues are handled without delving into stereotype and are nuanced, sensitive to the topic, but still absolutely hilarious.  McKinnon and Bell despite being the closest characters to caricature actually end up having very nice payoffs and we find there is a reason they acted the way they did which makes sense.  The only poor writing to be seen here is, again, with the character of Jess’ fiancee who never seems to have any consistent personality aside from the fact that he’s madly in love with Jess.

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Final verdict:  Rough Night is a mundane film, that fortunately manages to overcome its own mundanity much of the time.  The plot is nothing special in the least, and is ultimately completely forgettable, but the charm of the characters and the actors portraying them in addition to the snappy and often truly insightful dialogue make Rough Night a film worth seeing.  It’s not worth running right out and seeing it in the theater, however.  There is nothing about the visuals that would make this any better on the big screen, and while Rough Night is better than I imagined it could have been, it’s still nowhere close to a great film, so waiting for it to come to Redbox or Netflix is probably the way to go, except possibly for a group girl’s night.  Then the theater could be a blast.