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.

 

The Big Sick (Showalter; 2017)

Kumall Nanjiani stars in the autobiographical film The Big Sick which chronicles the story of how he met and fell in love with his then girlfriend, now wife and head writer of the movie, Emily Gordon (Zoe Kazan – granddaughter of Elia).  For the rest of this review when I refer to Emily or Kumall I am referring to the characters in the film unless stated otherwise.  Kumall is working as a stand-up comedian and an Uber driver, and he meets Emily when she shouts out at one of his shows.  After the show he approaches her inside the club, and after a pleasant introduction chides her for heckling him.  This leads to a relationship in which both are obviously far more attracted to and in love with the other than either are willing to admit, even to themselves, and we are treated to a fairly typical will they or won’t they love story until Kumall’s Pakistani culture and upbringing get in the way, leading to their break up shortly before Emily comes down with a disease so serious that she needs to be placed into a medically induced coma to stabilize her bodily systems.  Enter Emily’s parents, Beth Gordon played by Holly Hunter and Terry Gordon played by Ray Romano, and the meat of The Big Sick as Kumall comes to realize that he made a huge mistake, and now he has to work and live closely with the parents of the woman he loves and whom he has hurt so badly.

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I admit to having a general dislike of romantic comedies.  It is the genre I least enjoy watching as, ironically, I find them to most often be the most unrealistic films of all with the way they too often portray love as a magical thing that once you overcome an obstacle will solve all your problems and never take any work again.  All fiction is ultimately a form of wish fulfillment, and this is a form of wish fulfillment I just cannot relate to.  I felt I needed to put that clarification out there before I say that I absolutely adored this movie and everything about it.  This is a love story, most definitely, but it’s one that has no passionate proclamations given during a sweeping musical crescendo.  There is no leaping into arms, staring into eyes, and weeping as three magic words are spoken.  No.  This is a movie that is incredibly authentic, and makes the phrase “fall in love” make sense as even our two sarcastic and way too cool romantic leads look at one another with glances that say “how exactly did we end up here?”

The Big Sick looks at love in a very mature way, but it does far more than just that.  It’s also a look at race, culture, and the grand, boiling melting pot that is the United States.   The greatest threat to the budding relationship between Kumall and Emily is not her disease, nor is it racism, though that is looked at here and there throughout the movie – how could it not be in a film about a Pakistani man dating a white American girl.  The greatest threat is the effect growing up in an Islamic Pakistani household has had on Kumall’s mindset.   This conflict between Pakistani culture and Kumall’s more American way of thinking makes for the true heart and message of the movie, and also for many of the biggest laughs.

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It’s hard to say which is more of a crowning glory for The Big Sick, its writing or the acting on display, but these two elements married together are the reason The Big Sick demands your attention.  While this is not Kumall Nanjiani’s first acting gig, he has done a lot of television shows and voice acting, this is his first leading role in a feature film and it’s also a role in which he’s playing a fictionalized version of himself, which I can tell you is not as easy as you would think.  He absolutely carries this film beautifully showing off his charm, humor, introspection, and vulnerability in just the right doses to make a character we truly relate to and adore.  Zoe Kazan has a probably even more difficult role as she has less time to make us fall for her portrayal of Emily before she ends up spending the majority of the movie in a coma, and she does just that giving us a young woman with a razor sharp wit and a confidence which never even gets close to the realm of arrogance who we can’t help but adore.

The true show stealers, though, are Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as Emily’s parents.  Until they arrive the movie is light romance that starts to dip its toe a bit into cultural introspection, but The Big Sick transforms into something truly smart and new when Beth and Terry arrive on the scene.  I don’t want to give any spoilers away except to say that the relationship between Kumall, Terry, and Beth, the way it starts and the way it develops is one of the most authentic and meaningful looks at human relationships I have ever seen in a film.  This is because, again, there are no big speeches, revelations, and musical cues to be found.  Everything surrounding these three is understated and completely human, from first impressions, to stumbling, awkward conversations, to the ultimate realization that they all love the same person, and beyond even that.  This is not drama, this is real, and that’s what makes The Big Sick so funny, so heartwarming, and so relatable.

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Final verdict:  If you were to ask me to sum up The Big Sick in word, though why would you do that?  I just wrote a whole review, that word would be authentic.  It makes sense since this is a true story written by the people who actually lived the events and even starring one of them as himself, but it can’t be expressed strongly enough how much that authenticity adds to the power of the film’s message and story.  This summer is handing audiences an overabundance of great movies to see.  Wonder Woman, Spider-Man: Homecoming, War for the Planet of the Apes, and Baby Driver are films still showing that I strongly recommend.  The Big Sick is a film that doesn’t need to be seen on a big screen to be enjoyed as it is intensely intimate and devoid of spectacle, but it stands with, and even above those others when it comes to story and message.  This may not be a must see in the theater if you have a limited budget, but it is a must see, and it would be great for as many as possible to see it in the theaters to send Hollywood the message to give us more like this.  If you need even more incentive to see The Big Sick, though, it’s made this cynic believe at least for a little while that love truly can conquer all, just not necessarily with a lot of fanfare.

 

Beauty and the Beast (Condon; 2017)

From 1989 to 1994 Disney brought us four of their most revered classics (and, The Rescuers Down Under) all four of which were based on a classic tale hundreds of years old.  1989 started the Disney renaissance (it hadn’t had a truly classic animated film for decades before this) with The Little Mermaid based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of the same name.  The original story was published in 1837, and so was the newest of the four tales they were to adapt over these five years, and focused on an unnamed mermaid who wanted to be human and marry a prince, and that is really where the similarities between the two stories end.  Disney “Disneyfied” the story by adding music, sidekicks, and by giving the story an action packed happy ending complete with a giant monster to battle.

1991’s Beauty and the Beast was more similar to its original fairy tale originally penned by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740, but it was still Disneyfied in its own way.  While the original fairy tale did have the unnamed beauty falling in love with the beast at the end, there was no sideplot involving a jealous suitor and an angry mob attacking the castle, it was a story only about a couple overcoming their own prejudices and falling in love with one another.

Aladdin was the 1992 output from Disney studios, and is the one probably most removed from its original plot, but also the most improved through the Disneyfication process.  The original story from the 18th century is a somewhat unstructured story following the adventures of an arabic street urchin who does find a magic lamp with a genie, does marry a princess, and does encounter an evil sorcerer, but the specifics surrounding all those events greatly differ from the original story and the Disney reworking of the story did manage to add structure and humor missing from the original.

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Finally in 1994, Disney brought us Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” via the vehicle of The Lion King.  In the Disney version we are given a happy ending in which only the villain dies rather than nearly every major (and many minor) character in the story, plus they turned the story into “Hamlet: The Musical”, and as bad an idea as all of this sounds they actually pulled it off and gave the world a version of the bard which younger audiences will love even if the message of the story is exactly the opposite of the original.

All of these stories, except Aladdin, lost a little something in the translation, though they did all gain something else in return.  The Little Mermaid completely changed in theme and tone, but it gained optimism and excitement.  Beauty and The Beast lost time spent on the budding romance, but gained action and conflict, and The Lion King lost the darker themes of disfunction and depression, and became a story about perseverance and friendship instead.

Fast forward to 2010 when Disney brings us a live action version of Alice in Wonderland helmed by Tim Burton.  Once again Disney changes its source material, this time that source material being its own animated movie, and makes Alice a bit older, giving us a story in which she isn’t so much a little girl lost exploring an odd world but now becomes something of a feminist bad ass.  Well, at least kind of.  The movie didn’t entirely work, but it certainly didn’t fail, either, and most importantly it made enough box office money that Disney decided to continue the experiment of turning their animated classics into live action films.

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In Maleficent, they gave us a pretty great remake of Sleeping Beauty which ditches the archaic themes of the original and gives us a story from the villain’s point of view, and flips the story’s ending on its ear to give a message about what true love really is rather than what fairy tales portray.  Again, the movie had its issues, but it was a vast improvement on the original tale and the total change in point of view and theme was quite revolutionary.  In the live action Cinderella they didn’t change things up too much, but they dropped the music, and The Jungle Book did the same except for saving one complete musical number and a snippet of another, the real revelation here being the hyperrealistic animation of the animals which was a wonder to behold (and got the movie an Oscar).

Which brings us to right now and the release of the live action Beauty and the Beast directed by Bill Condon and starring Emma Watson as Belle, the titular beauty, and Dan Stevens as Beast.  This version is a reworking of their animated film, not the original story, so Gaston, LeFou, and the castle servants are all here, as is the music.  The only major changes to the original animated film are additions.  We are given a prologue showing how and why the prince was cursed to become Beast while the other additions are new musical numbers.  In all the film’s length is increased by roughly 40 minutes.

Since the story of Beauty and the Beast revolves entirely around the love story and the themes of learning to love someone you would never expect, the actors who have to sell the love story are of the utmost importance.  Dan Stevens, for his part, absolutely sells this part of Beast.  The addition of the opening scene in which we learn why the prince is cursed does an excellent job of setting up the prince as man unworthy of and unwilling to love.  When we first see him as Beast we completely buy him as a monster, and as the film progresses and he begins to open up, smile, joke, we absolutely get caught up in and believe his transformation.  Despite layers of makeup and CGI, Dan Stevens shines through all of that outer covering and lets us see the complex man inside.  As, for Emma Watson….  don’t read the next paragraph if you don’t want the ending of La La Land spoiled (that will make sense once you read it, but don’t if you don’t want it spoiled, last warning).

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Emma Watson was originally cast as the lead in La La Land, but couldn’t ultimately play the role as she was too involved in filming Beauty and the Beast, so the part went to Emma Stone.  La La Land is another film that hinges completely on the actors selling the love story.  We need to know how important these two were to each other so that at the end when they finally acheive their dreams but have to do so at the cost of their own relationship, it hits you emotionally and doesn’t just become a matter of “so what?  they got what they wanted”.  That alternate world ending montage hits you right in the gut, but it never could have if the stakes weren’t so high, and the stakes couldn’t be high if Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling hadn’t just shown you they were in love, but made you feel it yourself and made you want a love like that of your own.  If Beauty and the Beast is any indication, Emma Watson could not have pulled that off.

Emma Watson is, however, a better singer than Emma Stone if Beauty and the Beast is enough to base that opinion on as she, and everyone in the cast, bring new life to the soundtrack which is arguably Disney’s best.  “Be Our Guest”, “Gaston”, “Beauty and the Beast” are all here, and all done spectacularly, better than in the original, in fact.  The live action adds a weight and depth to the musical numbers which the original simply doesn’t have, and all the performers here sing as well, if not even better, than in the animated version.  This is where Beauty and the Beast truly shines, and it shines so brightly in this regard as to be nearly blinding.

The visuals here are also incredible, though some things don’t work as well as when they are more classically animated, and those things are very specific to the point I’d almost have to make a list, which I won’t.  But, as a “for instance” Lumiere, played absolutely wonderfully by Ewan McGregor, is so much better in this style of animation as he now has some heft and is more than just eyes and a mouth drawn on a candelabra greatly improving the ways he can emote and move.  Mrs. Potts, however, doesn’t fare nearly so well, and works so poorly in this style as to be distracting whenever she is on screen.  The best way I know to put it is that while the camera work and special effects are always well crafted, the choices made as to the actual final appearance of all these elements can be extremely hit or miss, some being a wonder to behold others actively breaking the movie’s spell with their awkwardness.

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Finally, this review could not be complete without my mentioning how great it was to see Kevin Kline back on the screen as Belle’s father, Maurice.  The man has not missed a step and steals your attention every single time he appears on screen.  This man’s bad performances are rare, and I would rank his turn here among some of his best (though, nothing will ever beat his Otto from A Fish Called Wanda, in my opinion).

Final recommendation:  Beauty and the Beast‘s story ultimately fails where it’s most important, but it excels in most other areas.  The spectacle is, well, spectacular, the music is not just as great as you remember, but is perhaps even better, and most of the cast does a great job.  This could be a movie that disappoints due to its nearly exact duplication of the animated version with the few additions not being enough to make it anything new.  But, if you need a Disney fix and don’t care about repetition, then Beauty and the Beast is about as good a repetition as you can get, I just wish Emma Watson could have made me believe.

 

Passengers (Tyldum; 2016)

Passengers is a film that gives us an astounding premise.  Chris Pratt is Jim Preston, a mechanic travelling across the galaxy to colonize the planet dubbed Homestead II.  Homestead II is so far away from Earth that the journey, one way, takes 120 years to complete and the 5,000 passengers and 283 (or maybe I have some numbers remembered incorrectly and it’s 238, but between 2 and 3 hundred anyway) crew members are placed in hypersleep for the vast majority of the journey, only waking months before arriving at their destination.  Due to a ship malfunction, Jim wakes up 90 years too early and is now faced with the certainty of living the rest of his life trapped alone on this ship…  unless he wakes someone else up.  Since Jennifer Lawrence is also in the film as Aurora Lane, the daughter of a Pulitzer Prize winning author, not to mention features prominently in the marketing and trailers, the choice he makes is not exactly a secret, but the consequences of his decision are the incredibly interesting crux of the first part of the film.

Unfortunately, the second half of the film does not live up to the potential of the rather cerebral morality play hinted at by the incident which drives the story’s early focus and devolves into a rather mundane and wholly unbelievable action movie with an unsatisfying conclusion which sidesteps rather than confronts the moral issues  brought up in the earlier parts of the movie.   It would seem that either the writer or the producers of Passengers didn’t have faith in the film’s initial premise and decided that a modern audience wouldn’t buy theater seats if they weren’t given over the top action science fiction eventually, and looking at the box office grosses of Arrival versus Rogue One I’m afraid they may be right.

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That’s not fair.  We don’t just want action.  We want nudity and sex, too.

Writing aside, the performances given to us by Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence are decent.  Lawrence is far better than the practically sleepwalking performance she gave in X-Men: Apocalypse earlier this year, and Pratt is on par with his The Magnificent Seven performance, which was definitely fun if not overly memorable.   Laurence Fishburne gives us a memorable if brief performance as the ship’s deck chief Gus, and Michael Sheen is a scene stealer as mechanical bartender Arthur.  I have to wonder if there is something to the relatively recent trend of the CGI and otherwise at least partially fake characters in film being some of the best written, acted, and well rounded, though in Arthur we only have the first two.

The art direction team actually did make the most of what couldn’t have been an easy set to put together.  Every part of the ship is quite distinct, you know when the characters are in the galley, or the entertainment center, the passenger quarters, or the hibernation rooms, yet it all very much feels like a cold, steel spaceship despite the distinctions.  The camera work is adequate, never distracting nor amateurish but never beautiful nor inspirational either.  The special effects align with the camera work, functional, but never terribly creative.

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The spaceship design is pretty sweet.

Passengers is a movie that had the potential to be the second truly intelligent and complex science fiction story of the 2016 holiday season (the other being Arrival), but instead we have a film that didn’t have the faith to stick to its premise and ultimately pandered to the lowest common denominator, who also won’t appreciate it because of its opening in which action and explosions are totally non-existent.  Passengers does have a charming cast, and a premise which is fun to think about, and so is worth seeing eventually, but not worth paying top dollar for on the big screen.

Rating:  5.0 out of 10

La La Land (Chazelle; 2016)

A reputation of Los Angeles is that it is the city where foolish dreamers go to come face to face with harsh reality.  In the pre-credit sequence of La La Land, we are shown a bumper to bumper traffic jam, then the music starts and the commuters are now getting out of their cars, singing and dancing making the best of a lousy situation.  A 1940’s style carefree fantasy meets with the reality of modern annoyance.  This is the glitz, glamour, and misfortune which makes up La La Land.

La La Land is the story of two people who came to Los Angeles because they have a dream.  Emma Stone plays Mia, a girl from a small town who wants nothing more than to become a big time actress, and Ryan Gosling is Sebastian, a jazz pianist who has lived in L.A. his whole life and wants to start his own club so he can give the music he loves a resurgence in a world that has forgotten it for the most part.  The two meet and eventually fall in love, though it’s more obvious to everyone else, audience most certainly included, that they already love each other before they themselves realize it.  If this sounds familiar, it is meant to.  The brilliance of La La Land is not that it gives you an obviously brand new story the likes of which you’ve never seen before, but that it gives you an age old, well worn story with a twist that makes all the difference in the message it wants to say.  The 1940’s story and tropes mixed with a story taking place in the modern era is more than just a stylistic decision, it’s a metaphor.

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Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are not actually real people.  They, too, are metaphors.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are two of my favorite younger working actors in Hollywood today, and I loved them both in this movie.   While Gosling gives an excellent performance and his electrifying chemistry with Stone is what makes the movie work, Stone’s performance is a true tour-de-force.  Her multi-layered performance makes the fantastic realistic and the surreal grounded.  When I say La La Land combines both the dreams and the reality the city is known for perfectly, a huge part of that combination realizes itself in Stone’s nearly perfect performance.  Even when her voice occasionally isn’t entirely up to snuff in a few of her more difficult songs, you think that it is more a choice than a weakness, that a break in her voice isn’t a mistake so much as a decision to have her character let her guard down for just a moment.  For his part, Gosling is also excellent, and he learned piano for this movie, and when I say learned I don’t mean he can plunk out a few notes to get through a scene, he gives some virtuoso level performances here.

The music and the musical numbers, of course, have to be talked about.  What we are given continues the metaphor impeccably, the jazz music and Fred Astaire style numbers mixed with modern settings, dance moves, and singing styles work on every level and elevate what was in danger of being cornball to gloriously creative, catchy, and invigorating.  Even the methods of breaking into song bring a new spin on the old, as occasionally, such as in the above mentioned opening scene, the characters do just break into a song and dance number out of nowhere, but sometimes the more modern technique of naturally breaking into song since many of our characters are musicians by profession is the method of getting into a musical number.  Both methods work, neither seems out of place, and this is a huge credit to director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) for being able to pull not only this tough balancing act off, but the balancing act which is this entire movie.

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Chazelle isn’t the only one who can balance.

The art direction and camera work in La La Land just add to the many other already impeccable elements in this film.  Linus Sandgren, the director of cinematography, captures the city, the stars, and the action at their most beautiful and gives us a true glamour piece while never forgetting that the movie is self aware enough to know that the glamour can be very much illusion and knows when to let the feeling that what we are watching is not altogether real sneak through at just the right times.  Classic musical filming techniques are largely on display here, but we also see some very stylized modern camera work, and a bit of what can only be described as live stage performance visuals, the camera doing what it can to capture what it would be like to be seeing this story in person.  All of this works, all is subtle, and most of all it all work to enhance the emotional core of what makes La La Land such an experience.

La La Land is not only a masterpiece, not only one of the best movies of the year, but it is one of the greatest love stories to Hollywood ever captured because it’s not just about Hollywood, but the entire human experience and one of the greatest musicals ever made.  The core of the movie is emotion, and you will run the entire of gamut throughout this movie.  You will be thrilled, joyous, awed, and you will have your heart stomped and beaten at times, as well.  But, once you are done with the emotional experience, you will also see that this was an incredibly smart and intellectual movie as well.  What La La Land has to say about chasing dreams is unlike what any other film before it has had to say, and the message is at once optimistic and grounding.  I recommend this film to absolutely everyone.  If you are the type who says they hate musicals, see this anyway, after La La Land you can then say you hate musicals except for this one.  It really is that spectacular that it will make converts.

Rating:  9.6 out of 10

 

Allied (Zemeckis; 2016)

Allied is a film that seems so hard to be trying for Oscar nominations.  From its well regarded stars to its subject matter to the period in which its set to its high profile director it’s a film that is just begging to be important.  What we get, unfortunately, is a somewhat well made slog.

Brad Pitt plays Max Vatan, an officer in the Canadian Air Force working for the British government during World War II and Marion Cotillard is Marianne Bausejour a spy in the French Resistance.  These two meet up during an operation in Casablanca, fall in love, and go to London together to get married.  Shortly afterward the RAF discovers that Bausejour may not be who she claims.

Allied is a movie that defies criticism, not really because it is so good or so bad, but because there is so little here.  It’s a fairly dull film with poor chemistry between its actors, a plot so thin and with so little in the way of subplots to speak of that it seems like at least two thirds of what we see is filler to give the movie an ample running time, and dialogue that never stands out in any way.  Allied does a decent job of keeping us guessing about its main premise, dropping what seems like obvious clues as to what is really going on with Cotillard’s character then giving us reason to doubt what we’ve seen over and over again, but that really is all the script and the performances have going for them.

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I even look bored during the action scenes.

The production values of the film are better than the story, but even they can be a little inconsistent.  The sets and locations are downright spectacular, looking so real and so much like a war torn era London that you have to wonder how they were able to get the local residents allow the film crew to totally transform their neighborhood for the film’s purposes.  The costumes and interiors had more character than the actors did, and you can truly allow yourself to get lost in the period of the movie, if not so much in the story.

The camera work and special effects, however, are a little more inconsistent.  They are excellent for most of the time, but occasionally give way to an awkward shot or an obvious green screen effect or the like blemishing an otherwise great effort, and in an odd way these stand out mistakes can be more annoying than work in poorly made films as the mistakes really stand out and make for added distraction.

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Don’t look over there, look over here.

Allied seems like a film that was made in a hurry.  Everyone involved is quite skilled, and it really does show much of the time, but it’s also obvious that so much of that skill was put into half-assed, “I just want to get this over with” effort.  There’s a lot of good here, a lot of bad, but mostly it’s a lot of filler and lack of passion.  It’s lackluster artisans at work.

Rating:  4.4 out of 10