The Shape of Water: a Guillermo del Toro film. As with most del Toro films, you will either hate the film or be pleasantly astonished. As a del Toro fan, this fantastical love story truly impressed me. My outline fails to provide an adequate description of what occurs during this 123-minute film, but this is due to my limitations and not to what del Toro, the co-author and director, has created. The story takes place in Baltimore 1962. The racism, sexism and class imbalance that existed in 1962 is clearly presented. Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), the protagonist, is a mute janitor working at a high security federal government facility. Her co-worker, friend and sign language interpreter is Zelda (Octavia Spencer). The facility is deeply involved in the Space Race. Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon), the facility’s head of security, brings to the facility a humanoid amphibious creature (Doug Jones) that he captured in the Amazon River. The intention is to study the creature in the hopes of expediting man’s ability to travel in space. The Russians are aware of the creature and have planted a spy at the facility, Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg). The fifth major character in this film, is Giles (Richard Jenkins), Elisa’s neighbor, a recovering alcoholic who loves watching 1930’s dance movies. Over time, Elisa and the creature form a close bond and a uniquely interesting story develops. With the help of Zelda and Dr. Hoffstetler, Elisa develops a plan to save the creature from the agency’s exploitive and killing clutches. The antagonist, Colonel Strickland, is portrayed as a violent misogynist, and the few shots of his home life show stiflingly idyllic scenes reminiscent of Father Knows Best; the film is laced with references to old movies and TV shows. Despite the fact that some of the characters are one dimensional stereotypes, this movie really works. You come to sincerely care for the creature, and the love story between the creature and Elisa feels genuine. Hawkins’ performance is a significant reason why this film succeeds. There are a small number of directors whose work I always try to see; Guillermo del Toro is definitely on this short list. Despite the rather odd storyline, experiencing The Shape of Water was a real pleasure. I highly recommend this movie.
Saturday, January 6, 2018
Darkest Hour: a Winston Churchill movie. 2017 was a year for Churchill, both directly (the excellent “Churchill & Orwell: The Fight for Freedom” written by Thomas E. Ricks) and indirectly (Dunkirk). Darkest Hour opens in May 1940. The outlook for Great Britain is bleak. The Germans are overrunning France and the devastating invasion of Belgium and the Netherlands are close at hand. Neville Chamberlain’s “peace in our time” program has failed, and despite the ruling Conservative Party’s distrust and fear him, Churchill becomes Prime Minister. This 125-minute film focuses on the myriad crises facing Britain and Churchill, including the Conservative Party’s obstinate inability to comprehend that one cannot make a deal with Hitler. The story, written by Anthony McCarten and directed by Joe Wright, is limited to the first few weeks of Churchill’s reign as Prime Minister. The film lays out Churchill’s many foibles - his self-doubts, his drinking and acerbic behavior – as well as his intense intellect and deep compassionate for those whom he loved. Gary Oldman as Churchill gives an Oscar worthy performance and “Darkest Hour” is worth seeing just to marvel at Oldman’s presentation. The talent in this film is not limited to Oldman. Ben Mendelsohn is excellent as King George, who is portrayed very differently from the character we met in The King’s Speech. Stephen Dillane as Viscount Halifax and Ronald Pickup as Chamberlain are outstanding. Although her screen time is limited, Kristin Scott Thomas as Clementine Churchill, is superb, as is Lilly James as Elizabeth Layton, Churchill’s secretary. Of particular note is the subway scene towards the end of the film showing Churchill interacting with average British citizens. Contrary to the impression that might be given from the trailers, Darkest Hour is much more than just Churchill’s speeches. I highly recommend this superbly acted film, which offers a stunning contrast to the politics of America 2018.
Saturday, October 28, 2017
Victoria and Abdul: a movie “based upon real events . . . mostly” states the film’s opening text. Victoria is Queen Victoria of England (Judi Dench) and Abdul is Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a Muslim Indian. The story takes place between 1887 and 1901 during the last years of the Queen’s life. Judi Dench as Queen Victoria is the reason to see this film. She offers another remarkable performance. The story begins with the arrival of Abdul, one of two Indians sent to the royal household to present the Queen with a ceremonial coin commemorating her Diamond Jubilee. Abdul is instructed not to make eye contact with the Queen but he does. The Queen takes note of his good looks and fine bearing, and a close mother/son relationship develops. The opening scenes are presented with a light comedic touch, but you soon begin to wonder how much of the story is real as the relationship develops. Abdul becomes the Queen’s munshi (teacher) as she learns Urdu and reads the Quran. Abdul is portrayed as the person who provides the Queen with new vigor during the final years of her life. The Queen’s staff, the political crowd that surrounds her and her son Edward VII/Bertie (Eddie Izzard), are quite displeased about the Queen’s interaction with Abdul. The film’s presentation of Queen Victoria as having a progressive perspective on race and cultural relationships is not consistent with my understanding of the historical record. The screenplay by Lee Hall makes a point of showing the racism that dominated Victorian society. When Abdul’s wife and mother-in-law arrive at court wearing burqas, the antagonism towards Indians escalates. Although the film directed by Stephen Frears never adopts a sanctimonious tone during its 112 minute span, its level of playfulness decreases. I suspect the degree to which you like the film will depend upon your reaction to Abdul and whether you find his relationship with Queen Victoria believable. Personally, I couldn’t shake off the “mostly” qualifier in the opening text. Nevertheless, Judi Dench is on screen for a significant part of the film and so long as she is present, this film is one worth seeing.
Saturday, October 14, 2017
Marshall: a courtroom drama based on a real case. The year is 1941. The place is Bridgeport, Connecticut. The lead lawyer is Thurgood Marshall. The movie is about the criminal trial against Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), a chauffeur/butler employed by Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), a wealthy white woman, whom Spell is accused of having raped and thrown off a bridge. Chadwick Boseman, who is making a career playing famous Black men (Jackie Robinson, James Brown), is outstanding as a young Marshall. The excellent script by Michael and Jacob Koskoff draws its courtroom scenes from newspaper accounts as no trial transcript exists. The Spell case was reported in the mainstream press, including the New York Times. It was a major case for the NAACP because, unlike most of Marshall’s cases, this one took place in the North. The movie opens and closes with Marshall traveling by train from one town to another to defend black men. Most of this 118 minute film focuses on how Marshall manages to defend an individual who would otherwise not have had any counsel. The first step in the process is finding a licensed Connecticut attorney willing to take the case. That attorney turns about to be a young insurance defense counsel named Sam Friedman (Joseph Gad). A major reason why the film works is the interplay between Friedman and Marshall. Despite the seriousness of the story, there are some delightful comedic scenes. In the courtroom, the presiding judge (James Cromwell) is presented as being every bit as racist as one would expect a Southern judge to be in the 1940’s. The movie also includes scenes showing the community’s reaction to Friedman defending a black man accused of rape. An additional twist to this case arises from the fact that the Judge would not allow Marshall to speak in the courtroom. This results in an unexpected courtroom dynamic because, as it happens, this is Friedman’s first criminal jury trial. The only scene that does not work is when Marshall and his wife are out at a Harlem nightclub with Langston Hughes, and particularly the short scene where Zora Hurston appears. Showing Marshall having a life independent of his NAACP work is a good idea but limiting it to the interaction with Hughes would have been sufficient. This, however is a minor shortcoming. The film, directed by Reginald Hudlin, is excellent. The characters come across as authentic and the dynamic between Joseph Spell and Eleanor Strubing make for a story worth telling. In these interesting times, it’s good to be reminded while simultaneously being entertained just how overt the racism in this country was a mere 75 years ago.
Saturday, September 23, 2017
Wind River: a mystery set on the Wind River Indian reservation in Wyoming. The movie opens with a woman running barefoot through a bleak, snowy field at night. We then meet Corey Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a U. S. Fish and Wildlife agent who also works as a hunter/tracker. In his introductory scene, Lambert is lying on his belly camouflaged in the snow. He is killing wolves that have been preying on sheep. A bit later we see Lambert searching for a mountain lion that has killed a neighbor’s cattle. This is when he discovers the body of an 18 year old Indian woman named Natalie (Kelsey Asbille Chow). Lambert immediately recognizes Natalie as she was his teenage daughter’s best friend. Natalie is the woman we saw running through the snow at the film’s opening. We learn that three years earlier, Lambert’s daughter had been found dead under similar circumstances. The balance of this excellent 111 minute story involves our learning what happened to Natalie while simultaneously glimpsing into life on an Indian reservation. Because Natalie appears to have been murdered, the FBI is summoned to investigate. It is the federal government which has jurisdiction over capital crimes on Indian reservations. A rookie agent, Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olson), is sent to Wind River from Las Vegas. She has not been advised as to the weather and must borrow the snow gear of Lambert’s late daughter. Lambert and Banner develop a close relationship, which is presented without slopping over into a Hollywood romance. As the story unfolds, cinematographer Ben Richardson offers beautiful shots of the Wyoming winter. The cast of Wind River is small but includes some very strong, honest performances. Gil Birmingham plays Natalie’s grieving father, Martin. His screen time is relatively short but Oscar worthy. Graham Greene as the Tribal Police Chief also offers a fine performance. Renner is excellent, both as a grieving father and a professional hunter. The bad guys are one dimensional but the storyline from writer/director Taylor Sheridan remains powerful. Due to the cinematography, this superb movie is one that should be seen on the big screen.
Tuesday, September 12, 2017
Menashe: an engaging story about a father and his son. The film takes place in Brooklyn. Menashe (Menashe Lustig) is a widower whose wife died about 11 months ago. Although the wife is frequently part of the film’s conversation, she never makes an appearance; we’re not even shown a photo of her with one brief exception, a cell phone picture. Menashe’s son, Rieven (Ruben Niborski), is about 11 years old. When the film opens, Rieven is living with his uncle and his family because the Rabbi (Meyer Schwartz) believes a child should live with a family and Menashe is not interested in remarrying. Menashe and almost all the characters in this film are Hasidic Jews. As such, the Rabbi’s Talmud perspective that a good man should have “ a good wife, a good home, nice dishes” is the governing principal that drives this 82 minute film. Menashe is directed and co-written by Joshua Z. Weinstein and the film is about Menashe’s attempts to regain custody of his son without remarrying. There is only one date scene in the movie and I doubt it lasted even five minutes. Scenes of females speaking total less than 5 minutes. The story is authentic; it is based upon the actor Menashe Lustig’s own life and is about the Hasidic life style as much as it is about Menashe and Rieven. Most of the dialogue is in Yiddish with very readable English subtitles. Menashe is an ordinary guy working in a supermarket, but because he is an appealing person, the film works. If you are interested in seeing a slice of Hasidic life, you should see this film.
Saturday, August 12, 2017
Maudie: a film based on the Canadian artist Maud Lewis. The film commences during the mid-1930’s. The location is Nova Scotia. Maud (Sally Hawkins) is in her early 30’s and lives with her Aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose) but wants to return to the family home. Maud sees her brother and only sibling, Charles (Zachary Bennett), speaking with Ida. She begins pestering Charles about returning home. We learn from Charles’ remarks that Maud has a disability which, in Charles’ view, renders Maud incapable of caring for herself. Charles tells Maud he sold the family home and leaves. As the film unfolds, we learn more details about Maud. Contrary to the impression we’re given by Charles, Maud’s disability is physical, not mental; she has rheumatoid arthritis. To escape from the control of Aunt Ida, Maud takes a job as a housekeeper to a loner named Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke). Everett grew up in a male orphanage. He has a temper and lacks basic social skills. With these two very different characters, director Aisling Walsh weaves an entertaining and surprisingly romantic tale based upon the screenplay by Sherry White. The 116- minute film works because of the Oscar quality performances of Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke. From the outset, it is obvious that Maud has grit and will somehow prevail. Everett grows on you. Based upon very quick and selected shots of the real Maud and Everett at the end of the film, you learn that Maud was far more handicapped than she is portrayed, which makes her success as a painter that much more remarkable. The film shows Maud painting for the sheer pleasure it brings her. The postcard size pictures are noticed by a summer resident from New York named Sandra (Kari Matchett). Although the film does not offer details, we learn that Maud’s drawings are becoming well known, presumably through Sandra. Maud’s fame explodes. Even Vice President Richard Nixon contacts Maud by mail asking to purchase one of her pictures. The film takes you up to the time of Maud’s death in 1970. As the film credits run, her paintings are shown. The characters’ lives are hard but they endure. The film may treat Everett more kindly than he actually was, but as you watch the relationship between Everett and Maud grow, the story becomes inspirational. The opening of the film is a bit weak, however, if you stay with it, you will be rewarded. This film has no special effects and can easily be enjoyed at home with a bottle of wine.