Tale As Old As Time

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SOME SPOILERS AHEAD

At the core of the human condition, love is something we truly cannot do without; it guides us in relationships of all kinds and permeates our popular culture — movies, books, music and video games all guided by love, the one thing human beings crave the most. Without love, we feel lonely and powerless, and it is such a theme that guides one of last year’s greatest motion pictures, The Shape of Water.

In part the brainchild of legendary director Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth), we are quickly introduced to Baltimore, Maryland in the early years of the Cold War, and with it, the life of Eliza Esposito (Sally Hawkins, Made In Dagenham), a mute woman whose friends she can count on one hand — her co-tenant, Giles (Richard Jenkins, The Cabin in the Woods) and her supervisor at work, Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures). Her job entails janitorial work at a government facility, but one day, a creature known only as “The Asset” (Doug Jones, Hellboy II: The Golden Army) is brought in for, in the loosest sense of the word, examination, by a corrupt federal official (Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road). On another day, The Asset’s containment area is left unattended, and contact is made between him and Eliza. Neither able to speak as humans do, they become fast friends, but as the proverbial noose begins to tighten on The Asset’s life, Eliza resolves to help him escape — however, there is far more at play than saving the life of a friend.

Del Toro is one of Hollywood’s most active creative minds — the man has a full 18 (?!) projects in development. His dream project is said to be a new take on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, so one would not be too wrong in construing this as his Creature from the Black Lagoon, but I prefer to see it as equal parts Beauty and the Beast and Children of a Lesser God. Eliza and The Asset, for instance, are two rejects of a purportedly perfect world, who find each other under extraordinary circumstances and become friends where others would mock or scream, respectively, and this is also thanks to Ms. Hawkins and Mr. Jones, who perform with no discernible dialogue between each other and make the blossoming romance between them believable — not since WALL•E has there been such a palpable emotion between two characters who have little to say!

Mr. Shannon is not in as fine a form — he brings a little too much of his General Zod self from Man of Steel to this film; one with less knowledge of movies may assume he walked straight from that film’s set to this one, and he’s written far too vulgarly for my taste. To clarify, I didn’t expect him to be nice in any way, but I didn’t go to see him twirl his mustache so openly — also, I really never wanted to see him naked at any point in a movie. This movie does that and more… yiuch. My only other complaint about the film is in its “rah-rah, kill the red menace” portrayal of military characters — one of them even defiantly says “see these stars on my shoulder?”. I’m sure there were people like that in the ranks back then, but certainly not all were that way. It borders on Kubrickian parody, and in our day and age when servicemen and servicewomen are suffering in a litany of ways (not just PTSD), a little more respect would have been nice.

The last of the supporting players, Ms. Spencer and Mr. Jenkins, are in better form than I’ve ever seen them. Spencer is, yet again, playing hired help, but with a certain vigor and brightness to it that isn’t seen much anymore in such roles (but never stooping to caricature), and her purpose expands when she assists in the escape of The Asset. Jenkins, whom I normally regard as the most milquetoast Oscar nominee in history, is charming and kindly as Giles, an out-of-work painter with as few friends as Eliza (maybe less) and with little purpose to fulfill him until the rescue needs to take place.

Returning from Del Toro’s Crimson Peak is Danish cinematographer Dan Laustsen, who brings a style of camera work that aptly resembles American films made in the Cold War era, bringing to mind Rear Window and The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming! and evoking the feel of an America that no longer exists. A newcomer to Del Toro’s fold, renowned composer Alexandre Desplat (The Grand Budapest Hotel) brings an ethereal sound akin to his work on Philomena but with all the strength and gravitas of his work on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2.

Let’s not mince words, I was pushing for All The Money In The World to receive a Best Picture nomination, and I still regard it as the best of 2017’s offerings, but The Shape of Water proves a beautiful movie in a year that also gave us Dunkirk and Darkest Hour. Despite a few minor handicaps along the way, this is still a warm sight to behold and should be seen before it leaves theaters.

Rating: 4/5

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Every Little Piece

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Money — it corrupts everyone, from womb to tomb, in some form or another — someone who lives in the lap of luxury, the breadwinner who lives from paycheck to paycheck or the destitute who dream of their next dollar bill. Such is the motivation behind All The Money In The World, a surefire awards season contender and, in my opinion, the best motion picture of the year.

Based on the true-life chronicle of the 1973 kidnapping of John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer, Lean On Pete), his mother, Gail Harris (Michelle Williams, My Week With Marilyn) is issued an incredible ransom for her son’s life, and attempts numerous times to bring her former father-in-law, John Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer, Nicholas Nickleby) — famed oil tycoon and grandfather of the kidnapped — to pay the ransom and save her son. Her cries for mercy unheard, the elder Getty’s head of security, Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg, The Fighter) volunteers his service to help find her son, the two fighting against the time to save her son and the tight fists of her avaricious relation.

A thousandfold of kudos are in order for director Ridley Scott (Gladiator, The Martian) and Christopher Plummer — after the film wrapped with Kevin Spacey portraying Getty, he was found to be a sexual predator, and in an unprecedented move, Scott replaced him, with a little over a month left until release, with Plummer, his first choice for the role (Plummer was initially refused as Sony’s studio suits demanded a “big name.” Pah!) assuming command. Reshoots took place over the week of American Thanksgiving in a litany of locations, and the film was, by and large, refinished on time, and was able to screen for Golden Globes consideration! There are few in filmmaking today as principled and daring as Scott to reshoot a movie on moral grounds, and that alone has earned him another Oscar nod for Best Director, but the film’s tautly-engineered sense of dread and fear is what gives it the winning marks in my eyes — the scene where the kidnapped Getty is subjected to the removal of his right ear is what one would expect from the creator of the Alien franchise, and the disbelief and raw terror of his mother is something well-felt by the audience. Only a handful of directors can do that, and most of them are already dead! Scott is quickly proving himself the new Alfred Hitchcock without a shred of imitative behavior, and more power to him!

The actors at Scott’s command are in as fine a form as I’ve ever seen them — Christopher Plummer had reportedly already memorized the script — like a stage play — before being asked to replace his predecessor! At 88, there’s no one else like Plummer in the actor’s craft today, working at a pace that would tire out a thirty year-old and still bringing out a performance that brings us closer to avaricious darkness than his previous villainous roles ever could; this performance will be remembered regardless of the Oscars — but another win couldn’t hurt, right?

Now the elder Plummer may be the target of attention, but equally brilliant work is present among his co-stars; Michelle Williams, as I said previously, makes her emotions and words palpable to the audience’s senses and never stoops to a cacophonous show of tears and anger. Mr. Wahlberg gives his finest to his role as well, offering a light in a dark, terrifying world that we are offered, and the balls to stand up to his corrupt employer. Charlie Plummer, unrelated to Christopher, is central to the stakes of the film, and a lesser actor would make us yearn for his execution — and yet, despite his lavish lifestyle portrayed early in the film, we see in his eyes a lost child who just wants to go home to his family. We can certainly all relate to that; we’ve all been in tough situations as children and as adults that make us yearn for the gentle embrace of a loving parent, and Plummer shows that exceptionally well.

All The Money In The World is a paragon in suspense and drama in its delivery and, in its making, an example for Hollywood, the city of smiling cobras, in morality. Watch it in a theatre soon, and watch for it when the nominations are announced on January 23rd!

Rating: 5/5

Second Best is Still Among the Best

Y'know, I like the English poster a whole lot more.

Y’know, I like the English poster a whole lot more… though they forgot a comma between “Frears” and “Director.”

Philomena is a beautiful film, and ranks as my personal second best film of 2013, above The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and just below Saving Mr. Banks. As before, spoilers will be detailed, so go see the film if you haven’t already (as of this writing, it’s still in my area theaters).

Are we ready? Okay, here we go. The performances by Mr. Coogan and Miss Dench are well-thought and refreshingly believable; these leads never stoop to caricature or needless emphasis on a singular facet of the very real people they play — they are human beings, and little else, which is as it should be. Coogan’s portrayal of Martin Sixsmith (the straight man, if you will) is appropriately dry and wry, but he gives him a heart, with many moments of bonding throughout and notably exemplified in the film’s climax (which I will not spoil for you all; it has to be seen and/or heard).

As for Miss Dench, I don’t think I’ve ever seen her so cuddly and innocent in a film before. She has acted in such a way before (i.e.: Ladies in Lavender, Tea with Mussolini), but in playing Philomena Lee, she isn’t happy-go-lucky from the get-go. In her first scenes in the film, she is a woman with a lot on her mind, her faith at a crossroad, and a heart that is empty, gradually improving as the film goes on, and in spite of the fact that she finds that her son is dead midway through the film, she then decides to learn about him from those who knew and loved him.

There’s a lot of faith to be found in Philomena, not just with Philomena’s faith that she’ll find her son, but learning to find footing in your faith — in this film’s case, Catholicism. As a Catholic myself, I am struggling to regain my faith due to a few past hardships, and while this movie doesn’t “cure” me or anyone (it doesn’t seek to, anyway, nor is it supposed to), it is somewhat inspirational, for reasons that should become evident if you have seen the film, and if you haven’t, definitely do so and as soon as you can!

Rating: 5/5