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The Shape of Water (2017)
A Delightful Fairy Tale From Del Toro
Guillermo del Toro is back with this visually stunning and thoroughly entertaining adult fairy tale. While this movie does not quite live up to some of his previous films (i.e. "Pan's Labyrinth,") it is still a great film in its own right. When one begins to watch the film, the first thing that the viewer will notice is the luscious and stunning visuals. These aesthetic qualities are all the more superb and stunning when one takes a moment to realize that they were done with practical effects rather than CGI. As usual, the visionary style del Toro takes to envision his creature and sets is incredibly impressive. Alexandre Desplat's score, with its simplistic, unpretentious and almost low-key charm, is also thoroughly riveting.
The plot, which centers on a janitor's relationship with a creature kept in a research lab during the Cold War era in Baltimore, is entertaining throughout. The film is paced well, and never drags or feels tedious. The acting on display in the film is good as well, with a solid performance from Sally Hawkins in the lead role, a show-stealing supporting performance by Octavia Spencer, and a darkly powerful turn by Michael Shannon as a supervisor who serves as the film's sadistic villain. It is also important to note how the film is enhanced by its use of classic filmmaking tropes, which are managed well as to feel original rather than clichéd or too old-fashioned. They give the film a unique layer of depth to it that helps work hand-in-hand with its stylish aesthetic and unique mix of charm and darker themes. The only criticism I have of this film is the fact that there is a lack of individualization or characterization of film's supporting characters; these characters seem solely memorable based on a single personality trait. Otherwise, this is a skillfully made fantasy film and one that I would recommend very much. 8.5/10
Justice League (2017)
Generic, Dull, Occasionally Fun Superhero Film
First of all, I should first make note that I only went to see this because I had a free pass valid for IMAX showings. I knew that the reviews for this movie weren't up to par, but I still thought that it might have its moments, especially since I enjoyed "Wonder Woman." Having seen it, I can say that "Justice League" has a few entertaining parts but is overall another disappointment for DC comic book movies. (Still, it's not an unfettered disaster like "Batman v. Superman" or "Suicide Squad.")
The biggest problem with "Justice League" is just how bland and dull it is. The film feels about as formulaic as a superhero team-up movie could get, with little plot or character development. The visual style feels completely 'been there, done that,' as does the excessive amount of CGI and relatively clunky action scenes commonly found in DC films. The villain, Steppenwolf, also feels very meh. The CGI effects of Steppenwolf and his minions are almost laughable. And the movie's script, with by-the-book writing that's cringe-worthy half the time, is generally poor, although I will give the writers credit at trying to pull off an interesting and unique enough sort-of-plot-twist in the second half.
That's not to say that "Justice League" doesn't have any redeemable qualities. Some of the performances are fine, although even the lead actors are unfortunately given relatively little to do to stand out from the other main characters. The film does have some enjoyable action scenes and one-liners, particularly a team-up scene with all the main heroes that occurs a little before the halfway mark. But these moments still fail to infuse the film with a spirit of originality, making this a serviceable but highly forgettable film. 5/10
Note: Having had a free IMAX pass, I saw this movie in IMAX. The picture and sound quality were good, but they did not stand out in a manner characteristic of some other films I have seen on IMAX screens.
Coco Es Excelente
I have always loved Pixar films (well, most of them) and was looking forward to this as an original return to form for the animation studio. It followed through on that promise and then some. Stunningly animated, culturally relevant and emotionally powerful, this animated stunner is Pixar's best film since "Toy Story 3." Lee Unkrich's direction is excellent, making the film a gorgeous and stunning love letter to not only Mexico but its people and culture. The plot is thoroughly engaging throughout, and never becomes predictable despite the presence of several Pixar tropes. While some of the small children in the audience I was with got a little antsy, everyone still had a great time and absorbed the unique details of the story.
Pixar's art direction is second to none in the film. The Land of the Dead is laid out as a visual wonderland, with more unique puns and Easter eggs to count on a first viewing. The all-Hispanic voice cast are uniformly great, and the film manages to be both entertaining and fun while still incredibly powerful at the same time: a nearly impossible trick to pull off in an animated film. The film's action and travel scenes are thrilling, but the movie never loses grip of its strong and hopeful message about the value of family and familial love. At the end of the day, both children and adults will love this film, which is one of the year's best. It's great to see that Pixar can still continue touch generations with animated films of exceptional quality like the ones that helped them become a household name. 10/10
Note: The short film that precedes the feature, "Olaf's Frozen Adventure," is a bit of a waste. It probably doesn't help that I'm not much of a Frozen fan, but it's quite long (over 20 minutes) and the songs are rather annoying.
McDonagh Delivers Another Well-Made Dark Comedy
Martin McDonagh's new film is an incendiary dark comedy that has some tonal similarities with his two previous films, "In Bruges" and "Seven Psychopaths." However, this film is also plenty unique, and while not perfect, it's a wickedly thoughtful while also somber film due to its plot and general merits. The film tells the story of a woman in a small town in Missouri who puts up three billboards to depict her disapproval of the local police chief's failure to investigate her daughter's rape and murder. Gleefully profane and politically incorrect, the film's no-holds-barred script generally works to create dramatic irony, tension and a sense of collective outrage. However, there are a few moments where its more hyperbolic senses fail to create the intended effect on viewers--or come across as if such writing devices are simply trying too hard to do so.
"Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" should be commended for its exceptional acting. Frances McDormand's performance in the lead role is simply outstanding. She manages to pull off a genuine sense of grief combined with a twisted and engaging sense of humor that complements her otherwise-serious characterization quite well. The supporting cast is impressive as well, particularly Woody Harrelson's role as the police chief. Despite these unique strengths, the film does also contain some flaws. The climax and ending happen to go on too long for no particular reason, and there are portions of the film that do feel slightly atonal. However, this is a generally well-made and certainly well-acted dark comedy. Recommended. 7.5/10
Lady Bird (2017)
A Hilarious, Poignant Coming-of-Age Comedy
Greta Gerwig's directorial debut is a very funny and entertaining film about a rebellious young woman who is a senior at a Catholic high school in Sacramento. She wants to attend college on the East Coast, preferably in New York City. I have always been a fan of Gerwig and her work, and I can say that her filmmaking skills are incredibly strong here as far as directorial debuts go. The screenplay is full of wit and emotion. While the film is very light in tone, the characterizations present through the narrative as well as the film's juxtaposition of its main events pertaining to Lady Bird's (the nickname of the protagonist) final year in high school give the script considerable weight and power.
Saorise Ronan gives a hearty and very authentic performance in the lead role, and the supporting cast is generally very strong. The film's tone feels playful but also enjoyably sassy and thoughtful. As a result, the film feels far more potent than just about anything in the teenage/coming-of-age genre. While the film's pacing in its final scene feels slightly awkward given its contrast of pace with the rest of the narrative, the film feels fully satisfying in its entirety despite running a lean 93 minutes. Additionally, some of the plot devices that help form the narrative and plot line of the film feel rather predictable. However, that ends up being only a minor complaint because the humor, heart and bite of the writing helps drown out any sense of clichés that a viewer might feel. Overall, I thought this was a great and very funny coming-of-age comedy that I had a lot of fun watching. I look forward to seeing what Greta Gerwig does next with her undeniable talent. Definitely recommended. 8.5/10
The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)
Lanthimos' Latest is a Solid, Sordid Cinematic Venture
While I wasn't a huge fan of "The Lobster" after viewing it for the first time, it has been a film I gradually came to appreciate and admire for its unique audacity. I was looking forward to Yorgos Lanthimos' new film ever since strong (albeit polarizing) reviews started coming out of Sundance. While not perfect, "The Killing of a Sacred Deer" is a well-made, twisted film that is audacious and often hard to categorize.
It's not easy to give away the plot of this film without bordering on revealing spoilers. As a result, all I will say is that it revolves around the life of a surgeon in Cincinnati who befriends a teenage boy that ends up placing a curse on his family--leading to horrific results. The acting in the film is excellent, and Lanthimos' signature blunt and emotionless style of writing is on full display here. While the film's pacing could definitely have been improved (the main plot device is not introduced until halfway through,) Lanthimos still proves that he knows his stuff as a skilled auteur. Dramatic irony forms the backbone of the film's narrative technique, and it is effectiveness within the film's storytelling is utterly brilliant. Many will be surprised at the shocking ending, which is unlike anything else you have seen in a movie lately (even if you've seen "mother!") It will further make the film a very polarizing one for audiences. At the showing I attended this morning, I overheard two people say it was the worst movie they have ever seen while walking out. Make no mistake: this movie is definitely NOT for everyone. But for discerning audiences who can appreciate the unique chills that Yorgos Lanthimos can send down your spine through a pitch-black psychological horror/drama, this movie will do the trick--and to them, I recommend this film. It's intriguing and unique to see a film so polarizing and provocative every once in a while, after all. 7/10
Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Villeneuve's Sequel is Ambitious and Well-Made
I really enjoyed both the original "Blade Runner" as well as director Denis Villeneuve's previous films, and had been highly anticipating this long-awaited sequel. I thought it was a well-made but imperfect sequel that must be greatly commended for its sheer ambition and aesthetic quality/overtones, but also a somewhat flawed one that does not manage to top the original film in terms of quality.
First of all, the film's visual effects are nothing short of astonishing. They are oddly both simple and highly complex in design, and look truly gorgeous on the big screen. Ryan Gosling is excellent as the protagonist, a blade runner named Officer K. Fans of this franchise will also be delighted to see Harrison Ford return to the screen as Deckard. Jared Leto is convincing as the villain as well. While the film's story is generally well-done, the flaws that are inherent in this sequel pertain to the structure and sequence of the story in some way. The film's pacing is not bad, but the film does drag a little bit in the middle. Also, the way the plot is organized sometimes makes the film feel rather dry, and the script cannot quite offset this feeling. I realize that it will be hard to conjure up a scene quite as potent and powerful as Roy Batty's famous "tears in the rain" monologue near the end of the first movie, but for a director so seasoned at generating genuine emotion and tension, it's very slightly underwhelming that Villeneuve had difficulty adding some density to the soul of the movie.
Overall, this is a solid sequel, although not as good as the original or Villeneuve's other films. Recommended. 7.5/10
Note: I saw the film in IMAX. The exceptional visuals and special formatting for the IMAX release made seeing the film on such a screen well worth the additional cost.
First Reformed (2017)
Thought-Provoking, Unsettling Character Study
Paul Schrader's new drama "First Reformed" is a drama about a grieving reverend who is counseling a couple--the husband of which is a radical environmentalist. This is a talky, dialogue- driven, and unsettling thriller that makes you both empathize with its characters as well as send a chill down your spine at times.
The film's deeply intellectual and serious commentary on matters of religion and environmentalism is profound and thoughtful. This movie will likely not be suited for mainstream audiences desiring cheap entertainment, but serious viewers looking to be challenged in their thought processes will have much material to ponder during--and after--they view the movie. The acting is very strong, as Schrader commands his cast into giving low-key but quietly powerful and resonant performances. The standouts in the cast are Ethan Hawke's lead role as well as Amanda Seyfried and Cedric the Entertainer in the supporting cast. A gripping, dark (almost relentlessly so at times) tone keeps the viewer engrossed in the film. While this isn't a horror film (despite containing disturbing content and moments,) the film's simple score is incredibly chilling and gets under one's skin more than almost any other film's score I have witnessed in a long time.
My only complaints about this film are found in the third act. A dreamlike, surrealistic scene inspired by impressionism that involves the protagonist and Seyfried's character feels out of place given the grim tone deeply rooted in realism. Additionally, a quick and highly abrupt cut in the film's finale feels disappointing and almost like the equivalent of a 'cop-out' in film editing. It did not positively impact how I viewed the film's ending. But other than these concerns, this is a very well-made and serious drama designed to quietly shock audiences into a state of reflection on the world today as we know it. 8/10
Call Me by Your Name (2017)
An Extraordinary, Extraordinarily Unforgettable Masterwork of Filmmaking
I loved "A Bigger Splash" (the previous film by Luca Guadagnino,) and was in awe by the trailer and stunning reviews for this film. Needless to say, my expectations were utterly shattered by this powerful, emotional, and gorgeous drama. It's one of the best films of the decade, and clearly the best film of the year so far.
While this isn't the type of film with too many spoilers, I still don't want to give too much away. It's better to go into such a sublime film like this knowing less rather than more. What I will say is that the main plot concerns an adolescent man who is spending a summer in the 1980's with family in Lombardy, Italy. He begins having a relationship with an older man invited as a guest by the family played by Armie Hammer. The film's pacing is superb and lets the viewer genuinely meet these characters, who are bonded by both friendship and physical affection. This is clearly shown throughout the movie, as the chemistry between the two leads is excellent.
But what makes "Call Me By Your Name" such a phenomenal film is its gripping sense of feeling. Viewers truly feel that they are away from where they are viewing the film, and truly feel like they have been transported to 1980's Italy. Guadagnino is a masterpiece at eliciting senses, and the audience's sense of senses are used to full effect to simulate the true feelings of being in Italy. From luscious depictions of peaches and apricots grown in the countryside, to the streets in gorgeous Italian towns and the steamy espresso, every sight and sound in the film feels truly authentic and impactful on the viewer. I have not seen such an effective use of reflecting on audiences' senses to create a more immersive viewing experience in a film in years. The film's score is exceptional as well. It feels authentically Italian and beautifully emotional, especially when paired with the film's script in many scenes. The writing feels both authentic and intelligent at all times, and the film doesn't even manage to let its guard down in a single scene by failing to grip the viewer with its beautiful script. A late-film monologue by Michael Stuhlbarg is a particular highlight.
As one can see from reading this review, this film is truly unforgettable and a brilliant trip to Italy. Its immersion in its setting and characters remind us of the focal point of cinema: to expose the viewer to unique settings and opportunities and to transport them to these opportunities through the language of film. Recommended to the highest degree. 10/10
The Florida Project (2017)
Well-Acted but Somewhat Empty Indie Drama
I had been looking forward to seeing this new film directed by Sean Baker ever since reading the rave reviews for it that came out of Cannes and Toronto. While I can say that this film is beautifully filmed and features strong acting, it doesn't quite hit the mark. The film is about a poor young girl, raised by a single mother, and her friends who live in a run-down motel close to Disney World near Orlando, Florida.
Baker uses a simple and low-key filmmaking style to deliver excellent cinematography. The film has a strong and commanding color palette to its simple aesthetic. The performances on display in this movie are very satisfying for the most part. The child actors do a very good and convincing job, especially given their ages. Williem Dafoe is very good as the manager of the motel, although it would have been better if he had been given more of an emotional range to work with in his role throughout the movie. Unfortunately, the film does have some notable flaws. The tone of the movie is all over the place, with joyous childhood wonder juxtaposed sometimes abruptly with more edgy and mature themes. Such abrupt changes in tone and motif hold back the movie's message to some degree. Some audiences will dislike that the movie is considerably darker than its trailers make it seem, although I was fine with that. The same concern over abrupt changes in tone is also evident in the movie's writing, mixing puerile scatological 'jokes' from the kids with more sophisticated and powerful material. Finally, the film's final scene feels like a cop-out. Without giving anything away, the way it is done also makes one (unfortunately) wonder if it was filmed on impulse, or if the filmmakers ran out of budget.
I really wanted to love "The Florida Project," and it's certainly not a bad film, but I just wish it could have been better. 6.5/10