Isle of Dogs


Some dogs and their boy.

(2018) Animated Feature (Fox Searchlight) Starring the voices of Bryan Cranston, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Greta Gerwig, Bob Balaban, Edward Norton, Koyu Rankin, Kunichi Nomura, Frances McDormand, Akira Takayama, Akira Ito, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Yoko Ono, Tilda Swinton, Ken Watanabe, Liev Schreiber, Mari Natsuki. Directed by Wes Anderson

 

Those who love the works of the quirky director will love this; those who are turned off by his oeuvre will not. The second stop-motion animated feature by Wes Anderson is so Wes Anderson.

In the future, the Japanese megalopolis of Megasaki has banished all dogs to an island formerly used as trash disposal. An intrepid young orphan boy (Rankin), who is also the mayor of Megasaki’s ward, flies to the island to locate his dog Spots (Schreiber). A pack of alpha dogs, including Chief (Cranston), Boss (Murray), King (Balaban), Duke (Goldblum) – a kind of four-legged TMZ – and Rex (Norton) along with the only female dog in the pack Nutmeg (Johansson) agree to help the boy find his friend. It doesn’t help that he speaks only Japanese while the Japanese dogs speak only English – or at least that’s how we perceive them. Meanwhile, back on the mainland, Tracy (Gerwig), a school reporter, discovers a terrible secret behind the cat-loving mayor’s (Nomura) proclamation.

The look of the film owes a lot to legendary Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki and is consistently beautiful throughout, even on the industrial garbage heap that is Trash Island. The Oscar nomination it received earlier this year was no fluke even though it eventually lost out to Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse. The dogs are exquisitely rendered and are genuinely hilarious. Anderson’s trademark deadpan sense of humor very much rules the day here; not everyone gets it or likes it. Bill Murray has made a career of it, including many of Anderson’s films but the two were made for each other.

This isn’t everybody’s cup of sake and I don’t think Anderson ever sets out to make a film that is. There are moments that are beautiful and others that are ugly, so young kids should be warned away due to the latter. There is a lot of Japanese cultural references here which will appeal to Japanophiles everywhere although SJW-types might mutter things about “cultural appropriation.” The bottom line here is the same as the top; those who love the works of the quirky director will love this; those who are turned off by his oeuvre will not.

REASONS TO SEE: The animation is brilliant. The sense of humor is droll, a welcome change.
REASONS TO AVOID: Guilty of occasionally being too quirky for its own good.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some images of violence and the thematic elements might not sit well with the very young.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This marked the first time in 14 years that a Wes Anderson film didn’t feature Jason Schwartzman in the cast (he did co-write the script).
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Apple TV, Fandango Now, Fios, Google Play, HBO Go,  Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/22/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews: Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fantastic Mr. Fox
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Killbird

Advertisements

The Favourite


Off with their heads!

(2018) Comedy (Fox Searchlight) Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, James Smith, Mark Gatiss, Nicholas Hoult, Joe Alwyn, Carolyn Saint-Pé, Edward Aczel, John Locke, William Dalby, Anthony Dougall, Emma Delves, Faye Daveney, Jennifer White, LillyRose Stevens, Denise Mack, Everal Walsh, James Melville, Wilson Radjou-Pujalte, Liam Fleming, Jenny Rainsford.  Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

 

Power often trickles down from the top, particularly in monarchies. Back when kings and queens ruled nearly everywhere, it was preferable to be close to the reigning monarch in order to wield enormous power. Often the King or Queen’s right hand funneled the information to the ruler with a decidedly slanted point of view and their influence often dictated policy. In some ways, it’s no different today.

In the era of Queen Anne (Colman) of England, that spot at her right hand was occupied by Sarah Churchill (Weisz), the Duchess of Marlborough. With a war with France raging, Sarah had aligned herself with Minister of Finance Lord Godolphin (Smith) of the Tories who urged higher taxes to pay for the war, which not coincidentally was being waged by the Duke of Marlborough (Gatiss), Sarah’s husband. Opposing this is the Whigs led by Lord Richard Harley (Hoult) who mainly represented rural concerns who felt the greater brunt of the taxes as well as supplying the bulk of soldiers for the front.

While Kensington Palace where the Queen resided was blissfully insulated from the rest of England, into this atmosphere comes Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Stone) who was once a noblewoman who was eventually sold by her wastrel father to pay off gambling debts. Penniless, she hoped to find work in the Palace courtesy of her cousin.

A flare-up of the Queen’s painful and debilitating gout gives Abigail her opportunity to move up the ladder. Smart and resourceful, the new scullery maid knows how to make a concoction that can bring relief to the Queen’s condition. Grateful, Anne brings Abigail into her inner circle, much to Sarah’s consternation. The two cousins are well-aware of the other’s ambitious nature and as the two collide in a battle for the Queen’s affections, both women will stop at nothing to get what they want; Abigail to acquire power and Sarah to retain it.

Director Yorgos Lanthimos has already put together an impressive filmography which includes Dogtooth, The Lobster and The Killing of Sacred Deer – and yes there are lobsters herein, briefly. This is easily his most accessible film to date but that doesn’t make this mainstream. Lanthimos has a habit of making his audience view things in a slightly oddball way, be it through a script that’s oddball or in this particular case, through unusual camera angles and lenses – period pieces as this one is generally tend to use fairly straightforward angles and standard lenses. Here we get Anne gong down a long corridor through a fish-eye lens, causing it to look like she’s rounding a turn or a scene of Abigail sitting against a wall with lush tapestries sitting so still you’d swear she was part of the tableaux.

The main attraction here are the stellar performances of the female leads, all of whom were nominated for Golden Globes with Colman nearly a shoo-in to get a Best Actress Oscar nomination. Both Weisz and Stone have Academy Awards already and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Colman will join them in that exclusive club. Her Anne is strident, a little bit mad, horribly lonely, and oddly vulnerable. She is a figure to be feared but also a figure to be pitied.

Both Abigail and Sarah are conniving, ruthless and devious. Stone and Weisz play them as very similar women but who have different ways of going about things. Sarah is one of the few who can tell the Queen the truth; Abigail is more of a flatterer but appeals to the Queen’s softer side. Both women also use the bedroom to help cement their relationships with the Queen – one of the more questionable facts of the movie which is loosely based on actual events – some historians have complained a bit too loosely but that’s par for the course.

The production design is magnificent and we get a real sense of living in the early 18th century in the mansions and palaces of the court. The costumes are also likely to get an Oscar nomination; the Whigs are foppishly dressed in elaborate powdered wigs and a slathering of make-up, whereas the Tories tend towards more 17th century dress with wigs of natural color and less flamboyant clothes (and no make-up). The look of the movie is as lush as any you’ll see this year.

While the comedy is ultimately fairly black, there is a melancholy that starts to spread into the film late in the second half that is intriguing. Sadly, Lanthimos allows the movie to go on a bit too long, leading to a surreptitious checking of watches by the audience. Some of the intrigue could have been cut back to make the movie a little more zippy.

This is one of the most critically praised movies of the year and anyone who loves the Oscars will need to keep this on their list of must-sees as it is likely to have a fair amount of nominations. A Best Picture nomination isn’t out of the question either, although I found it not quite as entertaining as I would have liked personally. I also found the pacing a little wonky in places and some of the humor too dry for my taste.

There are a few anachronisms, not all of them obvious, but for the most part this is a strong Oscar contender that has three terrific performances, a nice dichotomy of tones and a gilded atmosphere that will delight the eye. As I said, essential viewing for Oscar watchers but perhaps when all is said and done, just short of being an essential film.

REASONS TO GO: The performances by the three leading ladies are all Oscar-worthy and all portraying strong women in their own way. The period is captured nicely with terrific production design and costuming.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a little bit overpraised.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of sexual content, graphic nudity and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the first time Colman has played a British monarch; she will also portray Queen Elizabeth II in the upcoming third season of The Crown, succeeding Claire Foy.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/12/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 90/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Madness of King George
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Quake

Can You Ever Forgive Me?


Melissa McCarthy awaits that call from the Academy.

(2018) Biographical Dramedy (Fox Searchlight) Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, Ben Falcone, Gregory Korostishevsky, Jane Curtin, Stephen Spinella, Christian Navarro, Pun Badhu, Erik LaRay Harvey, Brandon Scott Jones, Shae D’lyn, Rosal Colon, Anna Deavere Smith, Marc Evan Jackson, Roberta Wallach, Tina Benko, Sandy Rosenberg, Kevin Carolan, Mary McCann. Directed by Marielle Heller

 

It’s a tough old world out there and anyone who tells you differently is trying to sell you something. Sometimes we find success only to have it snatched away from us and before long, desperation begins to set in as the bills begin to pile up.

Lee Israel (McCarthy) was a successful writer – her biography of columnist, raconteur and perpetual game show contestant in the 1950s Dorothy Kilgallen landed her on the New York Times bestseller list. Those days are long gone; a disastrous biography of cosmetics maven Estee Lauder was in the cut-out bins almost as soon as it was released. Her caustic personality hasn’t endeared her to publishers or her agent (Curtin) and nobody but nobody wants to hire her – in addition to her prickly personality her style of biographies have gone out of favor with the public while caustic tell-alls are all the rage. Her agent tells her bluntly she needs to find another way to earn a living.

This is New York City in the 1990s, one of the most expensive places in the world to live and Lee is 51 years old with no job experience other than writing. Her alcoholism has become so pronounced that when she does find a job as a copy editor, she actually brings her glass, ice and booze into the office, a big no-no. So with her rent months overdue and her beloved cat ill and needing medicine that she can’t afford and in any case she has an unpaid balance that needs to be paid before the vet will even look at the cat, she hits rock bottom.

She sells a letter from Katherine Hepburn that nets her an unexpectedly high amount of cash from a local bookseller but when she discovers a Fanny Brice letter, the bookseller who buys it (a lovely Dolly Wells) gently tells her that the contents of the letter are a little bland, so she can’t give her as much as she’d like to. Undeterred, Israel decides to rewrite the letter for which she gets a handsome fee. Now realizing that this could be a lucrative source of income for her, she begins forging letters out of whole cloth from gone but not quite forgotten stars like Noel Coward, Marlene Dietrich and Dorothy Parker who Lee is particularly adept at imitating.

Lee begins to celebrate by drinking more, endearing her to the closest thing she has to a friend – gay, drug-addicted fading man about town Jack Hock (Grant) who shares a catty wit with Lee who mainly tolerates him but when she starts letting him get close, she soon realizes that there was a reason that she has isolated herself from people. Besides, the FBI has discovered her little game and soon she appears on a list of people forging memorabilia from stars and nobody will buy from her. She has to rely on Jack to sell her letters – and Jack isn’t exactly the most reliable guy on the planet.

Many critics are raving about McCarthy’s performance and with some justification. Some are even predicting an Oscar nomination for her and I’ll admit, there is also some justification for that. I’m not sure this is an Oscar-worthy performance but it’s pretty damn close. Grant is also getting some ink pushing him for a Best Supporting nomination – again, not without justification.

Some will have a tough time with this because McCarthy is almost too good at portraying Israel’s notorious misanthropic side. Near the end of the movie cracks begin to appear in her armor and even as her deeds are coming crashing down around her, one gets the sense that McCarthy might have preferred a less humble Lee at the end of the film.

But for the most part the script is funny and smartly written by Nicole Holofcener – one of my favorite writer/directors out there – and Jeff Whitty. We also get a nice epilogue which explains what happened to both Jack and Lee (both have since sadly passed away) and lets us know that Lee’s wit was just as caustic as ever even after she did her time. This is a strong indie which may have some Oscar buzz around it going into Awards season; keep an eye out for it if you are motivated by such things.

REASONS TO GO: The script is smart and funny. McCarthy does a not-quite-Oscar-worthy turn here.
REASONS TO STAY: Israel is so unlikable that it is difficult to root for her.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a pretty fair amount of profanity (some of it sexual) as well as some brief depictions of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: McCarthy’s husband Ben Falcone was attached to the movie before she was. When Julianne Moore who was originally cast as Lee Israel backed out over creative differences, Falcone recommended his wife for the role.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/6/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hoax
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Long Shadow

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri


Frances McDormand demands answers in this Oscar-nominated film.

(2017) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Abbie Cornish, Caleb Landry Jones, Zeljko Ivanek, Lucas Hedges, Kerry Condon, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Peer Dinklage, Amanda Warren, John Hawkes, Clarke Peters, Kathryn Newton, Sandy Martin, Jerry Winsett, Samara Weaving, Christopher Berry, Malaya Rivera Drew. Directed by Martin McDonagh

 

There is nothing that compares to the pain of a parent whose child has been murdered. It is the unthinkable, the unimaginable – what every parent has nightmares about. Some unlucky parents don’t have to imagine though.

Mildred (McDormand) is one of those. Nine months have passed since her daughter Angela was raped and then set on fire by some sadistic freak. No progress whatsoever has been made in finding her killer. To make things worse, the spot where her daughter spent her last tortured minutes was on the site of three dilapidated billboards near enough to Mildred’s house that she must drive past them every time she leaves the house, where she can see the burn mark where her daughter gasped her last.

Her fury has threatened to consume her. She has to do something, anything to help her little girl get justice. So she marches into the ad agency that services the billboards and plops down five thousand bucks for the first month of a year-long rental. The three billboards are painted red with copy in big black letters: RAPED AND KILLED, AND STILL NO ARRESTS? and finally HOW COME CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?

The billboards have immediate and profound effect. Deputy Dixon (Rockwell), a drunken and violent racist creep who’d much rather be arresting black folks, is the first to see the messages. He informs Chief Willoughby (Harrelson) who goes ballistic but after asking Mildred politely to remove the billboards, he confesses that he has pancreatic cancer and he doesn’t want his family to have to deal with another unpleasant thing.

It turns out Willoughby is actually a decent sort who is trying his damndest to solve the case but there simply isn’t enough evidence. Dixon, who owes a lot to the chief is much more direct; he goes after Red Welby (Jones) who runs the ad agency and gives him a terrifying beating. Things begin to escalate in the war between the cops and Mildred; her surviving son Robbie (Hedges) is caught in the crossfire. Yet all is not what it seems to be in Ebbing, Missouri.

On the surface it seems like a very cut and dried story but as the movie unspools you quickly realize you’re seeing a work of uncommon depth and complexity. While it appears that there are some villainous characters in the story, there are in fact none. Even Dixon ends up finding some sort of redemption although it is hard to justify his previous behavior.

The acting in this movie is nothing short of astonishing. Three cast members received Oscar nominations – McDormand, Rockwell and Harrelson – and there easily could have been more. While it is McDormand’s movie, it is not hers alone. Watching her tightly controlled rage which from time to time her humanity breaks through is simply a clinic. We eventually find out that Mildred’s pain isn’t just because of the incompetence of the police; her last interaction with Angela literally sent her on the road to her fatal encounter. It’s some powerful stuff and shows how a great actress can take a well-written character and create a classic performance. If the competition for Best Actress weren’t so stiff this year she might well be a shoo-in. Harrelson also plays a decent sort with rough edges who is facing the end of his life and not necessarily with the dignity he would like to. Rockwell, who won a Golden Globe, may give the best performance of all as the loutish Dixon who literally comes through the fire a changed man.

It is hard to believe this is McDonagh’s third feature and as good as In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths are, this is by far the best of the three. His background as a playwright shines through more in the writing than in the direction which is not stage-y in the least. However, the sense that the town is much smaller than it appears to be lingers throughout.

I would have liked to have seen less contrivance in some of the events; some things happen that appear to happen only because the plot requires them to. There is also a bit of a lull in the middle where it feels that the movie is hitting a plateau, but the ending is absolutely extraordinary. Making a great ending to a movie is something of a lost art but McDonagh seems to have mastered it.

Nearly all of the characters are dealing with some sort of pain, either physical or emotional. The movie is about that true but it is also about forgiveness, redemption and humanity in the face of intolerable grief. While this isn’t a perfect movie, it had the potential to be and if the second act had been a little better, this might have gotten a higher rating. Still, it stands out in a year of really great independent films as one that is going to be in our hearts and minds for a long time to come.

REASONS TO GO: The acting is Oscar-worthy throughout the cast. The characters are all riddled with pain in one way or another. The ending of the film is sublime.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the events feel a little bit contrived. The film loses momentum in the middle third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a goodly amount of violence, plenty of profanity and some brief sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature film directed by McDonagh that didn’t feature Colin Farrell in a lead role.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/24/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 88/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fargo
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
In the Shadow of Iris

Goodbye Christopher Robin


A lovely father, son and bear moment from the Hundred Acre Woods.

(2017) Biographical Drama (Fox Searchlight) Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Kelly Macdonald, Will Tilston, Alex Lawther, Stephen Campbell Moore, Richard McCabe, Geraldine Somerville, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Shaun Dingwall, Tommy Rodger, Sam Barnes, Mark Tandy, Richard Dixon, Nicholas Richardson, Ann Thwaite, Allegra Marland, Victoria Bavister. Directed by Simon Curtis

 

The Winnie the Pooh stories and children’s books are among the most beloved on the planet. Who doesn’t long for the simpler times of the Hundred Acre Woods, the love and affection of Eeyore, Piglet, Tigger and of course Pooh himself? When the books were originally written between the wars, they were tonic for the troops, taking a country that had lost so much in the Great War and if not healing at least allowing those wounded and broken by the horrors of World War I to escape it for awhile.

The author, A. A. Milne (Gleeson) was himself  a soldier in that war, fighting in such places as the Battle of the Somme. When he arrived home, he suffered from what was at the time called shell shock but is better known today as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The backfires of cars, popped champagne corks and balloons bursting were enough to trigger Milne with terrifying flashbacks to the war; London had become intolerable for him so he hauled his young bride Daphne (Robbie) to the countryside of East Essex and set about trying to heal.

Shortly thereafter, Daphne gave birth to Christopher Robin (Tilston) whom his parents dubbed Billy Moon. Like most upper class parents of the time, they enlisted a nanny – Olive (Macdonald) whom Billy named Nou – to do the bulk of the child rearing. Daphne disliked the country life immensely, missing the parties and the culture of London and eventually went back to the big city, with no firm date as to when she might return. To add to Milne’s misery, Nou was also obliged to return home due to a family crisis, forcing Milne to spend time with his tow-headed son.

Against all odds the two end up bonding and Milne finds solace in the little adventures that the two set up for Billy’s beloved stuffed bear Pooh. Milne becomes compelled to write the stories down, first as a poem and then as children’s books which prove to be wildly popular. Daphne and Nou both return home and the family basks in the success for a short time.

But the public clamors to meet “the real Christopher Robin” and the clueless parents aren’t above trotting their progeny around for personal appearances, interviews and publicity stunts without a thought of what this might be doing to the boy. With Milne writing sequels and the demand growing exponentially, the real Christopher Robin begins to wonder if he himself is as loved as the fictional one by his parents and the resentment begins to grow and grow and grow.

Considering the joy and lightness of the Pooh books, this is a dark tale indeed and parents thinking that this is suitable for young children brought up on the Disney versions of the characters should be dissuaded from that thought. The themes here are very serious and adult and some of the scenes of war and its aftermath are likely to produce nightmares in the very young.

The odd thing is that most of the people in this film are thoroughly unlikable; Daphne who is a whining harpy who is completely self-centered (it is well known that in reality her son refused to speak to her for the last 15 years of her life), A.A. (called Blue by his friends) who was also self-absorbed and nearly broken and even young Billie Moon acts out an awful lot (understandably). Only Nou comes off as genuine, sweet and caring; fortunately for us she’s also the narrator In fact Macdonald just about steals the show here but I think it’s because the character is a life preserver in a stormy sea of selfishness throughout the film.

Although the film is said to be “inspired by true events” I understand that the filmmakers stuck pretty close to the facts which makes this almost tragic. There are moments of magic, yes, but Milne’s condition is so often and so thoroughly thrust in our faces that after awhile we want to grab Curtis and yell in his face “WE GET IT!!!!” The story of the creation of one of children’s literature’s most beloved characters is not a happy one and while I admire the warts and all portrayal of the Milne family, at the end I was longing for an escape into the magic of the Hundred Acre Wood myself.

REASONS TO GO: Kelly Macdonald gives a marvelous performance as the nanny. The film really picks up momentum during the middle third.
REASONS TO STAY: Tilston is a bit overbearing. The filmmakers overplay the PTSD element.
FAMILY VALUES: There are depictions of bullying, war violence, brief profanity and themes about coping with the aftermath of war and of parental exploitation.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Christopher Robin had one daughter, Claire, who was born with Cerebral Palsy. She passed away in 2012 at the age of 56, 16 years after her father did.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/15/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% Positive Reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Finding Neverland
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Daddy’s Home 2

Battle of the Sexes


Billie Jean King and Bobbie Riggs: together again.

(2017) True Life Drama (Fox Searchlight) Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Natalie Morales, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue, Eric Christian Olsen, Fred Armisen, Austin Stowell, Wallace Langham, Martha MacIsaac, Lauren Kline, Mickey Sumner, Fidan Manashirova, Jessica McNamee, Ashley Weinhold. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

 

The 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King, then the best female player in the world, and Bobby Riggs, a middle aged former Wimbledon champion was in many ways the epitome of excessive hype and sensationalism, two things America does particularly well. Some have looked at it as a metaphor for the struggle of women to gain equality but in many ways it really was just an over-bloated carnival sideshow that caught the attention of the world when it happened.

King (Stone) was busy trying to get the Woman’s Tennis Association off the ground; wearied by years of being dismissed by the male elite of the USLTA, then the ruling body for American tennis, and worse yet receiving only about one eighth the prize money that men received, she and her fast-tallking chain-smoking publicist Gladys Heldman (Silverman) are not looking necessarily to make a statement other than create an organization that will promote women’s tennis properly. King wasn’t particularly political but she did have a sense of fairness that was more developed than most.

Riggs (Carell) was a hustler and a man with a gambling problem whose career greatness was well behind him. Hitting upon an idea that he thought would generate him the kind of money that would keep him and his family comfortable, he wanted to play the best female player in the world and beat her to show that even an over-the-hill male player could beat the best woman. King at first refused but when Margaret Court (MacIsaac) who had the number one ranking at the time accepted the challenge – and lost – King felt obliged to take the match, particularly since the defeat could sink the WTA before it was even afloat.

To complicate matters, King had begun a romance with hairdresser Marilyn Barrett (Riseborough) that gave King the first realization that she was a lesbian. Of course it was a much different time back then; the revelation of her sexuality could wipe out the credibility of the WTA and of course destroy her marriage to her husband Larry (Stowell) who was genuinely supportive and someone she didn’t want to hurt. There was a ton of pressure on Billie Jean King coming to a head in the Astrodome on September 20, 1973.

Stone does an outstanding job as King, despite not having a particular physical resemblance to the tennis great. She does pull off King’s high wattage squinty smile very nicely and many of her vocal mannerisms. She doesn’t play King as a confident leader which was perhaps the public perception of her, but as someone who was thrust into a role she didn’t particularly want to play but accepted the role she’d been given. Stone has an outside chance of an Oscar nomination for her work but because the movie was released in September, kind of a no man’s land for award season, the chances are a little bit more slender than they might have been had the movie gotten a November or December release.

Carell also does a really good job as Riggs, capturing the huckster public persona and the personal charm Riggs displayed on the camera. We also get the sense – which those who knew Riggs well, including Billie Jean King have often stated – that the chauvinism was an act for him, a means of hyping up the match and of making a buck. There are moments of genuine warmth and Carell delivers them note-perfectly.

Dayton and Faris really give us a sense of the era nicely including a killer soundtrack – it’s nice that movies are really nailing era soundtracks these days – and the fashions and design of the time. They do make a tactical error in spending so much time on the romance between Billie Jean and Marilyn; while I do think that King’s discovery of her sexuality was an important component to her life at the time it was by no means the only one. The romance is over-emphasized and slows down the movie’s momentum and pads the running time a bit much. There really aren’t a lot of sparks between Stone and Riseborough and it makes the movie overall feel a bit flatter than it needed to be.

Still, this is a fairly enjoyable movie that if you’re patient can be quite entertaining. I wouldn’t call it a gem (some critics have) but neither would I call it a failure either. Misogynists will probably detest the movie and radical feminists may think it’s a bit soft. However those of us in between will find a good comfortable place to enjoy the spectacle.

REASONS TO GO: The performances of Stone and Carell are stellar. The directors evoke the era of the 70s nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie has a bit of a soap opera-esque feel. The film is a bit flat.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Carell previously worked with Dayton and Faris in Little Miss Sunshine.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/6/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wimbledon
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Victoria and Abdul

The Shape of Water (2017)


Sally Hawkins contemplates a potential Oscar nomination.

(2017) Romantic Fantasy (Fox Searchlight) Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, David Hewlett, Nick Searcy, Stewart Arnott, Nigel Bennett, Lauren Lee Smith, Martin Roach, Allegra Fulton, John Kapelos, Morgan Kelly, Marvin Kaye, Dru Viergever, Wendy Lyon. Directed by Guillermo del Toro

 

A bird may love a fish, the saying goes, but where would they live? Some romances, it is true, face greater obstacles than others.

Eliza Esposito (Hawkins) is a mute woman who lives in a ratty apartment above a movie theater along with gay commercial artist Giles (Jenkins) who is as lonely as Eliza is. She works as a janitor at a top-secret government lab on the outskirts of Baltimore along with her friend Zelda (Spencer) who nags her about being habitually late to work.

Into the lab comes “the most valuable asset” that they’ve ever hosted; an amphibious humanoid creature (Jones) who was discovered in the jungles of the Amazon, worshiped as a god by the natives. Security director Richard Strickland (Shannon) sees the creature as a potential means of putting the U.S. ahead of the Soviets in the space race which to this point in 1963 have been kicking America’s butt.

Strickland is under all kinds of pressure to deliver useful information but his scientists, particularly Dr. Hoffstetler (Stuhlbarg) are a bit hesitant to do the kind of research that Strickland is urging them to do – the kinds of things Dr. Mengele had no problem doing. Strickland becomes further enraged when, during a session when he is using an electric cattle prod on the creature, two of his fingers are cut off. Strickland, always what you might call tightly wound, suddenly finds himself wrapped even closer to absolutely losing it.

But Eliza is drawn to the creature; she finds it to be gentle and non-judgmental and like herself, unable to communicate verbally. The creature is drawn to her kindness – she feeds it hard-boiled eggs and plays jazz on a portable phonograph she smuggles in. However, it has come to the attention of Gen. Hoyt (Searcy) who is in charge of the project that the Russkies are aware of the creature and have designs on it themselves. Eliza overhears the plan – to vivisect the creature and learn as much as they can before the Russians either kidnap the creature or destroy it in such a way that the Americans can learn nothing.

Eliza decides that’s not going to happen and enlists the help of Giles in getting her help. Zelda is reluctantly drawn in and when Dr. Hoffstetler discovers what she’s up to, gives her tacit assistance. Eliza takes the creature home to live in her bathtub, waiting for the right time to release it into a canal that leads to the ocean and can lead the creature back home but the two have begun…umm, mating and saying goodbye is not going to be easy for either of them, particularly since neither one can speak.

This is one of the most beautiful and well-told stories of the year. There is a fairy tale aspect to the film, combined with a kind of classic Hollywood feel (there is a fantasy sequence in which Eliza finds voice and sings and dances with the creature which sounds hokey but when you see it you’ll understand how brilliant and how heartbreaking the sequence is). Add to that bits of horror and cold war-era spy thrillers and you have a movie that could have easily been a mess but in the hands of a great director – and make no mistake, that is exactly what Del Toro is – becomes a tour de force, a masterpiece in shades of green and blue.

Hawkins is one of the frontrunners for an Oscar nod for Best Actress this year and with good reason. She has to perform almost entirely with body language and facial expressions. She wears her emotions plain to see throughout, engaging in an impromptu tap dance when she’s feeling playful, or resting her head against a bus window when she is contemplative. She hunches over as a person who doesn’t want to be noticed does, as someone who has been ridiculed and disregarded her entire life does. I don’t pretend to understand the Academy’s mindset but if it were me, I’d just hand Hawkins the statuette right now and save everyone the bother but that’s just me.

The fantastic supporting cast doesn’t let Hawkins down either. Jones gets a complicated and believable costume to create his character; Jenkins shows his most compassionate and frazzled sides as Eliza’s quirky and often incompetent friend. Spencer gets a role on par with her Oscar-winning performance in The Help and Stuhlbarg who has an Oscar nomination under his belt already takes a giant leap forward in proving that wasn’t a fluke.

The production design is near perfect. The lighting and color scheme emphasizes shimmering greens and blues, giving the entire film a kind of underwater look even when the action takes place above the surface. The industrial look of the lab has almost an art deco look to it; the space age sheen of futuristic buildings recalling the 1965 World’s Fair are absent here. This lab is a dreary place where people go to do repetitive, dehumanizing tasks and lose just a little bit more of their souls every time they clock in. I think we’ve all had jobs like that.

There is an awful lot of sexuality and nudity in the film as the romantic relationship between Eliza and the amphibian becomes physical. While it is handled in my opinion with dignity and restraint, some might find even the hinting of interspecies sex to be completely beyond the pale. I can understand that, truly, but it would be a shame to cheat yourself out of one of the year’s best movies – if not THE best – because of a little fantasy sex.

Some might find the ending hokey but I took a different tack with it. Jenkins delivers bookending voiceover narration at the beginning and end of the movie; my take is that we are seeing events as Giles imagined they occurred; what really happened once the amphibian exits from view is up to conjecture and Giles admits as much. I kind of hope that’s what “really” happened to although life rarely has that kind of grace. Thank goodness that filmmakers like Del Toro do.

REASONS TO GO: Hawkins has a very good shot at an Oscar nomination. The story is touching and beautifully told. This is a godsend for the discerning moviegoer. Great supporting performances all around and wonderful set design enhance the film.
REASONS TO STAY: The sexuality may be more than some can handle.
FAMILY VALUES: There is graphic sexuality and nudity as well as some profanity and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Del Toro turned down Pacific Rim: Uprising to direct this.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lady in the Water
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
The Dark Tower