Monday, January 15, 2018

FREE TO PUBLISH!!: a review of "The Post"

Screenplay Written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer
Directed by Steven Spielberg
**** (four stars)

If there is any filmmaker who is able to somehow, someway make the sound of clicking typewriters pulsate with white knuckle intensity and the images of crucial decision making can make a theater erupt in applause, that filmmaker would be none other than Steven Spielberg, the man who has created movie magic for nearly 50 years. With his latest effort, the historical docudrama "The Post," Spielberg proves again that he is not a filmmaker content to rest upon his creative laurels or his immense legacy. He is one who is endlessly inventive, curious, passionate and therefore, ferociously inspired, making his continued output more than worthy and deserving of our attention.

Now that being said, Spielberg's films as of late have been less than impressive to me. Of course, I do not believe that he is even capable of making a "bad" movie due to the enormity of his creativity and sills but even so, I was a tad underwhelmed by the likes of his more cerebral efforts "Lincoln" (2012) and "Bridge Of Spies" (2015) and his rather toothless adaptation of  Roald Dahl's "The BFG" (2016), I will openly admit may have had more to do with the movie he made not at all matching up with the exceedingly more frightening, tougher, exciting movie I had made up in my head when I read that particular book. That being said, something felt a little amiss with my reactions to the films made by a person who is possibly the most influential filmmaker of my life as he was instrumental in introducing me to the wondrous magic of the motion pictures. His recent films have just kept me a bit at arms length despite their unquestionable artistry.

With "The Post," Steven Spielberg has returned with a furiously impassioned roar. Lean, taut, briskly paced while perfectly merging the cerebral and the propulsive, Spielberg has helmed his best film in years, re-confirming his status as one of our living cinematic legends. In a past interview, Steven Spielberg once remarked that if one were to gaze over his complete filmography, one could see that most of the films he has made have either taken place in the past or the future,  where all the while he is commenting upon the present. "The Post" is a history lesson to be certain. But a history lesson that is as up to the minute in 2018 that it could nearly serve as a documentary!

Set in 1971, "The Post" stars Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee, Editor-In-Chief of The Washington Post and Meryl Streep as Katherine Graham, a newspaper heiress who took over the newspaper after the suicide of her husband and is currently struggling with the balance of her life as a socialite as well as her business responsibilities as she is contemplating making The Washington Post pubic, therefore hopefully shedding the journal's "family paper" image for a wider national reach and profitability. Yet, in her simultaneous affectionate/contentious relationship with Bradlee, the twosome partially spar over the business deal, which would reward in potential greater finances that could assist or hinder the actual journalism at work, .

The Washington Post, already in then President Nixon's cross hairs to the point that they have been refused access to covering his daughter wedding, has been playing catch-up to the likes of The New York Times but their moment to grab the brass ring is evident.

The New York Times' new expose of what would be called "The Pentagon Papers," classified documents spanning three decades and four U.S. Presidents. These documents showcased how every Presidential administration since Truman was involved with the behind-the-scenes political mechanizations of what would become the Vietnam War, and how the United States government knowingly and continuously sent soldiers to fight and die while lying to the American people about our nation's prospects at winning a war that the government, again, knew was unwinnable.

The publication of some of these documents land the New York Times with a court injunction against further publication, an injunction Bradlee wishes to take full advantage of for his paper as he attempts to locate and seize the Pentagon Papers for publication in The Washington Post, risking not only an injunction and possible imprisonment for himself, his writers and Katherine Graham but also the attack of the full fury of the vengeful Nixon administration. 

Steven Spielberg's "The Post" rockets through it race-against-time structure with a MASTER CLASS level of crisp direction, first class storytelling and the exceedingly gifted performances from the entire cast (MVP awards should undoubtedly go to both Bob Odenkirk and Tracy Letts for their equally outstanding work).

Conceptually (as well as taking a trip through my movie addled brain), one could conceivably think of this film as serving as a bit of a prequel to both Alan J. Pakula's classic "All The President's Men" (1976) and Ron Howard's eloquent yet sadly underseen "Frost/Nixon" (2008) and even as a companion piece to both Oliver Stone's hallucinogenic juggernaut "JFK" (1993) and his Shakespearian styled portrait of "Nixon" (1995) plus Pablo Larrain's psychological chamber piece "Jackie" (2016) to even some key elements within Spike Lee's fever dream "She Hate Me" (2004).

Even with the comparisons, "The Post" stands firmly upon its own cinematic feet and to a towering degree, as Spielberg has again taken that historical mirror to present to ourselves signifying that what is past is dangerously prologue. Within a story that concerns itself with government corruption involving the entrenched deception of the America public, a fight for 1st Amendment rights and a maniacal President of the United States more than ready and willing to rip that very Amendment to shreds for his own self-preservation and ravenous hunger for power and control, current events in our 21st century America confirm that we are long past the prologue and have been projected into a through-the-looking-glass existence where newspapers are dying, the devaluation of all news media is continuously rising and the President exists within a post-truth reality. Yet, the fight rages on.

With "The Post," Steven Spielberg presents those (and more) continuous struggles and their necessity for maintaining journalistic integrity combined with an accountability for all of our elected officials while also delivering a powerful elegy for what once was regarding the power and urgency of the print media, when hearing that snap of the morning papers was commonplace and fully desired.

Additionally, Spielberg also delivers a dire warning concerning the still turbulent relationship between journalism and big business, as the 24 hour cable news cycle has fallen into opinion politics at best, and downright sinister and politically driven propaganda at worst, all the while filling our screens with talking heads that really don't say terribly much of value, yet continue speaking in the pursuit of ratings. Just think what our news cycle would be like if all of cable news simply ceased reporting upon President Trump's every flatulent Twitter outrage, ratings be damned. Then, the news would be in control rather than the President provoking the media to follow his lead. Wag the dog indeed...

Yet, "The Post takes us back to a time period when journalists were furiously inspired to  not allow public servants to dictate what could and could not be disseminated to the American public and with Tom Hanks leading the charge, how could we not feel as equally inspired and as driven as the characters surrounding him in the film? 

Hanks' performance, all filled with gruff, chain smoking tenacity, is as magnetic and as effortless as we would expect. Even so, it is one that does arrive with challenging layers so as not to make Ben Bradlee too much of a Kapra-esque hero. Yet, in terms of journalism and the news, Bradlee is perfectly represented as existing upon the right side of history and his gleefulness with the thrill of the chase is palpable--in fact, the moment when he and his colleagues upon up the box containing part of the Pentagon Papers, it is presented with as much holy reverence as the opening of the Ark of the Covenant in Spielberg's "Raiders Of The Lost Ark" (1981)...but without the face melting wrath of God.

I did, however, feel that Hanks and Spielberg did rightfully inject a level of hubris to his pursuit of the truth as the consequences of the Supreme Court's decision h eld potentially dire consequences for himself and his reporters. How much of Bradlee wanted to uncover the truth for the American public and how much of Bradlee wanted to just have the scoop, thus elevating his own personal cache?  In that aspect, Ben Bradlee is not entirety virtuous, and in fact, in another crucial area, he does represent being as part of the problem.

Now, if you have been regular visitors to this blogsite, you have consistently read my critical to even mocking tone directed towards Meryl Streep's ubiquity with Oscar nominations, regardless if the performance in question was truly worthy of recognition or not. Yet, with "The Post," if she is indeed nominated again, it is for a performance that showcases strength and subtlety instead of any show-boating "I AM ACTING!!" hamminess, it would be indeed more than deserved. For my money, what is depicted here is one of Streep's finest performances in some time, a deliberately paced, slow  burn of a performance that provides "The Post" with its additional powerful theme of the rise of women in power in a so-called "man's world."

I did not realize that the real world Katherine Graham was the very first female publisher of a national newspaper, therefore making "The Post" a demonstrably riveting origin story as we are witness to this particular woman, in late middle age, grieving over her husband's suicide and being forced to re-invent her life in ways she most likely never truly conceived for herself.

Meryl Streep delivers a performance of growing confidence, with her own abilities and sense of power. Throughout the film, we observe Katherine Graham from her consistent asking of advice and opinions from the men that surround her life--from accountants, lawyers, political figures, and colleagues including Bradlee himself--or more often, being sidelined by those very same men regarding crucial decision making, all the way to the moments when she indeed wrestles full control--to which the audience I saw the film with burst into applause. And through Streep's unquestionable and revered skills, we can see her evolution step-by-step-by-step.

Working alongside Spielberg (it is stunning to me that these two figures have not collaborated before now) there were two moments in particular that where their cinematic powers congealed so beautifully, nailing moments in time and place so succinctly and mostly, without words. The first moment is a short scene featuring Streep as Katherine walking through a group of women into a closed office office of all men, making her the sole female present. The second moment occurs near the end of the film as Katherine quietly descends down the steps of the Supreme Court to the eyes of the public, most notably a variety of female onlookers. In those brief moments, what I saw was nothing less than the status quo being transformed and therefore, transcended. Essentially, especially in the second moment I described, we were witness to the sight of representation leading to inspiration.

Through the entirety of "The Post," Meryl Streep gives us a portrait of a character on a journey of self-discovery, which ultimately takes her to unprecedented heights. And still, she and Spielberg smartly realized that it would not be enough that she discovers the fullness of her potential. What Katherine Graham discovers is the full content of her character in a world that never asked or even wanted her to define it. But it is indeed a world that would be a better one because of it. "The Post"  illustrates, and completely without any melodramatic tactics, how representation matters, how being in the room, so to speak, can pave ways for more to be in the room and to even own the room itself. 

The arrival of Steven Spielberg's "The Post" at this specific point in time could not have been more perfect, especially as we now live in an age when CNN feels the need to say that an apple is an apple and President Trump can denounce sheer reality, even reality as presented with his own recorded voice, image and words, with a petulant wave of "fake news." That being said, what Spielberg has presented so masterfully is not just a film about journalistic integrity, or the freedom of the press, the constitutional rights of the 1st amendment, especially when it is the duty of the news media to hold our leaders fully accountable for their actions. It is not even just a film about the empowerment and rise of women within a "man's world."

Steven Spielberg's "The Post" is a film about resistance.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

UNPUBLISHABLE: a review of "The Book Of Henry"

Screenplay Written by Gregg Hurwitz
Directed by Colin Trevorrow
* (one star)

Just as with the good movies and especially, the great movies, all bad movies are not the same

There are the films that are bad for no other reason than all of the pieces of the cinematic puzzle just did not merge together in the very best way, regardless of the talent involved. It is as if the stars were simply not aligned. Then, there are the bad movies, where it really depends upon the sense and sensibilities of each, individual viewer, for what is artful to me may be garbage for someone else. And then, there are the movies that just cannot be reasoned with, or rationalized with or can even be saved. The bad movies that just careen off the rails, sometimes spectacularly. Colin Trevorrow's "The Book Of Henry" is one of those bad movies.

Dear readers, there is a strong difference between the badness of a film like "The Mountain Between Us" and "The Book Of Henry," because where the former was one that took a decent concept and executed it poorly, the latter is one that was horrific at conception. Frankly, "The Book Of Henry" is a howler!! The type of bad film where I could not help but to wonder just how the money lenders and powers-that-be read this screenplay and decided to throw money at the project to allow it to hit the silver screen. I am honestly stunned that not one person either before, during or after the filming took a look at what was being made and simply said to Trevorrow, " really need to sit down for this..."

In fact, this film is so terrible that I am almost recommending that you view it anyway just so you can have the experience of witnessing precisely how a movie can go so wrong so immediately, as this one does indeed careen off of the tracks and for two hours, we just get to watch this whole enterprise fall to its destruction in utter disbelief.

"The Book Of Henry" stars Jaeden Lieberher as Henry Carpenter, a genius child unlike any you have seen before...or could stomach. Yes, he is a star student, with a fully accessible adult vocabulary, perspective and worldview that makes him a perfect candidate for copious time spent in a closed, dark hallway locker.

Anyhow, he is the protective big brother to his younger sibling Peter Carpenter (Jacob Tremblay) from the school bully (no problem there), and clearly the "adult" figure in his home life as the boys' single Mother, Susan Carpenter (Naomi Watts), a waitress in a local dive restaurant operated by former SNL cast member Bobby Moynihan, as well as aspiring children's book author/illustrator, is essentially only capable of eating sweets and playing violent video games while Henry handles the entirety of the household's finances and bills.

OK... next door to the Carpenters live the Sicklemans, a duo which includes Henry's pretty yet sullen classmate Christina (Maddie Ziegler from Lifetime television's "reality" TV car crash "Dance Moms") and her stone-faced stepfather and police commissioner, Glenn (Dean Norris), whom Henry is 100% certain is abusing Christina.

And then, there is the titular book, a journal in which Henry has jotted down all of his seemingly six-figure treehouse Rube Goldberg designs and contraptions, so elaborate they would make Kevin McAllister from "Home Alone" (1990) salivate profusely, plus his even more elaborate plans to save Christina and take down Glenn Sickleman once and for all. 

Now, to a certain degree, what I have just described to you may not sound to be so downright awful. And truth be told, if the film just remained with those plot points, perhaps there could have been a way to make a story like this work. But...this is shockingly not all there is to "The Book Of Henry."

In addition to all that I have described, for whatever insane reasons, Trevorrow has also injected a terminal illness, financial wizardry, a school talent show complete with a solo dance routine (why not?) from Ziegler, a visit to a local, shady gun shop, a suicide, gentle sibling rivalry, an assassination attempt, and even Sarah Silverman as Watts' best friend from the who has clearly stumbled in from a completely different movie. To say that "The Book Of Henry" slapped me silly with jaw dropping disbelief would be an understatement. This thing is straight from the loony bin KA-RAZY!!!

Look, it would be one thing if Henry was gifted with numbers and mathematics but did he have to be a financial genius with a beyond expert's grasp of...Lord, help me...stocks and bonds (!), as he makes all of his wheelings and dealings from the pay phone (!!) located across the street from the school? It would be one thing if Henry was presented as somewhat of a savant or someone who was just pre-naturally wise. But, Henry possesses a level of foresight within this film that is supernatural. I mean--even Dionne Warwick couldn't have known all of the things that Henry is astoundingly able to know the longer this film progresses. "The Book Of Henry" truly contains the "and then this happened" syndrome to the point where the movie as a whole defies all sense of logic, reason, rationality, believability and therefore, any sense of empathy that Trevorrow and his cast are indeed working overtime to try and convey.

Honestly, I do have to hand it to both Jaeden Lieberher and Jacob Tremblay for trying their best to make heads or tails from this, as they are each gifted young actors as evidenced from Lieberher's work in Theodore Melfi's "St. Vincent" (2014), Jeff Nichols' "Midnight Special" (2016) and Andy Muschietti's "It" (2017) as well as Tremblay's especially powerful performances in both Lenny Abrahamson's "Room" (2015) and Stephen Chbosky's "Wonder" (2017). Miraculously, they both attempt to find a sliver of honest emotion and realism within a film that possesses none of such things. Yet, unfortunately, out of the young cast, only Maddie Ziegler suffers, as she is obviously acting by hairstyle--behind the ears when she is feeling OK, draped completely over her face if she is depressed. Not a terribly good look if this is the film's damsel in distress.

But honestly, Naomi Watts should have known better! Did she lose a bet too? I just cannot believe for a moment that she actually believed in this story! Well, in fairness, maybe she did initially. But, good night nurse, during filming as she is brandishing a sniper rifle, didn't it occur to her that something was seriously amiss. Even her character as conceived is a major problem as she does indeed treat Henry more like a husband than as her 11 year old boy genius son, a family situation when pondered more closely, seems even creepier than the possible goings on next door.

Colin Trevorrow's "The Book Of Henry" is a soft hearted disaster of a movie that just never knows when to quit. Or better yet, it didn't know better than to scrap everything, just start over and make a  better film. That is not to say that this movie is unwatchable. Trust me, it has to be seen to be believed.

But even so, I cannot help but to wonder if this was the reason that Trevorrow lost out the lucrative gig of directing "Star Wars: Episode IX."   Based on "The Book Of Henry," we really dodged a bullet!

Monday, January 1, 2018

CRASH LANDING: a review of "The Mountain Between Us"

Based upon the novel  The Mountain Between Us by Charles Martin
Screenplay Written by Chris Weitz and J. Mills Goodloe 
Directed by Hany Abu-Assad
* (one star)
RATED PG 13 least they didn't eat the dog.

For all of you out there who may have entertained a certain fantasy of being luxuriously enclosed upon a mountaintop with the likes of either Kate Winslet or Idris Elba, then please allow me to vehemently steer you completely away from "The Mountain Between Us."

Woooo-eee is this a terrible movie, one where the survivalist danger in question is flat out arbitrary to the point of being laugh out loud comedic and the so-called love story is even worse. Frankly, both Winslet and Elba, who surprisingly possess zero chemistry, look absolutely miserable throughout the film, and honestly, for all of the scenes where each of them happen to look skywards in anguish, it just felt as if they were each desperately attempting to reach their respective agents telepathically, mentally delivering propulsive tongue lashings lambasting them for ever getting them to enter a project this preposterous and stupidly overwrought. 

Look, I do get it. I am  honestly not trying to be some sort of insufferable "film snob" who just can't go to a movie and have a good time with it. Not everything has to necessarily be "art," so to speak. The problem with a movie like "The Mountain Between Us" is that the execution is so astoundingly poor that I was unable to buy into the fantasy being presented to me whatsoever--even with people as jaw droppingly attractive and charismatic as Kate Winslet and Idria Elba filling every frame of the screen alongside the wintry, mountain vistas. Trust me, dear readers, you have been warned!!

"The Mountain Between Us" stars the aforementioned Kate Winslet as photojournalist Alex Martin and Idris Elba as neurosurgeon Ben Bass, complete strangers both of whom are struggling to find airline travel out of Idaho for a wedding and a crucial surgery, respectively. Unfortunately, due to a severe winter storm, all flights have been cancelled. But hey...the two meet and commiserate about their travel troubles and then decide to...wait for it...charter a plane to their respective destinations.

OK...right here, the film stumbles into its first deep pothole because would you charter a plane when EVERY airline has delayed all of their flights due to dangerously inclement weather? I didn't think so.  Furthermore, when it is revealed that none other than Beau Bridges would be the pilot, Iand even then, he would not even bother to record a flightplan, I was stunned that both Winslet and Elba did not just walk backwards out of the plane hanger, because we all know that Beau Bridges will not last long!

Well...true to form Bridges (who clearly took this role after losing a bet with his brother Jeff) knew the score as he dies from a downright hysterical stroke mid flight causing the plane to crash, leaving only Alex (with an injured leg), Ben and the pilot's unnamed and delightfully happy dog as the survivors.

From there, "The Mountain Between Us" becomes a tale of survival and the threesome are stranded in the frigid wilderness and forced to attempt to make their way back to civilization with all manner of obstacles like nearly falling off of cliffs, facing down hungry mountain lions, descending through cracked ice, lethal frostbite and even more lethal dialogue, contrived situations, arguments and most certainly, their hot blooded attraction towards each other.

Oh boy. Again, I get it. From a fantasy perspective, I can clearly understand the whirlwind of being ensconced with Ms. Winslet or Mr. Elba (myself included--but truth be told, not on a mountaintop as I am an indoor type of person--a dream date with Ms. Winslet at a coffee shop would be heaven, but I digress). By why oh why, did the film have to be so ill conceived from the get-go with completely under-written, one note characters that are flatter than the pages they were written on?

Not for any instant did either Alex or Ben ever feel like real people and since both Winslet and Elba had no real characters to play, I cannot blame them for the shallowness of their performances, which never generated any sense of realism, peril, or even romantic tension.

All we received was Alex's confounding habit of taking photographs while fighting for survival and her pestering of Ben to reveal the nature of his relationship with his wife, which of course is fraught with a pre-fabricated backstory/tragedy that you will see coming a mile away...just like about 70% of the hackneyed dialogue, manufactured.arguments, and preposterous decisions on the part of the characters and filmmakers. Hell, even the potential sexual tension is painfully undercooked because hey, this is a PG 13 film, so a wasted opportunity that was, huh?

Look...this film got to be so ridiculous that I felt the need to entertain myself throughout somehow and it was indeed through the presence of the dog, who even after surviving a face off with that aforementioned mountain lion, conveyed a happy-go-lucky, constantly wagging tail spirit that belied absolutely everything the film was attempting to convey.

In fact, the dog was clearly having so much fun playing in the snow, the filmmakers often entirely forgot about him as he would disappear for long stretches only to re-appear in high spirits as he pranced around Winslet and Elba who were desperately trying to illicit some sense of frozen, near death terror. And so, in addition to wondering if the dog would have to be eaten, I often asked aloud, "Where's the dog????" anytime he mysteriously vanished. Yes, the little things when  faced with a terrible movie.

There's really not much more to say about a movie like "The Mountain Between Us" where not much makes that much sense, let alone the maudlin title. Please, even if you just love staring at either Kate Winslet or Idria Elba or both, just find some photos on these interwebs and gaze away as a still photograph is more compelling than any one moment in this  awful movie.


HAPPY NEW YEAR to everyone and may 2018 prove itself to be bountiful in its offerings for all of us...especially when we go to the movies!

For this month, as it always has been for myself and my movie-going activities, January 2018 finds itself to exist as a 2017 wrap-up, as certain end-of-the-year major releases find themselves being widely released during the month.
In addition to Paul Thomas Anderson's "Phantom Thread," I am also eagerly awaiting the full release of Steven Spielberg's "The Post," a film that feels could not be more timely, even if it were entirely printed upon the front pages of all of our morning papers.

Aside from those two films, I do have another new review in the hopper and beyond even that, I will also begin to reveal my annual Savage Scorecard list of my favorite and least favorite films of the now previous year.

With that, it is time to get myself back to the woodshed, so to speak. So, as always, I ask for you to wish me good health and I will pace myself and hopefully deliver to the best of my abilities. And, of course,once again, I'll see you when the house lights go down!!!

Sunday, December 31, 2017

SEA OF LOVE: a review of "The Shape Of Water"

Story by Guillermo del Toro
Screenplay Written by Guillermo del Toro & Vanessa Taylor
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
**** (four stars)

What a blissfully weird and undeniably wonderful film this is!!

The movie year of 2017 has proven itself to be a year of re-invention, that is, the re-inventing of genres and film styles that have, at their worst, been run into the ground. For me, filmmakers like Jordan Peele ("Get Out"), Christopher Nolan ("Dunkirk"), Edgar Wright ("Baby Driver"), Patty Jenkins ("Wonder Woman"), actor/writer Kumail Nanjiani ("The Big Sick") and for my money, the truly gifted Rian Johnson ("Star Wars: The Last Jedi") have all released films throughout the year that expertly rejuvenated the horror genre, the war film, the car chase action thriller, the superhero epic, the romantic comedy and even "Star Wars" itself with superlative amounts of invention, introspection and inspiration, as they all honored the standards of their respective genres while also discovering ways to become personal, and even fully idiosyncratic artistic statements in their own respective rights.

With Writer/Director Guillermo del Toro's "The Shape Of Water," we arrive with the classic monster movie, which in this case, is propelled by a "Beauty and the Beast" narrative which is as old as the hills, and to be honest with you, the framework did keep me a bit at arms length during the film's exquisitely presented yet familiar first half. Yet, deceptively familiar.

What del Toro's film achieved for me was how brilliantly it snuck up on me right at the point when I felt that I had seen it all before and could devise its every next move. But, as with all of the aforementioned filmmakers listed above, del Tor blindsided me over and again with an open-hearted creativity and flat out storytelling audacity that made the downright bizarre some of the most deliriously romantic and fluidly poetic visions I have seen in a move this year. Easily his finest, most richly presented film since the outstanding "Pan's Labyrinth" (2006), Guillermo del Toro's "The  Shape Of Water" is a marvelous and surprisingly malleable experience, much like the element depicted within the film's title.

Set during the Cold War of the early 1960's, "The Shape Of Water stars the astounding Sally Hawkins, in an undeniably Oscar caliber performance as Elisa Esposito, a mute, who lives in an apartment above a movie theater and works the night shift as a cleaning lady for a secret government laboratory in Baltimore.

Elisa's lonely life is the epitome of the mundane as her daily routine, from her work, to her eating habits starring an ever present hard-boiled egg to even her extremely private morning bath-time ritual are forever unchanged, her solace seemingly only arriving with her two trusted friends: her co-worker and sign language interpreter Zelda (an excellent Octavia Spencer) and her neighbor Giles (the brilliant Richard Jenkins), an artist and closeted homosexual.

Elisa's world begins to open wider with the arrival of a captured amphibious humanoid creature (played by Doug Jones), referred to as the "Asset" and housed within a tank under the command of the wrathful Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon at his most vicious). Soon, Elisa and the creature begin to communicate and formulate a bond through her surreptitious visits to his tank, where he is imprisoned as she feeds him her eggs, plays music for him and speaks through sign language.

As the creature's life is threatened, under the pretense of scientific experiments and exploration, Elisa, with Zelda and Giles in tow, hatches a plot to free the monster.

In essence, this plot description is what is delivered within the film's trailer and truth be told, when I first saw the trailers, I was not terribly inspired to see this film despite Guillermo del Toro's pedigree. As previously stated, the film was not quite reaching me for its first half as the familiarity of the plot was not feeling to transcend its genre trappings, regardless of the facts that every single performance within the film to that point had been uniformly excellent, the screenplay was beautifully written, and del Toro's visual presentation, as aided by Cinematographer Dan Laustsen, made "The Shape Of Water" flow as lusciously as a Technicolor fantasy of old.

Even so, I felt that I was seeing something that I had already seen in films like Steven Spielberg's timeless "E.T.: The Extraterrestrial" (1982) or even Ron Howard's "Splash" (1984). Clearly, del Toro designed his film to work in tandem with the classic films and  monsters that he loves as well as inspired him, most notably in this case "The Creature From The Black Lagoon" (1954), but what would exist beside an expertly rendered homage?

Yet, and as I also previously stated, the film truly snuck up on me.

Dear readers, it was definitely more than foolish of me to underestimate a filmmaker and storyteller on the level as Guillermo del Toro but I did.  That being said, you can only imagine how happy was I to witness precisely how del Toro developed and deepened his story in ways that allowed him to utilize his personal aesthetic, from the fantastic to the grotesque, transforming what was familiar into something that truly felt as if it was a dream magically plucked from del Toro's brain and miraculously displayed upon the silver screen.

I wish that I felt comfortable enough divulging more specifically about the sights (some of which are absolutely dazzling) and therefore, the fully earned emotions unearthed throughout "The Shape Of Water," But that would be unfair to all of you for I wish you to be as transported as I was. So curiously and courageously transported by a vision that proved itself to be as bizarre as it is challenging and poignant.

First of all, Guillermo del Toro has again provided us with a narrative that forces us to question precisely what is a monster: the being that looks disturbing and strange upon the surface or the one that appears to be "normal." That very dichotomy is further explored into areas of individualized dualities contained within public and hidden private personas and even further still, when delving into elements of interpersonal intimacies.

Secondly, I also admired how del Toro's film used the creature as a catalyst to explore the social politics of the era (and therefore our turbulent 21st century present) by presenting a tale where marginalized individuals are all attempting to not only stake their individual claims but to also survive within a violently intolerant world.

Again, I remain somewhat cagey as to not produce spoilers, but the magic of "The Shape Of Water," as I evidenced in the film's second half, allowed me to understand how del Toro had crafted his film to reveal itself through certain plot points and character details which fully informed everything I had seen in the film's first half bringing everything full circle rapturously by the film's aching conclusion.

Sally Hawkins is absolutely wondrous as she beautifully delivers a full, three dimensional performance that allows us to witness not solely the arc of Elisa but the depth of her inner world from her timidness to her determination as well as her strength, her moxie, her dreams, her sexuality, her bravery and the enormity of her empathy. The soul of the film rests within her every look, expression, motion and emotion as her every discovery as Elisa becomes our own, and in doing so, we are euphorically swept away. Simply stated, Sally Hawkins' performance is so complete that it truly feels like we are hearing her throughout the entire film even though she never utters one word.

What is water? It has the ability to exist within three distinct forms of liquid, gas, or as a solid.  Water can be a tranquil substance or unforgiving with its power. It can exist as a drip, as something shallow or with vast, endless depth. Guillermo del Toro's "The Shape Of Water" unfolds just like its titular element as it is a film that triumphantly grows, subsides, deepens, swallows, drowns, envelops, and cleanses. And isn't that what all of the very best stories do to us when they are told as grandly and as personally as this one?

Guillermo del Toro's "The Shape Of Water" is one of my favorite films of 2017.

Saturday, December 30, 2017


It is just a hair after the stroke of midnight, marking this date at December 30th, and marking this date even further (and more specifically) as eight years to the day when Savage Cinema was born. And as I have done over all of these years upon this date, I continue to use this time as an opportunity to give you the fullness of my gratitude as I could not have reached this milestone without you.

Truth be told, I never think of all of the time that has passed when I go through the year, writing one posting after the next, but now, when I look backwards, I am so very humbled. In fact, I guess I grow more humbled with each year, partially because of the sense of personal achievement because I never, ever thought of myself as being someone who would put himself "out there" with writing so personally and therefore, sharing it, because honestly, when writing about film, I am always writing about myself, sharing myself, and offering views for you into myself.

I also feel so tremendously humble as I muse over the passage of time because reaching this finish line of eight years seems to odd, so strange, so inexplicable because it does feel as if I just got myself started--despite the fact that I have all eight years right at my fingertips...and they are happily sitting at yours as well.

I feel humbled most of all because you have been with me for all of this time. For regular visitors, to occasional readers, to those who have looked for even just one posting, it is entirely because of you that I continue to have the impetus to keep pushing forwards. Yes, I would be going to the movies anyway. But I know myself very well. If not one soul even cared about this endeavor of mine, believe me, I would have ceased it long ago, keeping all of my words and thoughts to myself. I am more than aware that the world does not need one more person chiming in about the movies...least of all, me.

But, you have encouraged me. You have supported me. You have seen everything that I have wished for this blogsite to become: a place for me to share my passion about the movies and writing as best as I am able to perform. To show that not every location upon the internet needs to be a haven for snark, vitriol and reckless negativity. To know that there is always a way to say something, even when being critical. And mostly, to hopefully encourage conversation, between me and you and all of us between the movies we all experience. I hope that my wishes have proven themselves evident to you and I pledge to continue this journey over this next, ninth year.

It is so, so bizarre as I look back to that day when I was sitting in my parent's basement while visiting them for the holidays and the idea and subsequent birth of this blogsite began. I was so very scared. In fact, I was beyond scared. I was terrified. Because, really, who cares what I thought?

I knew I would never be the late, great Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert rolled into one package but at least, I wanted to hopefully demonstrate that whatever I knew about the movies, I owed it all to them for they were my first and best teachers regarding the art and artistry of what the movies could actually be. I just wanted to try.

THANK YOU everyone for allowing me to try and accepting my attempts so warmly, with such kind words and enthusiasm for my exploits. It can never be stated enough how much your kindness serves as rocket fuel for me as I approach the next review. It is never enough for me to write for myself--my reviews are always sitting in my brain for me to access whenever I need them. I am writing to express myself, to reach out, to keep taking chances and having you there to reach back means the world.

And so, here we are at the precipice of entering year nine of Savage Cinema. Are you ready to go with me?

Friday, December 15, 2017

GHOSTS OF THE PAST CONFRONT THE FUTURE: a review of "Star Wars: Episode VIII-The Last Jedi"

Based on characters and situations created by George Lucas
Written and Directed by Rian Johnson
**** (four stars)

It feels so supremely fitting that this film has arrived in the very year that "Star Wars" reached its 40th anniversary.

Dear readers, never did I ever think to myself that a full 40 years after seeing George Lucas' "Star Wars," his iconic, revolutionary motion picture game changer for the very first time on May 25, 1977 at the age of 8 years old, that the stories and overall mythology of Luke Skywalker, his friends, enemies and family would still capture my imagination and so fervently at that. All I knew when I was 8 was that my life was irrevocably changed, as if it was indeed struck by that proverbial lightning bolt. Simply stated, and I am certain, just as for so many of you, my life seemed to have a certain line drawn in the sand: my life before "Star Wars" and my life after "Star Wars," for it has permeated my existence so deeply that it is difficult for me to think of a time when "Star Wars" was not in the world.

Over these 40 years, I have remained ever enthralled with George Lucas's vision set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away as I have greeted and re-visited every film (including the prequel trilogy which I still firmly believe are unfairly maligned) with a joyful abandon as the elements of space opera, 1930's science fiction serials and the classic to primal tales of good and evil remain untouchable to me. For me, "Star Wars" has felt like a classic tome that I can always lose myself within over and over again.

Ever since George Lucas sold Lucasfilm to Disney, effectively stepping away from his own creation, I have remained skeptical of whatever subsequent films would be made without his influence because for better or for worse, it cannot be denied that with the first six films, you could see Lucas' fingerprints on the entire proceedings and I would have hated to see something so personal just become another shiny, flashy, money grabbing greed machine.

So far, the results have been wonderful, from Director J.J. Abrams' sequel trilogy opener "Star Wars: Episode VII-The Force Awakens" (2015) and Director Gareth Edwards' riveting stand alone war film "Rogue One" (2016), both of which fully honoring the universe George Lucas built while gradually pushing forwards with new characters, storylines, a more complicated and complex emotional and moral palate as well as some daring cinematic risks within this particular film universe (the climax of "Rogue One" for certain).

Yet, the past and potential future of this series as well as the respective pasts and futures concerning the characters of Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa-Solo and all of our intergalactic heroes and villains has not ever been confronted so explicitly, boldly, poignantly and as brilliantly as achieved in Writer/Director Rian Johnson's sequel trilogy middle installment "Star Wars; Episode VIII-The Last Jedi."

What Johnson has accomplished with his time at bat was beyond superlative. If Abrams' "The Force Awakens" was a home run, then Johnson's film is a beautifully and passionately delivered grand slam!!! So much so, and so triumphantly and most importantly, completely, I really have no idea of how Abrams is even going to attempt to follow it up with "Episode IX" in two years. Simply stated, Rian Johnson has delivered the very best "Star Wars" film I have seen since that very first film 40 years ago. This film is outstanding, astonishing work and easily one of 2017's highest honors!

Now in the interest of not producing spoilers or giving away too much plot information, I will stick to the basics. Picking up immediately from the events of "The Force Awakens," "The Last Jedi" finds the increasingly decimated Resistance, led by General Leia Organa-Solo (the eternal Carrie Fisher), on the run from the legions of The First Order, under the command of Supreme Leader Snoke (the riveting Andy Serkis), his sniveling commanding officer General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and of course, his conflicted Dark Side of the Force apprentice Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).

Meanwhile, defected Stormtrooper Finn (a muscular John Boyega), recovered from his injuries in his duel with Kylo Ren, teams up with hotshot/hotheaded X-Wing fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), his trusty droid BB-8 and Resistance mechanic Rose Tico (a wonderful Kelly Marie Tran) for a top secret special mission which lands them on the wealthy casino driven landscape of Canto Bight.

And as for Rey (Daisy Ridley), when we last saw her, she had successfully found the thought-to-be-missing Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who actually resides within a self-imposed exile upon the planet of Ahch-To. Despite Rey's impassioned pleas for his return to the fight to save the galaxy, Luke Skywalker, now grizzled, angry and broken, possesses not only no interest in rising to the challenge once more, he surprisingly is wishing for the final breaths of the entire Jedi religion.

It is within the entirety of "The Last Jedi" where all of our characters wrestle furiously with the ghosts of the past, and legends and myths both real and created as the desperate future approaches rapidly and with an unapologetic roar.

Rian Johnson's "The Last Jedi" is magnificent, marvelous and majestic storytelling and filmmaking that honors George Lucas' creation with innocence and reverence. To that end, I applaud Johnson tremendously for not allowing any sense of reverence to stifle his own creative voice and inventiveness. True to form, Johnson more than delivers the goods with the required spectacle as the film opens with a spectacular space battle dogfight and I have to say that the film's final hour provides so much breathless excitement, white knuckle adventurousness, as well as honest levels of surprise, pathos and even humor that he ensures that his entry into the "Star Wars" cannon is equal part Wagner and "Flash Gordon," while also generating more than enough honest emotion to produce very real and very earned tears.

It would be so easy for Rian Johnson to have just delivered the lightshow of blaster shoot outs and lightsaber duels and nothing more but reveled within the nostalgia, something the new films do run the risk of with new stand alone features like the troubled young Han Solo film which will be released next year plus a proposed Obi-Wan solo film as well. While I do wish those films the best and I hope they turn out sparklingly well, there is this part of me that seriously wonder just how much longer can the powers that be at Disney and Lucasfilm mine the original three films for new material.  I mean--we can blow up variations of the Death Star only so many times, right?

That is why I am amazed with how directly Rian Johnson seemed to use "The Last Jedi" to confront that very quandary. With all due respect to J.J. Abrams, whom I have already stated performed a hero's job with "The Force Awakens," he was indeed paying while creating within Lucas' universe. However, with "The Last Jedi," we can easily see how Rian Johnson is not solely playing and creating within Lucas' universe, he is building from it, making the most familiar elements including the powers of The Force itself, refreshingly new thus inventing his own world with his own voice as completely and as intricately as Lucas. Even the film's new creatures feel to have the same inventiveness and suggested history as the ones Lucas created only adding to the fullness of this universe.

I do realize that some viewers may feel that some sections and sequences of "The Last Jedi" may feel to be a bit meandering to even transgressive, but trust me, every location and side story are all working to the creation of an experience that feels as complete as a stand-alone film although this is a middle chapter. Johnson truly left no stone unturned with his storyline as he essentially tied up some loose threads and answered questions from "The Force Awakens" while continuing to strengthen, broaden and deepen and by the film's conclusion, I wanted for absolutely nothing...that is, other than to just see it all over again.

Thematically, I do not think that I have seen a "Star Wars" installment where all of the film's major characters are undergoing some sort of inner turmoil, transformation and catharsis. Certainly for Rey, she is continuing upon her journey with The Force and how it ties to her past, lineage and her new precarious relationship with Luke Skywalker. But, Johnson delves even deeper as he weaves her struggle directly with that of Kylo Ren's, whose own inner conflict is particularly wrenching, making him one of the most compelling, multi-faceted and multi-layered villains we've yet seen in the "Star Wars" universe.

For Poe and Finn, each are confronted with what it precisely means to be a hero and a leader, as Poe's impetuousness denies him the ability to view the long game, let alone the sacrifices. As for Finn, he gradually extends his thinking beyond his own desires to leave the war behind by slowly beginning to realize precisely where he does stand within this specific space conflict, a realization spirited on by the sincere admiration of Rose who finds herself inspired by Finn's past heroism which has already begun to take on its own mythic status.

Yet, the conflicts of myths, legends, and heroism all fall within the characters who began this entire cinematic odyssey 40 years ago and Johnson also wisely plays into that very stretch of time and what it means to witness such beloved individuals as they are now in old age, facing down their pasts as well as mortality and most poignantly, for us in the audience with the full knowledge that we are witnessing Carrie Fisher's final screen performance, a fact that only adds to the feelings of sorrow within the film. For Leia, whom Fisher portrays with expert gravitas and moxie, we can easily feel the palpable weight of a woman's lifetime fight against tyranny and the painful burden of all of the lives lost for seemingly very little gain, if at all.

If "The Last Jedi" belongs to anyone it is indeed Mark Hamill, who possesses copious screen time as compared to his mere moments in "The Force Awakens" and he owns them all, again with gravitas and painful burdens of lives lost, past failures, the ghosts of his past coming to claim him in the present and feelings of intense resignation where there once was unbridled hope.

Mark Hamill is absolutely sensational, as he also brings his history of playing the character while matching it with our history of watching this character. Under the storytelling strengths of Rian Johnson, Mark Hamill graced us with the opportunity to see Luke's tale continue with several surprising details, emotions as well as a prickly sense of humor. Hamill's performance is richly elegiac and will contain moments that will just shatter you in their poignancy.

For a more aesthetic level, Rian Johnson, working with Cinematographer Steve Yedlin, has established an especially striking visual palate from the blood red elegance of Snoke's lair to the downright gorgeous climax upon the planet Crait, with its grounds of white sand that reveal brick red colorings underneath and red clouds rising upwards. But that is not the only area where the color schemes are vibrant in their presentation.

I have to make special mention of the levels of representation contained within "The Last Jedi." It needs to be said once again but it is indeed true: REPRESENTATION MATTERS!!!!! For all of the viewers of "Star Wars" for these 40 years, and for how deeply generations and all manner of races have latched themselves onto these characters, stories and universe, it was beyond incredible to witness various people of color, both male and female, taking up the reins portraying major characters in the film and all having significant screen time to shine as brightly as the sun.

For me, John Boyega again strikes a powerful image as Finn, a Black man in outer space who possesses a full story arc of his own and is given a brief yet fight with his nemesis Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie). I can only imagine what it must feel like for girls and women to see Daisy Ridley as Rey and believe me, you will easily fall in love with Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico, whose adventures with Finn contains a moment that combines emotions where you will stand up in your theater seat and cheer while also wiping away tears.   

I have absolutely not one criticism to deliver towards "The Last Jedi" as it was far beyond anything that I could have wished for. Never did I expect that the series would find itself in cinematic hands this confident and creative. No wonder he has been entrusted with the creation of a brand new, non Skywalker related "Star Wars" trilogy in the near future because with this film, he has more than proven that The Force is exceedingly strong with him.

Even moreso, Rian Johnson's "The Last Jedi" fulfills the promises made by George Lucas 40 years ago and for me, everything was contained in the new film's final image--of course, I will not reveal here. "The Last Jedi" masterfully and magically renews that spirit of hope and vision in a very real world that seems to be losing every thread of it. For every child and for every child within, we still need to take that look up to the stars and somehow, someway find that spark of inspiration, that reason to dream, the need to retain hope.

Rian Johnson's "Star Wars: Episode VIII-The Last Jedi" is one of my most favorite films of 2017.