The Shape of Water is the first science-fiction film to win an Oscar for Best Picture, one of four Oscars it received out of thirteen nominations, putting it in a ten-way tie for the second most nominations ever of any film. All About Eve, Titanic, and La La Land are tied for the most nominations overall at fourteen.
A beauty and beast story in which the beauty isn’t all that beautiful and the beast isn’t terribly beastly, the film is a marvelous throwback to the minimalist science-fiction films that were popular in the 1950s, most notably Creature from the Black Lagoon. Oscar-winning director Guillermo del Toro takes it one step further, with beauty having consensual sex with the beast, something that wouldn’t even be hinted at in a 1950s film.
The film’s one-of-a-kind Oscar-winning production design and terrific musical score by Alexandre Desplat add immeasurably to the film’s hold on its audience, but it should be noted that the film’s theme song, “You’ll Never Know,” was not written for the film as many of the film’s ardent fans seem to think. It is, in fact, an Oscar-winning song from 74 years earlier, introduced by Alice Faye in 1943’s Hello, Frisco, Hello.
Lady Bird is a charming coming-of-age film set in Sacramento, California in 2002. Liberally based on writer-director Greta Gerwig’s own life experiences, the film won numerous 2017 year-end awards including Best Picture from the New York Film Critics and the National Society of Film Critics, the latter also awarding Gerwig its Best Director and Best Screenplay prizes.
Saoirse Ronan gives another beautifully realized performance, earning her third Oscar nomination, having been previously nominated for Atonement and Brooklyn. Veteran actress Laurie Metcalf also excels as Ronan’s exasperated mother, earning her first Oscar nomination after sweeping the early critics’ awards. The interplay between the two actresses is the heart of the film, but there are also fine performances from Tracy Letts as Ronan’s gentle father, Lucas Hedges and Timothée Chalamet as her first boyfriends, Beanie Feldstein as her best friend, and Lois Smith as a good-humored nun.
Good-humored would hardly be a word I’d use to describe Melissa Leo’s mean, antagonistic mother superior in Novitiate, a film set in 1964 after the Catholic Church’s Vatican II reforms were issued but not yet implemented.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a tense and unpredictable thriller with twists at every turn. If you love deep, dark mysteries, you’ll love it but don’t expect a resolution to the mystery of who murdered Mildred Hayes’ 16-year-old daughter. The film is not really about the crime itself. It’s about the actions and reactions of people in deep grief who don’t always do the right thing.
Oscar winner Frances McDormand has the role of her career as Mildred, the personification of the mad-as-hell, not-gonna-take-it-anymore aspect of the #MeToo Movement. She’s matched by fellow Oscar winner Sam Rockwell as Dixon, the racist cop who finds redemption in compassion for the last guy he beat up (Get Out ‘s Caleb Landry Jones) and the no-nonsense Mildred; and by Oscar nominee Woody Harrelson as Willoughby, the deceptively laidback sheriff. Almost as good are Lucas Hedges as Mildred’s son, John Hawkes as her ex-husband, Peter Dinklage as a friendly businessman, Zeljko Ivanek as the desk sergeant, Clarke Peters as another sheriff, Jones as the local real-estate agent, and Abbie Cornish as Willoughby’s wife.
Writer-director Martin McDonagh fashions his masterwork as if it were a British murder mystery, but it is based not on a British incident, but on his discovery of two billboards he observed in passing through the U.S. some years earlier from which his imagination ran wild. We’re so fortunate that it did.
The Florida Project is only the third film to be released on DVD and Blu-ray featuring one of the twenty 2017 Oscar-nominated performances. The others were Get Out and Roman J. Israel, Esq. . As such, it should be seen for Willem Dafoe’s fine portrayal of a low-rent motel manager within walking distance of Disney World. Aside from that, however, I can’t really recommend the film.
Some of the greatest movies ever made have been about the struggles of poor people. The most memorable have been those in which the protagonists never rise out of poverty despite their struggles but carry on with their heads held high. You can find this in everything from I Am a Fugitive to a Chain Gang to Make Way for Tomorrow to The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley to Midnight Cowboy to What’s Eating Gilbert Grape to Manchester by the Sea. The Florida Project seems to want to belong to that stellar group but falls far short.
The title of the film comes from the name attributed to Disney’s buying up of land in Orlando, Florida to build Disney World in the 1950s. Dafoe’s motel is in the poor part of the city on the outskirts of the resort. Its denizens are mostly single mothers and their unruly, unsupervised kids. Critics have been effusive in their praise of Brooklynn Prince as the six-year-old daughter of a 22-year-old druggie and sometimes prostitute. She has her moments, but she’s no Shirley Temple or Tatum O’Neal. As her mother, Bria Vinaete, discovered by director Sean Baker on Instagram, is mostly annoying. Her line delivery is so poor that she had me believing she was selling scented tissues to passers-by to obtain her rent money. It wasn’t until I read a synopsis of the film that I learned she was selling perfume at inflated prices.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. was the highly anticipated film from writer-director Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler) that underwhelmed critics and audiences when it opened last November. Although reviews of the film were mixed, most critics and audiences agreed that Denzel Washington gave one of his best performances as the title character, an idealistic criminal defense attorney who loses his way and pays a price for his soon regretted indiscretion.
The actor earned his eighth Oscar nomination for his performance, which in my estimation is his best since 1992’s Malcolm X, the film that brought him the first of his six lead Oscar nominations after having received two in support. Those earlier two included one for 1989’s Glory for which he received the first of his two wins. He subsequently won in the lead category for playing a rare out-and-out villain in 2001’s Training Day. Most of his characters, though, have either been staunch heroes or just ordinary human beings with recognizable frailties we are all subject to. Roman J. Israel is such a character.
Having spent his entire career in partnership with another attorney who made the court appearances for which Roman did the research and prep work, he is like a fish out of water when his partner becomes incapacitated and he must meet face-to-face with clients, assistant district attorneys, and judges. A brilliant savant, he is unable to control himself when the assistant DA’s and judges don’t see the logic in his arguments, often resulting in problems for his clients as well as himself.
Only the Brave is a film that all but slipped through the cracks when released last October. The inspirational story of a group of twenty firefighters from a town near Prescott, Arizona, the film follows the narrative of most team-building films whether they’re about soldiers, sailors, or sports figures. They’re a group of different people, mostly men as they are here, who come together under shared difficulties. In this case, the men are training to become an elite group that will be allowed to tackle the toughest of fires. Known as the Granite Mountain Hotshots, the team of twenty will lose nineteen of its members in the Yarnell Hill Fire on June 20, 2013, the third deadliest wildfire in U.S. history and the deadliest loss of firefighters since 9/11. The lone survivor was the lookout who was rescued by the superintendent of another team.
Josh Brolin, in one of his best performances, is the superintendent of the Hotshots, a no-nonsense perfectionist with struggles of his own who takes a recovering drug addict, an equally fine Miles Teller, under his wing. Jennifer Connelly, also in excellent form, is Brolin’s wife, a horse whisperer. Taylor Kitsch is the swaggering ladies’ man of the group and James Badge Dale is Brolin’s heir-apparent. Jeff Bridges, who shares over-the-title billing with Brolin and Teller, has a supporting role as the town’s fire chief. Andie MacDowell is Bridges’ wife.
Westfront 1918 is likely the best movie you’ve never seen or perhaps never even heard of. Made at the same time as All Quiet on the Western Front, the pacifist German film was a world-wide success, opening in the U.S. in early 1931. Banned by the Nazis in January 1933 along with director G.W. Pabst’s other films, it did not resurface in Germany until 1970. It has since enjoyed renewed success in Europe and on home video outside the U.S. and is only now making its belated debut on an excellent new Criterion Blu-ray.
Westfront 1918 covers the same ground as All Quiet on the Western Front but is less sentimental. In All Quiet on the Western Front, the home-front is depicted as an oasis from the war. In Westfront 1918, life is just as soul-crushing in the towns where the soldiers come from as it is on the front lines with the impoverished population enduring widespread starvation.
Pabst, whose late silent films, Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl, elevated him to the forefront of German directors, chose Westfront 1918 as his first talkie. The highly realistic combat scenes were filmed silently with sound and sound effects added after the fact, making the film pictorially way ahead of what Hollywood was able to do at the time. Dramatically, it is also somewhat stronger than All Quiet on the Western Front as it concentrates on four soldiers, three infantry grunts and their commanding officer. Three of the four are referred to only as The Bavarian, The Student, and The Lieutenant. Only one, whose name is Karl, is referred to by name. In the end, three of them will die cruel, unnecessary deaths with hopes and dreams unfulfilled and one will go stark raving mad.
Goodbye Christopher Robin is a unique film that somehow managed to slip under the radar in the plethora of last fall’s film releases. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s a very good one that has lots to say about the writing process, not all of it good.
Author-poet-playwright A.A. (Alan) Milne returned from his service in World War I with undiagnosed and untreated Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, then known as shell shock. Suffering from a severe case of writer’s block, he moves his wife, young son, and the son’s nanny from London to Sussex but is still having trouble writing when his wife goes off on one of her trips to London, threatening not to come back until he publishes something. At the same time the nanny goes on emergency leave to tend to her dying mother in London. Milne is forced to bond with his son who he takes on long walks in the woods where the boy’s imagination inspires him to write a poem about the boy and his stuffed animals come to life. He sends the poem to his wife as a treat for her and she, in turn, has the poem published. It becomes a literary sensation that demands a full fledge book which becomes Winnie-the-Pooh in 1926, followed by The House at Pooh Corner in 1928. Both works usher in a world-wide phenomenon in which everyone wants to meet Milne and his son, the Christopher Robin of the books.
Although Christopher Robin was the son’s legal name, he was called Billy Moon from early childhood, Billy because that was the nickname his parents gave him and Moon because he couldn’t pronounce Milne. A.A. Milne convinced the boy that because he was Billy Moon in his private life, the Christopher Robin in the book was not him, but a character drawn to resemble him, not a concept that is easily understood by a young child. Billy was five when the first book was published.
Blade Runner 2049, Denis Villeneuve’s follow-up to Ridley Scott’s 1982 Blade Runner was itself based on Philip K. Dick’s 1966 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Hampton Fancher, who was one of three screenwriters on the earlier film, as was Dick, was one of two on the new one. Amazingly, you don’t have to remember the original, or even have seen it, to understand what is going on in the long overdue sequel.
Ryan Gosling’s laid back, almost stoic, acting style fits his character like a glove. Gosling plays a blade runner, an android cop, whose job is to “retire” older androids. His latest job is to find the daughter of Harrison Ford, the blade runner from the earlier film. Any more information might be considered a spoiler. Suffice it to say that not everyone is who they seem, and the two-hour-and-forty-four-minute film, now on Blu-ray and standard DVD, takes its time to uncover the truth in fascinating detail.
Unlike many dystopian tales, this one doesn’t insult the intelligence and wraps everything up within the space of its considerable running time. There should be no more sequels, although there’s nothing stopping filmmakers from making another film about another blade runner. The stand-out in the large supporting cast is Harrison Ford, who makes a late entry reprising his old role with his character having aged thirty years. Also on board are Jared Leto, Robin Wright, Ana de Armis, Sylvia Hoeks, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, and, all too briefly, Edward James Olmos, Hiam Abbass, and Barkhad Abdi. The film’s cinematography, production design, visual effects, sound, and sound effects are among the year’s best.
It, Stephen King’s 1986 novel, was first filmed as an award-winning TV miniseries in 1990. The first part dealt with the disappearance of children in 1960 and the second part with new disappearances thirty years later. The 2017 theatrical version, deals with the first part with the time updated to 1989. With disappearances now occurring 27 years apart instead of 30, we can expect the planned 2019 sequel to deal with events in 2016.
Critics of the day were more impressed with the first part of the miniseries directed by Tommy Lee Wallace than they were with the second part despite the star cast of Richard Thomas, John Ritter, Tim Reid, and others as the grown-up versions of the then-unknown actors playing the kids in the first part. Only Tim Curry as the evil shape-shifting entity known as Pennywise the Clown acted in scenes with both sets of actors. That tells us that the 2017 smash hit, newly released on Blu-ray and standard DVD, may be the better of the two films in the reboot. Time will tell.
The new film was directed by Anthony Muschietti featuring a breakout star performance by Bill Skarsgard, son of Stellan and younger brother of Alexander Skarsgard. The seven kids comprising the Losers Club that bring the disappearances and subsequent killings to a halt are played by Jaeden Lieberher (The Book of Henry), Jeremy Ray Taylor (Ant-Man), Sophia Lillis (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Finn Wolfhard (TV’s Stranger Things), Chosen Jacobs (Cops and Robbers, Jack Dylan Grazer (Tales of Halloween), and Wyatt Oleff (Guardians of the Galaxy). They’re all excellent in their roles.
American Made is about a clandestine CIA-run drug-trafficking operation in Central America that was exposed as part of the Iran-Contra Affair during the latter days of the Reagan presidency. It follows the exploits of former TWA pilot Barry Seals from the age of 32 in 1972 to his murder in 1986 by the Panamanian drug cartel at the age of 46. He is played by Tom Cruise, who at 55, is getting a bit long in the tooth to be playing these much younger, highly energetic characters.
Cruise’s charm is, however, what gets the audience through the film’s allegedly true, if bizarre plot twists. Domhnall Gleeson as Cruise’s CIA handler and Sarah Wright as Cruise’s dumb blonde wife are the one-dimensional characters you might expect. Only Caleb Landy Jones as Cruise’s hot-headed brother-in-law comes across as a believable human being among the film’s many supporting characters. It was directed by Cruise’s Edge of Tomorrow director Doug Liman, whose father, Arthur L. Liman, was one of the Iran-Contra prosecutors.
This one’s strictly for adventure fans. Anyone looking for something of substance should look elsewhere.
American Made is available on both Blu-ray and standard DVD.
Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, the directors of Little Miss Sunshine, have applied the same light comedy approach to Battle of the Sexes, their new film about the Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs tennis match of the 1970s.
The Mountain Between Us was the last of the major 2017 films released to the home video market in 2017. The film from Hany Abu-Assad, the acclaimed Dutch/Arabian director of Paradise Now, features excellent cinematography from Mandy Walker (Hidden Figures) and the expected fine performances from stars Idris Elba as a doctor and Kate Winslet as photographer forced to fend for themselves when their private plane crashes in the snowy mountains of Utah. Beau Bridges co-stars as their pilot who has a stroke and dies, causing the crash, without having filed a flight plan.
The problem with the film is that it’s a by-the-numbers survival drama that never leaves any doubt as to where it’s going. The ending is a foregone conclusion from the moment Elba tells Winslet his beautiful wife has died.
Like most home video releases of new films, it is available in both standard DVD and Blu-ray.
As we say goodbye to 2017, it should be noted that the five best new film releases of the year on home video in my estimation are:
Baby Driver – an excellent action-drama with comic undertones and a terrific soundtrack from director Edgar Wright featuring the best performance of Ansel Elgort’s career so far.
Dunkirk is one of the year’s most acclaimed films. Before Christmas, it had already earned 99 nominations and 18 wins from various awards bodies. Critically, it is the best reviewed war movie since Saving Private Ryan nearly twenty years ago. On a technical level, it is an outstanding film. Dramatically, however, like most of writer-director Christopher Nolan’s films, although it contains several scenes of great power, it seems to be directed at arms-length with an avoidance of sloppy sentimentality that is both refreshing and off-putting.
The film is about the evacuation of nearly 400,000 British, Belgian, and French Allied soldiers from the beaches and harbor of Dunkirk, in the north of France, between May 26 and June 4, 1940. The enormous undertaking was conducted not only by ship, but by small vessels that crossed the channel from England while the British Royal Air Force engaged the German Luftwaffe by air overhead. Nolan’s film tells the story from three perspectives, that of a British foot solider (Fionn Whitehead), a pilot (Tom Hardy), and the owner of a pleasure craft (Mark Rylance) who crosses the Channel with his teenage son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his son’s friend (Barry Keoghan). The narrative switches back and forth between the three storylines.
Of the three, Hardy’s storyline is the weakest dramatically with the actor’s face covered by a flight helmet and oxygen mask throughout most of the film. Whitehead is mostly an observer who interacts with most of the film’s cast who come and go throughout the film. They include Kenneth Branagh, James D’Arcy, Harry Styles, Cillian Murphy, and Jack Lowden. We do, however, get to know Rylance, Glynn-Carney, and Koeghan a little better, making their storyline more compelling. Koeghan, a Film Independent nominee this year for his supporting role in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, is especially good as a frightened, but brave, 17-year-old. The off-the-cuff conclusion of his story, which makes the cover story of the local newspaper, is a prime example of what I mean by Nolan downplaying a storyline that would have been played up by most directors which he downplays to avoid sloppy sentimentality. That’s refreshing, but it’s also off-putting considering the emotional investment the audience has in his story.
Detroit is the latest film from director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal who won Oscars for 2009’s intense Iraq war drama The Hurt Locker, and additional nominations for 2012’s equally intense hunt for Osama bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty.
This time they’ve turned their attention to the race riots in the mostly black Victoria Park section of Detroit fifty years ago in July 1967. The centerpiece of the film is the Algiers Motel incident in which one of the occupants of the motel shot a toy pistol out of his window which caused the National Guard, the Detroit police, and the Michigan State police to swarm the building with the Detroit police in charge of the investigation.
At the motel are resident Carl (Jason Mitchell), the guy with the toy pistol, and his friends Lee (Peyton Alex Smith) and Aubrey (Nathan Davis Jr.); Larry (Algee Smith) and Fred (Jacob Latimore), band members of the Dramatics; Greene (Anthony Mackie), a recently discharged Vietnam veteran and Julie (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever), two white girls visiting from Ohio. Bursting into the motel are three racist white cops (Will Poulter, Ben O’Toole, Jack Raynor) and a black security guard (John Boyega), along with two national guardsmen.
Before the police interrogation at the motel is over, all the occupants will have been terrorized and three of them will have been murdered by the police. Eventually the three racist policemen will be arrested and tried for their crimes. Although acquitted, none of them were ever returned to active duty.
Auntie Mame, everybody’s favorite relative, was based on novelist Patrick Dennis’ real-life eccentric aunt who first came to the world’s attention in his 1955 bestselling novel, quickly followed by the 1956 Broadway smash hit starring Rosalind Russell and then the Oscar-nominated 1958 film that became the biggest box-office hit of 1959. Filmed in Technirama, a process in which the frame is twice as large as the frame in CinemaScope, the eye-popping colors were some of the loveliest ever put on film. Muted in past home video formats and TV broadcasts, the film has been restored to its original rich palate on Blu-ray with crystal clear sound picking up every nuance of the non-stop comedy.
The character would be revisited again with the incomparable Angela Lansbury taking over as a singing Mame on Broadway in 1966. Alas, Lansbury’s full-of-life performance was not transferred to the screen in the flop 1974 film version that starred a barely moving 62-year-old Lucille Ball. But, we still have the original with the fabulous Rosalind Russell at her peak, supported by a gallery of top-notch supporting players including Coral Browne as Vera Charles, Peggy Cass as Agnes Gooch, Jan Handzlik as the young Patrick, Roger Moore as the older Patrick, Forrest Tucker as Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside, Patric Knowles as Lindsay, Fred Clark as Babcock, Henry Brandon as Acacius Page, Robin Hughes as O’Banion, Joanna Barnes as Gloria, Pippa Scott as Pegeen, Willard Waterman and Lee Patrick as the Upsons, Connie Gilchrist as Norah Muldoon, and Yuki Shimoda as Ito. They’re all marvelous no matter how many times you see them.