FANTASTIC BEASTS: The Crimes of Grindelwald | Movie Review

The Crimes of Grindelwald

Movie Review by Reggie Woltz

The biggest crime in David Yates’ “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” is that it makes the dynamic and magical “Harry Potter” universe boring.

Set 70-odd years before the adventures of the “Boy Who Lived,” the second installment in the “Fantastic Beasts” series gets off to a decent start, as the evil wizard Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) breaks out of custody during a high-flying prisoner transfer above New York City. But from there, things go downhill — fast.

The next two hours wander through a labyrinth of convoluted narratives, all loosely connected to a troubled young man with terrifying powers named Credence (Ezra Miller), who is hiding in Paris after having survived the events of the first film.

Grindelwald is convinced that Credence is the key to destroying his nemesis, Professor Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), and hunts the boy in Paris. Dumbledore wants to protect Credence, but since he refuses to confront Grindelwald, he persuades magical beast enthusiast Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) to find the wayward youth.

For their part, the Ministry of Magic believes Credence is a dangerous threat to society, so they’ve sent an agent named Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), Newt’s sidekick from the first film, to find him.

That’s the simple version of the plot, and it reads clearer in print than on screen. “Crimes of Grindelwald” also incorporates a number of romantic subplots that further complicate the story: Newt and Tina’s potential relationship is on the rocks after some miscommunication, and Newt’s friend Jacob (Dan Fogler) and Tina’s sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) are back but wrestling with the realities of forbidden love since Jacob is a “no-maj” (the American term for Muggle).

Newt also has a brother, Theseus (Callum Turner), who works for the ministry and is now involved with Newt’s old Hogwarts crush, Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz). To top off the myriad characters’ romantic intertwining, there are also strong hints that Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s relationship is … complicated. 

None of these subplots are crippling individually, but their cumulative effect easily distracts from the film’s underdeveloped core. About halfway through “Crimes of Grindelwald,” you start asking yourself: Is it a Dumbledore origin story? Is it about Grindelwald’s quest for pureblood wizard rule? Is it about social justice for wizards and muggles? “Crimes of Grindelwald” appears to be about a little of everything and a lot of nothing.

The production values are strong, but the dazzling effects of a dramatic third-act finale don’t carry any weight without narrative stakes to support them, and the competent acting goes to waste on characters the audience isn’t invested in. As its centerpiece, Redmayne may be a perfect match for Newt, but is Newt a perfect protagonist for a multifilm franchise? Supposedly, Yates and Co. have three more years to answer that question and correct these outlying concerns.

The introduction of Albus Dumbledore was a hopeful sign that “Crimes of Grindelwald” would help energize the “Fantastic Beasts” franchise, but Dumbledore is barely in this new movie at all, and a five-minute scene at Hogwarts feels like a glorified cameo. This isn’t to suggest that these new films have to recycle “Harry Potter” material to satisfy fans. Rather, the problem is that these fleeting elements are reminders of the sense of magic and wonder that was so palpable in that other series and so absent this time around—aside from the actual CGI magic. 

Where the “Harry Potter” films were grounded in Harry’s coming of age and driven by the conflict with Voldemort, the “Fantastic Beasts” narratives feel wandering and arbitrary. You could argue that author J.K. Rowling — credited as “Crimes of Grindelwald’s” writer — is a better novelist than a screenwriter. But even so, Yates’ film feels like a deep B-side track, fleshing out obscure details and offering extreme fan service while trying to force a retroactive square story into a round narrative hole.

If you’re starting to worry that we’ve got a “Lord of the Rings” vs. “The Hobbit” situation on our hands, you’re not alone.

© Copyright 2017 – 2018. ALL Rights Reserved.
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BEAUTIFUL BOY | Movie Review

BEAUTIFUL BOY

Movie Review by Reggie Woltz

American movies about addiction follow a pattern that’s difficult to escape: serious drug/alcohol problem, rehab, relapse, rehab, epiphany, sobriety. They normally end on a hopeful note mostly because studios are reluctant to bum the audience out, even though in real life the recovery rate is under 50%.

I single out American cinema because Europeans are more willing to show the darker side of addiction, physical deterioration and all. In fact, one of the best films this TIFF was Let Me Fall, a fierce Icelandic drama that lets you know early on there won’t be a happy ending, yet you stick around because the lead’s descent into dependence hell rings compelling true.

Beautiful Boy tries hard to break the mold, but comes up short. The movie opens with journalist David Sheff (Steve Carell) trying to understand the grasp crystal meth has on his eldest son Nic (Timothée Chalamet). David’s research triggers flashbacks involving early signs he chose to ignore, Nic’s transformation into a full-blown tweaker, and the collateral damage Nic’s addiction inflicts on the family.

While Beautiful Boy hits most of the same beats as other addiction movies, the main characters seem like actual people. Carell makes great use of his affable, sad persona with an edge (and he is believable, unlike his bizarre dramatic turn in Foxcatcher). Chalamet, who last year crushed it in Call Me by Your Name, is fine as the teen who thinks he has everything under control until he doesn’t. As a family, too, the Sheffs are intellectually minded and well off, which is a slight break from the usual addiction narrative.

The film is based on two biographies, Beautiful Boy, by the real life David Sheff, and Tweak, by his son. Director Felix Van Groeningen (The Broken Circle Breakdown) leans noticeably more on the father’s story, which is a bit of a shame considering how few first-person accounts we have of drug abuse survivors with literary inclinations (A Million Little Pieces? Fake). Chalamet is good, but his role never feels fully inhabited.

The character arcs are immediately recognizable. David goes above and beyond to help his son until he realizes the best course of action is to let the boy figure it out on his own. Nic’s half-baked attempts at getting better eventually cease, and it takes a major trauma to force him to accept his inability to control his dependence.

The film’s main achievement is underlining the insidiousness of crystal meth. This particular drug alters your brain chemistry and reduces your capacity for rational thought, making rehabilitation an even taller order.

One of the ways you know this is a Hollywood movie is that Chalamet never loses his boyish good looks, he just seems a little paler and skinnier towards the end (if you have ever seen a meth addict, you know they are nothing like the Call Me by Your Name dreamboat). Still, Beautiful Boy is competent: capable of tugging your heartstrings, while being truthful enough to freak out every parent who watches it.

© Copyright 2017 – 2018. ALL Rights Reserved.
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BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY | Movie Review

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY

Reviewed by REGGIE WOLTZ

Put Rami Malek on the list for best film performances of 2018. As Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of the British band Queen, the Mr. Robot star performs miracles, catching the look, strut and soul of Mercury, who died of complications from AIDS in 1991. Sadly, the film itself shows signs of a difficult birth. Sacha Baron Cohen was set to play Mercury before he left over creative differences. And director Bryan Singer (X-Men, The Usual Suspects) was fired for not showing up on set (an uncredited Dexter Fletcher replaced him).

As such, Bohemian Rhapsody moves in fits and starts as we follow Mercury, born Farrokh Bulsara of Parsi descent, from baggage handler at Heathrow Airport to co-founder of Queen with guitarist/astrophysics scholar Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer/dental student Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy). He auditioned for the musicians in a parking lot and, with incautious speed, is soon onstage as their frontman with John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) joining in on bass.

Shy offstage and struggling with his love for Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) and his growing attraction to men, Mercury was secretive and conflicted. But when the singer plays “Love of My Life” on the piano to show his love, the feeling comes through as genuine due to the raw emotion Malek and Boynton pour into their roles. It’s significant that Mercury left Austin the bulk of his fortune in his will. No similar authenticity seeps into the scenes of Mercury’s hedonistic gay lifestyle, participating in orgies that come off here as more mild than wild.

In struggling to make a PG-13 movie out of an R-rated rock life, Bohemian Rhapsody leaves you feeling that something essential and elemental is missing. Thankfully, there’s the music that keeps filling the holes in the script by Anthony McCarten (Darkest Hour, The Theory of Everything) with a virtuoso thrum that is never less than thrilling. And there is Malek, who digs so deep into the role that we can’t believe we’re not watching the real thing, down to the eerie coincidence that both singer and actor shared an immigrant experience (the actor’s parents are from Egypt, Mercury’s from Zanzibar). 

Mixing his voice with vocals from Queen and Mercury soundalike Marc Martel, Malek ostensibly becomes the rock star. On set, the actor sang out the throat-straining vocals in his own voice so that, take after take, the lip-synching would match up perfectly and erase any taint of bad karaoke. He also wore fake teeth to capture the four extra incisors in Mercury’s upper jaw that the singer insisted gave him more power and range. 

Physically, Malek nails the frontman’s sexual bravado onstage, with his cropped hair and porn-star mustache, letting loose with “We Are the Champions,” “We Will Rock You,” “Radio Ga Ga” and, of course, the title song. The creation of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” an unprecedented, six-minute mix of rock and opera that delighted Mercury even as critics decried it, allows for a comic bit with Mike Meyers as an EMI record exec who claims no one will ever play it. (Cue the Wayne’s World head-banging car scene).

Many of the major Queen hits are heard in the film’s most daring conceit, a painstaking recreation of the band’s 20-minute appearance at the 1985 Live Aid concert from London’s Wembley Stadium. This is what many called the greatest live performance in the history of rock, and, even as a recreation, it’s hard to argue. Whatever special effects were used to show the band in front of this enormous crowd, the scene captures something crucial about Queen’s connection to an audience as Mercury leads an elaborate call-and-response with his fans. The rousing life that Malek brings to this extraordinary recreation deserves all the cheers it gets. Screw the film’s flaws — you don’t want to miss his performance.

© Copyright 2017 – 2018. ALL Rights Reserved.

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FIRST MAN | Movie Reviews

FIRST MAN

by REGGIE WOLTZ

Director Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash,” “La La Land”), reunites with Ryan Gosling in “First Man,” the story of Neil Armstrong. While almost everyone in the world knows of the moon landing and Armstrong’s poignant words while making history, most do not know the entire story — his tragic life and the failed missions before July 1969. “First Man” takes us on this nearly 10-year journey, allowing us into Armstrong’s private life and how this emotionally broken man could leave his mark on the world in spite of it.

We meet Armstrong in 1961 as a test pilot, skyrocketing out of the Earth’s atmosphere and back again as he narrowly escapes crashing into the peaks of mountains before skidding for miles in the Mojave Desert to a halt as he calmly radios in, “I’m down.” This, of course, elicits laughter from the audience, but this is just the first of many harrowing and stressful situations of the cool-as-a-cucumber pilot and astronaut.

What we quickly learn next is that his young daughter has a brain tumor. Her tragic death will forever change his emotional connection and fortitude. As the family moves on, with an older son and a new one on the way, Armstrong reaches for new accomplishments with NASA. He buries his feelings deep within, never addressing the elephant in the room, and plunges into his work becoming physically and emotionally absent from his wife and two sons.

The story bounces back and forth over the next several years from Armstrong’s personal life to the missions with which he is involved: the Gemini projects and then finally Apollo. The firsthand scenes are quickly paced, only portraying short pieces of their lives. We do understand Janet’s (Claire Foy) frustration and devotion, and get a glimpse into Armstrong’s guarded interactions with well-meaning colleagues attempting to be friendly.

Armstrong’s matter-of-fact personality is either very odd, or he is emotionally shut down because of the tragedy of his daughter as well as the many deaths of his co-workers. This is never really clear, and perhaps it is meant to allow you to draw your own conclusions about this man.

The film, from a technical perspective, is perfection. Chazelle draws you into the cockpit of the shuttles allowing you to feel the dizzying, confusing and breathtaking situations. He shuts us into these small spaces, eliciting a feeling of oxygen deprivation using extreme close-ups and camera angles filling the screen. These scenes, unlike the personal interactions, feel as if they take place in real time, not fast-forwarding in any way.

It might be the closest most of us get to being in an astronaut’s shoes … or should I say “boots.” And there’s a documentary, hand-held camera feel to the scenes in the shuttles, adding a layer of reality and timeliness to the film.

The technical perfection doesn’t stop with the cinematography. It is an example of precise balance in time, color and sound or lack thereof. Sound, music and silence are just as important in this film as the acting and camera work. Whether it’s background music or shockingly deafening silence, sound accentuates each and every scene. Even hearing the astronaut’s amplified, deep inhalations and exhalations, inadvertently forces you to match that rhythm, completely syncing you with the characters in the film.

We feel we are right there with Armstrong or Aldrin. We are pulled into the whir of the now-antiquated control board which is abruptly cut short as Armstrong opens the hatch to take in the enormity of the moonscape. Not a sound can be heard, and you are there with him, in a black and white vacuum, feeling small and in awe of what lies ahead.

Gosling shines as the reserved, emotionally broken and guarded American hero. He creates the man who changed history but did so with tunnel vision. It’s a complex and subdued role of great importance, one that requires subtlety and skill. While Gosling expertly portrays Armstrong, it is Foy’s portrayal as his wife, Janet, that shines. She’s strong, independent and understanding, yet she’s simultaneously shattered and in need of her husband’s absent strength and love.

Unfortunately, Armstrong’s personality is rather flat, and it is Aldrin (Corey Stoll) who enjoys the limelight and has a sense of humor, something the story truly needs.

“First Man” gives us all the back stories of the lives lost during the race to the moon. There are political statements, small pieces of information shared, opening our eyes to the past’s turmoil. It is a spectacular feat in retelling history and the journey of getting to the moon. We learn of the men who paved that path, some by laying down their own lives to make it possible. Armstrong’s story is real, if at times uninteresting and emotionally disconnected (just like the man itself), and Chazelle does his best to turn that story in to over two hours of entertainment. The film requires patience of its audience and, considering the level of dedication it took to make the real-life events happen, that is only appropriate. While we don’t get the feeling of being the first human to set foot on the moon, our experience in looking through the eyes of the actual first man is a reward unto itself. 

© Copyright 2017 – 2018. ALL Rights Reserved.

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Black Panther | DoubleTake by REGGIE WOLTZ

Not Another Superhero Movie

by REGGIE WOLTZ

The Black Panther is not a movie so much as it is a statement. Released in the dead of Black History Month with mountains of hype and molehills of controversy, nothing surrounding it happened by coincidence. At a time when racial and political tensions have hit fever pitches, there are few occasions for synthesis between opposing mindsets as enjoyable as this film. Whether it will succeed in bringing people together is the only question.

If there are any serious issues with this movie, they are more endemic to its genre than anything. Up to this point in its cinematic universe, Marvel Studios has released 17 films. After so many origin stories and sequels, it would seem impossible for its eighteenth to present its viewers with anything they haven’t seen before. And while this film is essentially a retread of Hamlet’s plot, it executes its trajectory with enough style and substance to allow the audience to see past its predictability. In any case, I’d rather be introduced to a new character by a version of Hamlet and The Lion King over another Iron Man, Captain America, or Thor-style backstory.

The style that makes The Black Panther so striking is perhaps director Ryan Coogler’s most outstanding achievement. The soundtrack indicatively switches between vibrant streaks of African tribal music and American hip hop as its central characters rise to prominence; and even combines the two in the heat of their climactic battle.

As much as the auditory elements play into the story, the visual components are what truly stand out. Afrofuturism is on heavy display, from smaller artistic choices in costumes and sets to more easily apparent influences in the Vibranium technology and insanely detailed capital city of Wakanda. Certain scenes in the movie feel like small celebrations of African culture, and the blend between tribal ways of life and science fiction creates a feel for the movie that is wholly unique unto itself. The style ends up seeming like Blade Runner, but with more soul and less bleakness. Considering how Blade Runner set trends for the cyberpunk aesthetic, hopefully this movie inspires more Afrofuturism in subsequent films.

Beyond the style that Coogler sets out to create, The Black Panther also benefits from characterization that one wouldn’t expect from a Marvel movie. Aside from its stars, the supporting cast is deep and talented. Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, and Angela Bassett form a quartet of powerful women that give tinges of feminine triumph to the film. Forest Whitaker, Daniel Kaluuya, Winston Duke and Sterling K. Brown give quietly colorful performances as characters that are far more complex than their limited screen time lets on.  Martin Freeman does well as the lost CIA agent, constantly getting one-upped by Wright’s character to humorous effect, and even gets us to care for his starkly contrasted character as he finds redemption in the final act. The most impactful supporting performance, however, belongs to Andy Serkis’s villain who is equal parts manic, threatening, and pure fun to watch.

This movie succeeds on so many levels, but the real heart of it is its leading actors, Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan. Boseman is unassuming as the eponymous Black Panther a.k.a. King T’Challa, feeling like someone who hasn’t truly found his identity after the death of his father. As the film goes on and T’Challa comes to grips with the reality that his isolationist nation and imperfect father has set upon him, this identity convincingly develops into that of a confident and beneficent ruler. The conflict within Wakanda’s king is one of the movie’s most fascinating subplots, creating a personal burden of both country and race that presents an impossible choice.

The character that represents the flip side to the noble king is Michael B. Jordan’s cocksure villain, Erik Killmonger. Very seldom do movies give true justifications for the actions of its villain, but The Black Panther instead revels in relaying such complexity at the center of its plot. In effect, Killmonger only seems like the bad guy to T’Challa’s good guy the way Malcom X is against Martin Luther King, Jr. The parallels are definite: Malcom X and Killmonger both seek to stand up and retaliate against their people’s oppression while King, Jr. and T’Challa prefer a more peaceful and patient approach. Nobody is actually right or wrong here. The wrongs have already been done and these two characters simply have different approaches to dealing with them.

If it isn’t what Killmonger represents that makes him such an important character and the Marvel Universe’s best villain, it’s what the movie itself illustrates. This isn’t a superhero movie. It’s a hypothetical situation regarding how an oppressed race could better itself if given the resources to do so. The protagonist takes the high road and the antagonist takes the same road that the ones who transgressed in the first place took. By creating this disparity and placing the binary star system that is Boseman and Jordan in the middle of it, The Black Panther transcends what a superhero movie, or even a film in general, can be and asks the audience this impossible question. That it looks like a superhero movie is only so that lots of people can watch it and have this question asked to them. The underlying reality exists after leaving the theater, even if the solution to it (still waiting on that Vibranium meteorite) does not.

The Black Panther certainly stands apart from rest the Marvel Universe, which is infused with attempts to fill our eyes while leaving our stomachs empty. The Black Panther gives us a balanced diet of eye candy and food for thought, enough to leave you satisfied well after your two-and-a-half hours in the theater are up. As a result, the only thing I want more than for Wakanda to actually exist is for future movies to follow suit and realize that pleasing the masses doesn’t have to be an exercise in killing brain cells.

Copyright 2017 – 2018. ALL Rights Reserved.
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Call Me By Your Name | DoubleTake by REGGIE WOLTZ

by REGGIE WOLTZ

Beautiful Tedium

The term ‘bildungsroman’ refers to the novelization of a coming-of-age tale. This typically involves character change in a sensitive person over the events of the story. These novels are commonplace in literature and multitudes of movies have portrayed the same archetype. Call Me by Your Name, although building on the format in a few ways, is a bildungsroman at heart.

The major departure from the usual coming-of-age story within Call Me by Your Name is its focus on building its protagonist through a relationship, rather than some kind of physical or philosophical journey. Instead of being inherently focused on establishing an identity for its main character, this movie seeks to delve into his emotions and bring them to the surface. And, in this endeavor, the film accomplishes its goal spectacularly.

A major strength of the movie is its presentation of images. Set in and around the Italian city of Crema in the 1980s, the camera holds just long enough on the natural beauty of the scenery and the impressive architecture of the mansion to evoke a sense of longing for being in such a place. This orchestrated nostalgia is coupled with the trajectory of the story, following the slow build and quick death of love, to transport viewers back to a time when they experienced the joy and pain of love themselves. This emotional potency is maintained through much of the film and is aided by another point of excellence, its character performances.

While it does not exactly have an ensemble cast, Call Me by Your Name contains some quietly great performances. The film’s supporting ladies, Amira Casar as the protagonist’s mother and Esther Garrel as his initial love interest, make the most of their screen time despite their lack of importance in the movie. Michael Stuhlbarg, playing the protagonist’s father, stands out for his effervescence and his pivotal final scene gives more than a modicum of meaning to a movie that sorely needs it (more on that later). Armie Hammer does a wonderful job of playing Oliver, an aloof but conflicted man struggling for self-control–even if the film does not pay much attention to the complexity of his character (more on that later, as well).

The crown jewel of Call Me by Your Name is, of course, Timothee Chalamet. The self-confidence in the young Elio Perlman, is unlike the protagonists of many a bildungsroman. However, instead of feeling unnatural, this characterization is a breath of fresh air. The film revolves around Elio as we don’t spend so much as a scene without seeing his face. Chalamet is up to the challenge that this presents as he slowly unveils a deep curiosity and sensuality as a result of Oliver’s presence. By the end of the film, everyone in the audience is caught in a deep sympathy for Elio, having felt as if they were in his shoes the whole time. While his character is not at all complex, Chalamet’s depiction of a boy learning more about himself is so open and honest that it doesn’t feel like acting at all.

If all that this movie wanted to be was a singular character study, this is where my review would end. The movie could have also cut out at least thirty minutes of its two hour plus runtime if that were the case. But Call Me by Your Name aims to be more than that. As its name implies, this is a film about more than one person. It is meant to be a film about love and the extraordinary magnetism that two people can have with each other. And it is this end that it fails to meet.

From the jump, the viewer sees everything through Elio’s eyes. This often means that our interpretation of Oliver is not straightforward as Elio goes about making sense of the stranger living in his house. While many movies would try to eventually contextualize Oliver’s actions with a perspective of his own, Call Me by Your Name never gets around to that. That raises many questions about Oliver’s character (especially considering the movie’s final reveal that Oliver was in a heterosexual relationship the whole time) and the possibly predatory nature of his attraction towards Elio. Considering how Elio changes from beginning to end, it might help to understand the force that caused these changes. Call Me by Your Name does not help us in this understanding, despite going out of its way to explain so many other things in Elio’s father’s speech at the end.

The conversation between Mr. Perlman and his son is centered on the idea of love and its revelatory powers. The paradox of this is that it is telling us what we already know: this is about love. In effect, the film spends so much time giving us Elio’s viewpoint so that we can assume what he was thinking, only to tell us in the end what we were supposed to be making of it all along. And yet, it keeps the biggest blind spot, Oliver’s intentions, out of view – thus leaving itself incomplete. Another result of this is that the audience has spent an extraordinary amount of time looking at dragged out perspective shots only to be given short answers in the end. Despite the problems that using exposition to explain the story may already impose on an ending, the fact that it fails to answer the important questions is both ineffective and renders much of the early scenes a complete waste of time.

As a coming-of-age tale, Call Me by Your Name works brilliantly. The humanness of its protagonist is undeniable and his development makes the film worthwhile. Together with its incredible images and score, that would make it a complete piece. As it is, however, this is a movie about love. Being that, the film is strenuously lopsided and unable to justify many of its dragged out scenes by its exposition-filled finale. But hey, at least this it made apricots cool again!

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The Shape of Water | DoubleTake by REGGIE WOLTZ

The Shape of Water
by REGGIE WOLTZ

A Study in Teal

Movies can be used to tell all kinds of stories. From realist dramas to fantastical science fiction, the versatility of the medium is well-documented. Usually a certain genre prescribes a set of expectations to its plot. Romantic comedies have two people fall in and out of love, only to come back together in the end. Film noir sees its heroic detective tempted by a femme fatale in the midst of a tense investigation. Villains in horror movies kill the black guy first.  Oftentimes, filmmakers can blend genres to create their own presence, separating themselves from any expectations the audience might have.

Guillermo del Toro’s films exist on an entirely different plane. His movies don’t just blend genres, they redefine them. The best descriptor for his movies that I can come up with is “fairy tale filmmaking.” Now, these aren’t original projects so much as they are a unique spin on classic stories about things that go bump in the night. The Devil’s Backbone and Crimson Peak are del Toro’s modern retellings of ghost stories, Pacific Rim is his idea of a monster flick, and Pan’s Labyrinth is basically Alice in Wonderland, just set during the Spanish Civil War. To the naked eye, these films may seem just like the dozens of horror and fantasy movies that come out every year. But, beyond that, there is a depth to del Toro’s work that other filmmakers seldom, if ever, are able to match.

So what is the element in these movies that separate them from their counterparts? Well, it’s actually two elements: aesthetic and heart. Horror movies can scare your pants off just fine. We watch them for the same reason that we ride roller coasters, to get the adrenaline pumping and feel a sense of controlled terror that we can’t get from our daily lives.  Sure, del Toro can pull this off effectively, but he is ultimately interested in a more meaningful experience. He would rather draw us into a vibrant world with characters that are complex and worth rooting for, while delivering a moral for us to take home.

The Shape of Water is the epitome of these intentions. At its core, this movie is Beauty and the Beast with protagonists that can’t speak. However, the lush appearance of its setting, the personalities of its characters, and the incredible amount of heart behind it make the film so much more.

Just as Guillermo del Toro is an anomaly of a film maker, his characters in Shape of Water are also misfits. The magnetic Sally Hawkins plays Elisa Esposito, a mute janitor in a secret government lab, where she meets, falls in love with, and attempts to save a humanoid amphibian known only as “The Asset.” She is unable to connect with others to a large degree, making the relationships that she does have incredibly fascinating. Particularly her interactions with the Asset are little experiences of their own, culminating in a number of evocative scenes that are heartening and eye-catching in equal measures.

The dynamic between these two is an anomaly in its own right. Whereas most movies that center on a relationship will temper the beauty of love with the inevitable struggles that come with it, del Toro leaves his film’s romance pure and uncut. Rather than seeming unrealistic, this has the effect of allowing his film to remain emotionally potent throughout. Of course, if the two characters would have been able to talk, they would have broken up after three months of arguing over what kind of food to get for dinner. But that’s another story.

Hawkins is backed up by fantastic supporting performances from Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, and Michael Stuhlbarg. These characters really drive home the point of misfits trying to make their way through life.

Jenkins portrays an aged gay man in the Cold War-era United States, when alternative sexuality wasn’t exactly an accepted concept. Spencer plays a coworker of Esposito’s that serves as her sign language translator and treats her as a therapist, constantly talking Elisa’s ear off about her loveless marriage. Stuhlbarg plays a scientist in the government lab who works as a secret operative for the Russians but whose true allegiances lay in trying to learn from and protect his pet project at a time when everything must be done for the good of his nation and not himself. These characters are all oddities, stuck in a time that does not support their unique ideals, and yet they come together to create a happy ending for Elisa.

The holistic dedication to this theme is the true core of this film and the emotional satisfaction that comes thanks to del Toro’s efforts is what will stick with you after leaving the theater. But that is not to say that sensory experience of the film is any less effective.

The combination of Baltimore and the Cold War as a setting is not one that brings to mind a gorgeous atmosphere. And yet, del Toro creates just that through his imaginative use of colors (you have never seen teal like this before) and camera work. In a film where words are at somewhat of a premium, The Shape of Water’s visually storytelling picks up the slack and then some. The audience is hypnotically drawn in and carried on the shoulders of its characters all the way from the underground laboratory to the docks of Baltimore’s harbor until we are baptized in the beauty of the film’s conclusion.

Despite the brilliance of Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro’s real magnum opus is The Shape of Water. It perfects what del Toro has been honing for years, telling a fantastical story with stunning visuals and enough heart to cause cardiac arrhythmia. Despite the predictability of its plot, you feel for its characters and are easily swept up in its visual splendor. It is a more beautiful and beastly Beauty and the Beast, and yet stands alone as utterly unique—just like the masterful filmmaker behind it.

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Three Billboards | DoubleTake by REGGIE WOLTZ

Reality Show

by REGGIE WOLTZ

The idea that art imitates life is a fairly simple concept. Artists seek to express themselves and their creativity, doing so comes as a reflection of their internal uniqueness and external environment.  Whether it’s a love song, Shakespearean tragedy, or landscape painting, art is a peek at the world through the eyes of its maker.

Movies have enormous potential in their capability to imitate life. The experience, being both visual and auditory, allows the viewer to more completely immerse themselves in the world of the filmmaker. As a result, many films are made as an escape from our real lives into a new reality with different possibilities. The popularity of superhero franchises, space operas, and animated films is an open-armed acceptance of this. While the widespread propensity to spend more time escaping reality than examining it is slightly unsettling, these movies are still tethered to real life by having characters with human qualities, just with their limitations removed.

And then we have Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, whose intention isn’t to fly you to another universe, but rather to bring you back down to Earth so hard that you’ll end up in the planet’s core.  The events of the film are essentially the continued aftermath of a rape and murder that has gone unsolved for six months. There’s no true conflict here, all villains are temporary, and the ending resolves to leave it all unresolved. In fact, the true journey of this film is the development of the characters as they live out their screen time.

Much of what makes this movie feel so genuine is its emotional impact. The character performances are beautifully entertaining and allow the movie to switch between equally effective streaks of comedy and tragedy. The tonal shifts between being light- and heavy-hearted were striking, culminating in certain scenes that hit like that of being thrown out of a second story window.

The remainder of Three Billboards’ effectiveness comes from the lives and personalities of its characters. Even extremely minor parts are given unique material from an outstanding script that also paints all of its leads in multiple dimensions. This film intentionally sacrifices having a tight focus with its themes to create the best portrayal of real life as it can. Reality is an open-ended flow of chaotic cause and effect, full of unique people experiencing joy and pain. That is also exactly what this movie is.

This point is perfectly exemplified in the film’s final moments. We get Frances McDormand’s Mildred and Sam Rockwell’s Dixon driving off to serve some sweet vigilante justice to a guy who definitely raped and murdered someone, although the crime was unrelated to what happened to Mildred’s daughter. The scene cuts after they admit their uncertainty about hurting someone and before any action is taken. The two characters are trying to give themselves a significant action to deal with their problems, but the real resolution is each of them finding someone to share those problems with.

Three Billboards is a great film because of how well it captures the essence of life. Everyone has their own pain and tribulations to go through. They come into conflict or harmony based on this, often in momentary interactions that transform each individual as time passes. The movie doesn’t seek to answer any deep questions up front, but does so between the lines. So, the ultimate question is: if art imitates life, what do we call something that virtually is life?

© Copyright 2017 – 2018. ALL Rights Reserved.

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Get Out | DoubleTake by REGGIE WOLTZ

The Risen Place

by REGGIE WOLTZ

*SPOILERS*

When you have seen enough movies, it gets easier to tell the difference between gold and pyrite. Sure, the quality of a film is hard to define from the ground-up. Because of the bevy of base components that movies have to work with (from sensory elements like visuals and audio to more cerebral tools such as story complexity, character performance and development, and creative narrative devices), they do not always operate on the same plane. But there has to be a way to equalize these works despite their differences in material and style. One of the methods that I use to achieve this end is to judge the intentionality in the films that I watch.

Get Out is an incredibly intentional movie. It has a sense of being obsessively well thought out thanks to the ample servings of detail in each scene. The re-watchable factor is strong here; the twists in the story beg you to go back and analyze the characters in a new light that completely transforms entire portions of the film.

Perhaps the best focal point for the second time around is Allison Williams’ Rose Armitage. She is the physical embodiment of a plot twist, so all of her scenes in the first half of the film become inherently significant. One example is when she stops the policeman from looking at her boyfriend’s I.D.—she isn’t doing it to stick up for him, but rather so that there would be no trail of evidence. It is little scenes like this, with definable double meanings, that elevate the story beyond the linear and noncreative narratives of its counterparts.

The fact that this movie holds up to reexamination without creating plot holes is great, but Get Out doesn’t stop there. It doesn’t want to be watched just twice, but as many times as possible before you start to feel like you’ve entered the sunken place. What keeps you coming back for that third time is the real strength of this film, its allegorical focus and clarity.

Director Jordan Peele isn’t exactly subtle in his approach to tackling the issue of race. He sets his tone from the opening scene, in which he turns what would be an innocuous setting for many viewers, an affluent suburb, into an unsettling labyrinth where only white people are safe. It is also here that he sets up his most potent thematic element with the diegetic song, “Run Rabbit Run.”

With the overhanging discomfort that comes from the interaction between Chris (played by Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose’s family and friends, it could be hard to create an undercurrent that deals with the race more poignantly. And yet, Peele does exactly this by juxtaposing the idea that black people are nothing but wild game to the whites with Chris’s sense of guilt over his inaction with the death of his mother.

This interplay is evident in a number of scenes, the most obvious of them being when Chris empathizes with the dying deer, the surgery pre-op, and when Chris hits the family maid (Rose’s grandmother) with a car and then decides to save her. These scenes ground Chris in the reality that the Armitages see him as prey, which he then transcends by dealing with his internal problems and finding the resolve to both kill and save—proving he is more than an animal. As such, Get Out gives proper trajectories to both the theme and Chris’s character and allows itself to end with a more direct message than just “White people are f****** crazy!”

For any director, let alone a first-timer, what Peele has pulled off is remarkable. Cutting through all of the noise with a definitive point is something that few movies attempt and even fewer accomplish. Furthermore, there are so many Easter eggs and smaller motifs in the movie that a viewer will be able to pick up on new things even after having seen it three times.

I really can’t say enough about this movie. Get Out blends suspense, comedy, and horror like none other. Peele gives his actors and actresses plenty to work with and draws great performances from each of them. The story is tight and yet filled with enough detail to make you actually want to re-watch it. And while the film may not have done much to reconcile the complex relationship between blacks and whites in America, it still did the impossible: gave us a reason to like TSA agents.

 

© Copyright 2017 – 2018. ALL Rights Reserved.

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Phantom Thread | DoubleTake by REGGIE WOLTZ

The Most Demanding Men

by REGGIE WOLTZ

Batman and Robin. Soda and popcorn.  Traffic jams and raised middle fingers. There are a lot of iconic duos out there. In the world of filmmaking, working with familiar colleagues goes a long way towards ensuring quality. High profile pairings are bound to repeat and build further hype upon each successive project. Some of the best movies in recent years have come out of tried and true relationships, such as those between Scorcese and Dicaprio, Cuaron and Lubezky, and Fincher and Sorkin. After seeing Phantom Thread, I believe it is time to anoint a new Hollywood power couple: Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis.

Just in case you were living under a rock in 2007, Anderson and Day-Lewis had previously worked together on There Will Be Blood–one of the last decade’s best movies. Their experience and camaraderie are palpable over ten years later, albeit in a film that couldn’t be more of a departure from its predecessor. Trading the oil fields of California for the ballrooms of post-World War II London, Anderson shifts from following the journey of a disturbed tycoon to the romance of a prestigious tailor and his muse. The scope of Phantom Thread is also very narrow compared to the time-skipping saga that is There Will Be Blood, settling to show us the quiet evolution of a single relationship.

If there is one striking similarity between Anderson and Day-Lewis’s collaborations, it is the unflinching portrayals of their complex characters. Day-Lewis’s Reynolds Woodcock is at once a charismatic gentleman, tireless worker, and unsympathetic knave, depending on who he is presenting himself to. Day-Lewis is brilliant here, rotating between his character’s personalities with ease and delivering meaning with every word and facial expression. Anderson places his protagonist in situations that draw out every bit of the actor’s talents; most successfully in the scenes between Woodcock and the females in his life.

A decent amount of the entertainment value of Phantom Thread comes from watching woman after woman try and fail to earn Woodcock’s attention. Lesley Manville’s Cyril Woodcock is our guide to these interactions, constantly at her brother’s side whether in private or public. The “old so-and-so” is a fascinating character (Freud would have had a field day with the relationship between the siblings), so it is to the detriment of the film that her screen time is stifled in the film’s second half as Vicky Krieps’ Alma Elson rises to prominence. Krieps is wonderful, surprisingly matching Day-Lewis’s acting as they spend the majority of the film face-to-face.

At the outset, this film is a love story. From the first time that Elson meets Woodcock at the country café, to her experiences as his muse and protégé, and all the way down the rocky slopes of their romance, the protagonists play off of each other without sacrificing their individualities. The development of their relationship happens in abrupt moments of Woodcock’s unstoppable force meeting Elson’s immovable object. Considering that the movie is overwhelmingly concerned with two characters over its 130 minute runtime, the fact that these moments don’t feel repetitive or cumbersome is a testament to Anderson’s feel for a balanced story.

Despite the extensive interplay between the tailor and his lover, Phantom Thread is more exactly an examination of the balance between work and life in a man who is singularly driven by his vision. We are given a cross-section of Woodcock’s life before, during, and after the transition in his character that comes from having met his match. The term “phantom thread” is a reference to Victorian-era London, when seamstresses would work so arduously that they would come home after a long day and stitch clothes in their sleep. Similarly, Woodcock has no off-button—his life is so driven by his occupation that his idea of a relationship involves demanding every piece of his partner until they are the ultimate tool in his pursuits. Anderson plays with this concept subtly throughout the film until its climax redefines the theme and completes Woodcock’s character arc, all in one fell swoop.

Like the film’s main character, Phantom Thread is as demanding as it gets. Though minimalist in concept, the film is maximalist in depth. To understand the full breadth of its meaning, Paul Thomas Anderson asks the audience to pay close attention to every micro-expression and line of dialogue. Without the spectacular Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, and Lesley Manville, this would have made for a tedious and joyless love story. However, with its cast and director firing on all cylinders, the film is more delightful than a well buttered mushroom omelet.

 

© Copyright 2017 – 2018. ALL Rights Reserved.

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