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Gorogoa (2017)

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A popular analogy for proponents of Intelligent Design is one of the watchmaker.  It's an argument from design, basically stating that the physical laws of the universe lend credibility to the presence of a deity overseeing the construction of our existence.  I thought of it often in Gorogoa's later sections as the lucid dream of the opening frames gave way to a path of steady construction complete with "tick tock" sounds of footsteps and labor.  The curtain came off, and Gorogoa's world revealed itself as a carefully designed labyrinth.  With the curtain pulled, so too did the magic fall.

But the magic never disappeared, not completely, and Gorogoa's successes - particularly in the immersive joy of my first hour playing it - should be one model of evocative design.  The premise is tantalizing in its brevity, opening with the title followed by a single page of blank space and a square illustration of a modest city.  The architecture places it nowhere in particular, with domed roofs standing alongside canopy peaks and triangular points, all hinting at a shared dream space instead of favoring one style over another.


The Shape of Water (2017)

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Elisa dreams of a watery paradise, a place she's free with her desire and far from the bureaucratic drudgery of her working life.  Her chance to live this dream comes from an unimaginable source, blocked by government conspiracy, and limited by the dimmed hopes of her loved ones.  Guillermo del Toro directs The Shape of Water, with the screenplay written by Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, and stars Sally Hawkins.

The Shape of Water filled me with such effervescent delight that language ceased to matter the first hour or so after the credits began to roll. My skin erupted in goosebumps, recalling the rush of adrenaline after emerging from the ocean's waves threatening to drag me under and the sight of my wife on our wedding day. Melancholy is my default state, but not without optimism, and The Shape of Water created a world so wholly romantic that the sullen feeling slipped away and I let myself feel rejuvenated in its healing tide. What a rare beauty this film is.

Guillermo del Toro's films shoot not for the stars but for the folds of our imagination - the often forgotten bits of ourselves we leave in attics. Sometimes they stumble as in the visually lush gothic romance Crimson Peak leaning too heavily into the gothic for the romance to spark. In truth, del Toro fumbles a fair bit in The Shape of Water as well.  But when the story is this sparkling, the results this evocative, the slight stumbles in del Toro's vision come across as one part of a man's creative sojourn reaching the pinnacle of heart and craft.  This is del Toro's masterwork, ugly spots and all.


Dunkirk (2017)

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German forces have broken the Maginot Line in France and the remaining British troops have been ordered to evacuate.  On the beaches of Dunkirk, British soldiers struggle on land while the air force tries to keep German bombers away to buy time for a civilian naval fleet to arrive.  Christopher Nolan wrote the screenplay for and directs Dunkirk, which stars Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, and Kenneth Branagh.

Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk is easy to hand wave away.  The steady rhythm of wide-angle shots of desolation and close-ups of faces slowly overcome with fear, paranoia, and rage paced so tightly with Hans Zimmer's score that it could be disregarded as an overlong music video.  But that dismisses the storytelling possibilities of music videos and how, at their most striking, create a visual world unto themselves.  Truth be told, Dunkirk is not better than the best music videos (Nina Paley's video for "This Land Is Mine" is a better look at the futility of war), but as a mostly silent film punctuated with some well-executed tension and a pair of excellent performances it works.

The most potent tool in Nolan's box is Tom Hardy's performance.  Hardy is the kind of actor who thrives under creatively tight condition, bringing a masterclass grasp of camp to his otherwise shallow role in The Dark Knight Rises and utilizing the limited space of Locke for a blistering range of emotions.  The pressure cooker of the Spitfire cockpit isn't the place for grand gestures, especially when blown up in IMAX footage.  With a tightening of his brow and quick flick of his finger against the fuel gauge, Hardy does more to communicate the near impossible task of fending off the Nazi air forces than Jack Lowden - who plays another Spitfire pilot.  Hardy and Lowden's performances are a case in contrasts, the former realizing restraint and limited action are better suited than the overdone theatrics of the latter.


Call Me By Your Name (2017)

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It's boring, if beautiful, in the Italian vacation home of Elio.  Days go by as he transcribes music, reads, and spends time with his girlfriend.  The arrival of Oliver, an older graduate student who will be living in his home, brings the cautious Elio out of his bubble and into tentative seduction.  Luca Guadagnino directs Call Me By Your Name, with the screenplay written by James Ivory, and stars Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer.

There was once a relationship which haunted my dreams.  The way she smelled, tasted, looked under the streetlight in that knitted hat when we kissed, laughed at the inconsequential lights flickering from the television - every bit carved into the space between the moments I slept and wandered awake.  She doesn't exist, I know she doesn't exist, yet I could recall precise moments where we'd get sandwiches or she'd sip tea while I wrote.  This was an amalgamation of desire, one that faded when I met and eventually married my wife, but one I can still close my eyes and feel on my skin and in my hands.

Call Me By Your Name echoes in this space between fantasy and reality, where a whole lifetime of unlived possibility lingers between each note on the soundtrack and sunbeam draped onto the shoulders of Oliver (Armie Hammer).  Sex and romance meld, concerns of the body and the spirit are briefly unified in glorious harmony and then - all at once - they're gone.  I would wake up from the relationship that never existed, and on the screen a boy stares into a fire wondering if he'll ever burn with that kind of passion again.


Lady Bird (2017)

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Can you reinvent yourself in your home town?  Christine's trying by insisting everyone call her Lady Bird, auditioning for roles in her school's theatrical crew, taking summer jobs, and making those cautious first steps into dating.  Her mother Marion is doing her best to keep their house afloat while indulging in Lady Bird's new boisterous personality.  Greta Gerwig wrote the screenplay for and directs Lady Bird, which stars Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf.

The only strong complaint I have against Lady Bird groaned into existence in the opening few minutes.  It was clear this was going to be another coming-of-age film for star Saoirse Ronan, who starred in the coming-of-age film Brooklyn not too long ago and left an indelible mark on me with the violent fable Hanna.  Ronan is positively smashing in Lady Bird but I felt this twinge of wondering when she would be able to break out of the John Cusack-esque loop of coming-of-age films.

That complaint was quickly snuffed out of my mind looking at all that lovely film grain on the screen and listening to the argument escalate between Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson (Ronan) and her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf.)  This signaled a different kind of coming-of-age film, one that wasn't interested in capturing the pristine look of adolescence or creating myths out of imagination.  Those have their place, but Lady Bird plays rough and writer/director Greta Gerwig uses the rough texture and rapidly escalating fight between Lady Bird and Marion to set up a tone of turbulence that reaches no easy catharsis.