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Can't Stop the Movies

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.


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.


Bright (2017)

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Officer Daryl Ward has the eyes of the world on him.  The latest hire, Nick Jakoby, is also the first orc police officer to serve the public through the LAPD.  As Officer Ward weighs his options for dealing with Jakoby, the two stumble onto a crime scene with a secret that will bring every element of the city against their survival.  David Ayer directs Bright, from a screenplay written by Max Landis, and stars Will Smith and Joel Edgerton.

Two things I want to establish before launching into the meat of my experience with Bright. The first, if you're feeling charitable, can be chalked up to stupidity as the credits for Bright leave studioADI - who did makeup and mask work - completely out of the list.  In the spirit of the season I'll go with stupidity, and hope that Netflix rectifies this as soon as possible.

The second involves Max Landis, a boy whose screenwriter credits are so embarrassingly conventional his brash social media presence doesn't qualify for "enfant terrible."  His screenplay for Bright has the immature germ that infects all his previous work, never graduating beyond genre colliding outlines lacking any spark of the anarchic creativity that fueled his father's films.  Max is also a (alleged) rapist, a (alleged) reality I have no reason to doubt.  Hopefully, this marks the last time something I review has a screenplay from Max attached, and he'll receive the (potential) punishment he (allegedly) deserves.

You wrote the script.

You wrote the script.


Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

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The war continues. Both the Resistance and the First Order are reeling after the destruction of the Starkiller Base, and General Leia leads the retreat as Kylo Ren continues his relentless pursuit.  Meanwhile, Rey seeks out Jedi Master Luke Skywalker hoping to understand more about the power that's awakened inside her, and finding out the truth of the Jedi is more complicated than mere light and dark.  Rian Johnson wrote the screenplay for and directs The Last Jedi, and stars Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill.

Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is the audience surrogate who speaks to me.  While other characters in Star Wars: The Last Jedi  (just The Last Jedi from here on) spin their wheels in diversionary plots and meandering dialogue, Kylo openly vents his frustration at a lack of forward momentum.  It's his psychic communion with Rey (Daisy Ridley) which drives her to be the teensiest bit curious about why the powerful Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) cut himself off from the universe to stare at vegetation for thirty years.  Kylo is as tired of the wheel-spinning inside The Last Jedi's universe as I am watching it from the outside.

There is nothing new in The Last Jedi, written and directed by the usually phenomenal Rian Johnson, and what few advances in diversity were in The Force Awakens are revealed as the hollowest form of tokenism.  Rey, Finn (John Boyega), and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) are all pawns in a proxy war between the entrenched old white guard and the less snappily dressed opposition.  Never has the distinction between good and bad mattered so little, now it's just about who survives plot points repeated from earlier Star Wars films to be shoved into the same cycle for the upcoming ninth episode.

The Last Jedi shows none of the ideological or creative bravery that punctuated Gareth Edwards' Rogue One.  Of course the films serve separate purposes with The Last Jedi an obvious stop-gap between the seventh to ninth episodes and Rogue One afforded a bit more freedom.   But sacrifices in The Last Jedi are emotional beats and little more, with one phenomenally shot moment showing the weight of pilot Paige Tico's (Veronica Ngo) responsibility weighing her down against a metallic grid.  This is a mere setup to give Paige's sister Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) a reason to join Finn on a mission of dubious result and occasionally broad slapstick.  No reason to think about, or even mention, Paige when Johnson can get to the shot of spherical droid pal BB-8 shooting poker chips.