The Shape of Water

SHapeDirector: Guillermo del Toro

Screenwriters: Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor

Cast: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Doug Jones

Guillermo del Toro is a visionary unlike most working in entertainment today. Del Toro has been the architect of uniquely fantastic films like Pan’s Labyrinth, the Hellboy films, and Pacific Rim as well as the outstanding and underrated television series, The Strain. He’s also a terrific artist whose published artwork notebook is brilliantly impressive and fascinating. His latest and most celebrated film to date, The Shape of Water, is no exception.

The Shape of Water is what del Toro does best, blending an imaginative plot against the backdrop of a real-world historical period. Set in the 1960s in the midst of the Civil Rights movement and an escalating Vietnam conflict, The Shape of Water follows Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a shy, sweet and vulnerable mute woman who lives above a Baltimore movie house and works as a janitor in a top-secret government research facility. Elisa lives a mostly simple and generally isolated existance, except for occasional visits with her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) and regular “chats,” for lack of a better word, with her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer).

All of this abruptly changes, however, when Elisa’s research lab receives a new specimen from South America, an amphibious man-like creature. The creature is ushered into the facility late one evening during Elisa and Zelda’s shift, accompanied by government agent Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) and research scientist, Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg). Strickland and Hoffstetler are united in a goal to know

A Tale of Two Michaels – Doesn’t it seem like at least one of these guys is in every good movie or TV show?

more about the creature, but their methods and purposes beyond that couldn’t be more different. Hoffstetler desires to understand and study the creature while Strickland wants nothing more than to determine its usefulness to the United States government, and when Strickland is attacked by the creature, his methods become savage. When Elisa witnesses some of Strickland’s cruelty towards the creature, she becomes determined to save it and enlists the help of Zelda and Giles. Like Elisa, the creature can not communicate verbally, and she also senses the kindness in its soul. What emerges is a twisted Beauty and the Beast narrative that is both beautiful and at times rather horrifying.

Del Toro’s cast is perhaps the most magnificent part of the film. Richard Jenkins and Sally Hawkins give perfect performances. Both are always on top of their game, but never have their talents been showcased like they are here. Legend has it, del Toro pitched this film to Hawkins at an awards show years ago while drunk. He was quoted as saying, I was drunk and it’s not a movie that makes you sound less drunk.” This is exactly the sentiment one should undertake when viewing this film. Objectively, this is a film that can be written off as ridiculous, but when one looks beneath the surface (pun intended), there’s the makings of a masterpiece. The performances by the cast are outstanding, the direction is deliberate and poetic, and the score by Alexandre Desplat is perfection. Del Toro’s film is reminiscent of the style of French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet who directed the films Amélie and City of Lost Children, both of which have a distinct and almost fairy-tale like quality to them.

The Shape of Water is a finely crafted film from top to bottom. It is imaginative and it is spellbinding in a way few films are able to achieve. If I had seen it earlier, it would surely have been on my list of the top films of the year, but I am guessing the 13 Oscar nominations it received will suffice. The cinematic voice of Guillermo del Toro is one I hope only grows and persists. His films deserve to be “events” not unlike those of Christopher Nolan, which makes it fitting that del Toro and Nolan will be duking it out this year for Oscars in eight different categories including the two biggest: Best Picture and Best Director. A-

The Shape of Water is rated R with a running time of 2 hours and 3 minutes.


Molly’s Game

MollyDirector: Aaron Sorkin

Screenwriter: Aaron Sorkin

Cast: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera, Graham Greene, (and an Aaron Sorkin cameo, of course)

Those of you who like your Wing West, your Network Social, and your Men, Few and Good already know who Aaron Sorkin is. You might know him as the author of some of your favorite long, witty monologues delivered while walking down a hallway. What you don’t know him as is a film director, until now. Molly’s Game is the directorial debut of one of the most celebrated screenwriters in Hollywood, Aaron Sorkin, whose films and television shows have earned every major critical writing award imaginable. Now, he takes his turn in the director’s chair with Molly’s Game.

Molly’s Game is the true story of the Olympic hopeful turned “Poker Princess” Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain). When a freak accident dashes her hopes at Olympic glory, Bloom turns her focus to business, and while working as an assistant to a real estate schemer named Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong), Molly is inadvertently introduced to the world of poker. Dean hosts a weekly game with pretty high stakes and a core group of relatively famous attendees. When Dean forces Molly to take on the role of organizing the game, taking records and accepting the buy-ins and giving the pay-outs, she is hooked to the intricacies of the game and begins improving the experience for the players. Soon, Molly is the real draw to the weekly game, much to Dean’s chagrin, leading him to box her out and try to rein her in. Molly instead decides to make a move and start her own game – Molly’s Game.

Things are all Aces for Molly for a little while. She plays by the rules, never takes a rake, and keeps things for the most part, legal. Until she discovers that some of the players in her game, unbeknownst to her, may have ties to the Russian mob. This catches the attention of the FBI and forces Molly to hire a lawyer, Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) to help save her game, her name, and her life.

Sorkin’s film is anchored by a lights out performance by Chastain. If I were the real Molly Bloom, I’d be in love with this portrayal of my life. Sorkin also proves a credible director. Many a film has fallen victim to the struggle of envisioning how to depict Sorkin’s verbose and chatty repartee between characters (See Steve Jobs), but it turns out Sorkin knows Sorkin better than anyone! He also is smart enough to hire an actor turned Oscar-winning director, Kevin Costner to play Molly’s father, a resource that I assume Sorkin tapped for directorial advice from time to time. Perhaps the casting of Costner’s Dances With Wolves costar Graham Greene as Judge Foxman is also not so coincidental. This is a tight, authentic thrill ride through the lavish highs and deplorable lows that come with games of risk. The film may get a little heavy-handed in its use of The Crucible references to get its message across, but you can’t argue with the timeliness of these references and the relevance to the national conversation right now about reputation and its importance in Hollywood, in politics, and in society in general. Molly’s Game is by no means a flop, and with an ace in the hole like Chastain, you can push your chips in at the turn and let the river run. A-

Molly’s Game is rated R and has a running time of a “Sorkin-y” 2 hours and 20 minutes.

Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi

SW8Director: Rian Johnson

Screenwriter: Rian Johnson

Cast: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Laura Dern, and Domhnall Gleeson

Another year another Star Wars film. Man, if I could travel back to 1985 and tell my 5-year-old self that in the early 21st century, this will be a factual statement! That’s right, we have entered the era of annual Star Wars movies, and this year’s entry is a doozie. The eagerly anticipated sequel to 2015’s The Force Awakens and the 8th episode of the principal series is here, and it is called The Last Jedi. A formidable title for a film that like no other before it, takes the franchise to some new heights as well as one or two new lows.

This is an immediate sequel to The Force Awakens, and given where that film leaves off, that’s the right move. The First Order being victorious against the Republic, is on the move to seize control of the galaxy under Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and his loyal legion including Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Admiral Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). Leia (Carrie Fisher) and what’s left of the resistance continue to stand against the First Order, while Rey (Daisy Ridley) attempts to convince the reclusive Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to join the fight.

I’d wager to say, unlike any Star Wars film before it, this one will be the most divisive. The original trilogy is generally regarded as brilliant, the prequels are generally regarded as garbage, but The Last Jedi I think will go down as having the best of both worlds: strong haters and strong supporters, not unlike the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. Family-bonds and friendships may be lost forever over this film.

Before I get into why, I will reveal myself as one of the strong supporters. However, I do see where some of the haters are coming from. But they’re wrong, for the most part. Blockbuster films tend to have a ludicrous obligation to deliver predictable comfort-filled experiences rather than challenge audiences with surprises and risks. Most critics of the film are citing the fact that it does not answer the questions that were posed from the previous film. The choice to back away from and subvert expectations often comes with some occasional flaws, but those flaws are worth it, if the overall result is something new, ambitious, and most importantly, something that has direction. That’s ultimately what we have here with The Last Jedi; there are flaws, but at the end we have so many opportunities to see these Star Wars films continue on beyond the immediate threats playing out.

This review is going to play it safe, so I will not be discussing many specifics in terms of plot and developments, and focusing more on the mechanics and commentary. So what’s so great about The Last Jedi? There are two things that I think will stand supreme when all the dust around this film settles. First, The Last Jedi is the first Star Wars film to truly capture the allure of the dark side. Many have taken it for granted, two have attempted to show it, but only this film gets it right. Ask yourself, “What is the dark side?” Why is it attractive? Is it just greed for power? Then why would they ever band together? Why would there be Supreme leaders and Emperors? Is it just basic evil for the sake of evil? Is it fascism? That’s what The Force Awakens attempted to explore. But no, it’s not that either. For all the questions fans are claiming The Last Jedi does not answer, here’s one it does answer that no one was even asking, and it may be the most important one of all. To avoid spoilers, I will leave it at this, but I will say that The Last Jedi spins the entire motivation and philosophy of Star Wars on its head and gives us the most authentic perspective of what all of this is really about!

Secondly, The Last Jedi opened the conversation about how the force works beyond just the training, teaching, control aspect. Again, to avoid spoilers, I will be brief and vague. We learn that who we think is supposedly “special” may not be so “special” after all. The force may not be so exclusive, and maybe (like what the net neutrality repeal will inevitably allow), someone is just hogging it all! The force has never been as intricate and involved as it is in this film, and I think that was a brilliant decision.

lastjedi17Where The Force Awakens was an enjoyable (and I do mean enjoyable) romp through the familiar days of A New Hope, The Last Jedi is a far more mature film. This film marks, perhaps, the first Star Wars film not aimed principally at kids and teens. While there is more than enough for them to enjoy about The Last Jedi, the more involved and complex themes will likely go over their heads. Kids will grasp on to the idea that anyone can make a difference, but they may be lost in the exploration of the disappointment of meeting one’s heroes and finding out they’re frauds. That theme resonates throughout the film and writer/director Rian Johnson runs with it to massive effect. He forces us (pun intended) to examine all of the characters and evaluate them from minute to minute with the goal of showing us that what we thought we knew may not be true at all. This is unsettling, but also an outstanding achievement for a Star Wars film or any form of entertainment for that matter.

These are the places where The Last Jedi shines. The big picture stuff. The exploration of mythos and themes, and not satiating our curiosity with sugary artificial satisfaction. Still, as I mentioned, there are a few places where the film admittedly stumbles. The 153 minute running time is not lean and mean. It’s occasionally bloated with some silly additions that feel cheesy and unnecessary, primarily a sequence involving Finn (John Boyega) and a resistance fighter named Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) who are sent on a wild goose chase to a planet full of “the worst creatures in the galaxy.” Except part of why they’re the worst is because they’re rich. Really Star Wars/Disney, you want to go there? I felt a little dumb sitting in a theater after pre-purchasing tickets to see the latest TLJFathiers-696x467installment of a billion dollar franchise, which then spent a sizable portion of its running time pretending to condemn the wealthy elite. I’m not saying Star Wars is incapable of taking on this subject matter, but the “worst creatures in the world” gag felt a little disingenuous. Also, there’s a weird animal abuse subplot involving some horse-like creatures being force to race for entertainment. This whole part is problematic.

There are at least two other areas that came across cheesy or needless, one of which involves a very precarious event involving General Leia that definitely raised an eyebrow. Still, these are minor qualms in an otherwise, risky, different, and dare I say original installment in a now much more interesting saga. Star Wars – The Last Jedi is worthy of praise and debate. It is both enigmatic and iconic. It’s also a visual and acting masterwork. Director Rian Johnson, who is mostly known for a couple of relatively small-time films like Looper and The Lookout, shows what he’s made of. He blows the lid off the theater with one of the finest opening and closing scenes of any Star Wars film, all while carrying the weight of recently beloved characters like Finn (John Boyega) and Rey (Daisy Ridley) as well as introducing new characters like Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), and then navigating the tricky terrain of classically loved characters like Leia, C-3PO, R2-D2, and the Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Furthermore, Hamill’s performance is easily the finest of his career, and Adam Driver’s performance as Kylo Ren is spectacular this time around. It’s also pretty darn funny at times. This movie’s got it all! In fact this review is just scratching the surface. Star Wars – The Last Jedi is not without its flaws, but it is also one of the most ambitious films of the franchise, and certainly the richest in terms of critical analysis. I think in several years people will look back on this film as the one that transformed the saga into something new. B+

Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 152 minutes.



CocoDirectors: Lee Unkirch and Adrian Molina

Screenwriter: Lee Unkirch, Jason Katz, Matthew Aldrich, and Adrian Molina

Cast: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach, and Edward James Olmos

So I was about to write a review of the Justice League because I saw it, and it was the only movie I’d seen recently. I was not too excited about reviewing it because the movie didn’t really give me much of an angle to take. It’s just an okay superhero movie that does what they all do. I was going to do it anyway because dammit, I’m a professional, and I have a quota to keep (as miniscule as it is)! And then the opportunity presented itself for me to take my 3-year-old daughter to see Coco. Now my daughter has only attended one movie and we made it about half way through before she decided she wanted to leave. This time, however, we stayed for the entire movie (including the 30 minute Frozen short film that preceded the feature), so thankfully I have a film that is much more fun to review than Justice League and here it is!

Coco TItle

Coco is another triumph of Pixar studios animation. Every one of their movies has such a distinct and unique environment, which is one of the cornerstones to their ability to stay fresh, inspired, and lively after all of these years. What may surprise you, however is that Coco marks only the fourth time in 19 films where the story focuses primarily on human characters. Only The Incredibles, Brave, and Up have previously done so. That alone, puts Coco in rarified air.

Coco is the story of a young boy named Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez), who lives in a small Mexican village with his family. Miguel’s family is in the business of making shoes, but what is most pressing to Miguel is his family’s total and complete ban on all music. It turns out Miguel’s great-great grandfather walked out on his family to pursue a career in music and ever since, his family has forbidden all members from engaging in, listening to, or most of all producing any form of music. Miguel, however, has the itch and when he discovers that an old family photo with his great-great grandfather’s face ripped off also features the famous guitar of one of Mexico’s most iconic singers Ernesto de la Cruz (voiced by Benjamin Bratt), Miguel concludes that he is actually related to the most famous musician in the world! That’s enough to inspire Miguel to challenge his family’s ban on music and compete in the village talent show on the Day of the Dead. Unfortunately, Miguel’s family catches wind of his plan and his Abuelita, grandmother Elena (voiced by Renee Victor) destroys his guitar. Desperate, Miguel breaks into the shrine to the late Ernesto de la Cruz where his famous guitar is displayed and steals it resulting in Miguel being suddenly cursed and transported to the Land of the Dead. The curse makes it so Miguel is no longer visible to the living world. Only a street dog named Dante and the skeletal dead relatives of the living can see Miguel. It turns out to break the curse, Miguel has one day to receive a blessing from his deceased relatives or he will remain in the Land of the Dead forever. Unfortunately, Miguel’s family will not give him their blessing without the condition that he never play music again. This leads Miguel to enlist the help of a lost spirit named Hector (voiced by Gael Garcia Bernal), who claims to have access to Ernesto de la Cruz, a man whose fame in life is only matched by his fame in death. Miguel hopes that if Ernesto grants a blessing to him, he will be able to return home and be a musician.

If there’s one thing you can say about Pixar, it’s that they don’t take a siesta when it comes to story. Justice League is about one-tenth as imaginative as Coco! I mean, first consider the ambition to make story about family, Hispanic culture, tribute, life, death, and tradition. Then consider the added challenge to do all of that in a film aimed at a young audience. Remarkable stuff. The name of the film, “Coco” actually is in reference to Miguel’s great grandmother. She was just 2 or 3 when Miguel’s great-great grandfather left his family. Now Coco is Miguel’s oldest living relative and her memory is fading. This detail develops the film’s most stirring and poignant theme, remembrance. Coco’s fading memory in the Living World is juxtaposed with how the Hector character in the Land of the Dead is in danger of being forgotten forever because his only living relative, and once you are forgotten in the living world, you are gone forever. Pretty deep. Hector’s reason for helping Miguel is not out of the kindness of his heart, but in the hopes that Miguel would return to the Living World and place a picture of Hector on his ofrenda, a Spanish word meaning offering. An ofrenda is a collection of offerings placed on a ritual alter during the Day of the Dead as a gesture of remembrance and an invitation to the Land of the Living for the dead to refresh themselves at the alter. Since Hector is not on anyone’s ofrenda, he is not able to travel to the Land of the Living during the Day of the Dead, he is not able to refresh his spirit, and he is therefore in danger of being completely forgotten. This resonates deeply with the adult audience because of our awareness of our mortality, reputation, and choices. Having attended this film with my 3-year-old girl, I can also speak to this message’s impact on her. Did she ponder her place in the universe and the afterlife? No, of course not. But she did think about Grandma and Nana. She did talk about her brother. She did see characters crying because they were happy and understand the importance of that feeling. That’s a pretty damn decent return on investment for a $7 movie ticket!

So emotions aside, is this a perfect movie? Not exactly, but it does belong in the upper tier of the Pixar conversation. It’s slow build at the start is easily overlooked due to its heart, lack of melodrama, pleasing music, and also its visual beauty. Every great Pixar film has a distinct visual style, but I think that objectively, Coco is the most beautiful film they have delivered so far. The color palate, the vibrant environments, and the hypnotic combination of sight and sound deliver an amazing cinematic experience. A-

Coco is rated PG and has a running time of 1 hour and 42 minutes. Be warned though, there’s a short film that precedes the feature starring Olaf and the characters from Frozen, and it is about 30 minutes long! It is an amusing short film, but if you were looking to be in the theater for less than 2 ½ hours, you may want to consider arriving to the show late.

The People’s Critic and his protégé.

Blade Runner 2049

BRDirector: Denis Villeneuve

Screenwriters: Hampton Fancher and Michael Green

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Robin Wright, Dave Bautista, Ana de Armas, and Jared Leto

Cells. Cells interlinked within cells – interlinked. Do they keep you in a cell? Cells. Interlinked. Within cells interlinked.

Yes, that’s a poor representation of the baseline test used by the LAPD to ascertain whether K (Ryan Gosling), a replicant blade runner, is developing dangerous emotions in the new film Blade Runner 2049.

That’s right, I said “replicant” “blade runner;” one and the same. 30 years of degradation will do that to a society. If you remember back to the 1982 original film, you’ll recall that blade runner units are special police squads tasked with locating and retiring (killing) rogue biological manufactured creatures called replicants that were used “off-world” to develop colonies in the early 21st century. These replicants soon mutinied against their human masters, and those who managed to escape to Earth were hunted down by blade runners. Now, 30 years later in the year 2049, the Tyrell corporation responsible for the original development of replicants is bankrupt and has been absorbed by tech giant, the Wallace corporation. Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) has resurrected the replicant, creating an entirely new breed capable of obeying humans, which allows them to serve at every level of society, even as blade runners, working with the police to help retire older rogue models that continue to persist.  In fact, Wallace also manufactures holographic companions for these new obedient replicants, allowing him to enjoy the double consumer bump of producing consumers who consume their producers’ products! I can picture Jeff Bezos at Amazon headquarters considering a way to get Alexa to want to buy her own Alexa!

Blade Runner 2049 opens with a magnificent sequence where K, one of these new Wallace replicant blade runners is on a mission to track down and retire an old rogue nexus-model replicant named Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista). While at Morton’s, K discovers the buried remains of a deceased female replicant whose death is evidenced by signs of complications from an emergency C-section; no replicant has ever been capable of reproduction. K’s superior, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) orders K to destroy the remains, and track down and retire the child for fear that public knowledge that replicants can reproduce may start a war. Conversely, Wallace is made privy to the discovery and desires to capture the offspring in the hopes conducting tests on the anomaly in order to create a self-sustaining replicant force that could increase his production off-world exponentially. Now K is caught in the middle between obeying his superiors and facing the reality that replicants are “more human than human.” Suffice it to say, his baseline gets all messed up.

K’s search for the replicant child makes up most of the second half of the 164 minute

Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard in Blade Runner 2049

masterpiece, and his journey expands the world we remember from the 1982 film beyond LA, and also leads him to some familiar faces we recall from the original, most notably Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) who has been hiding out in Las Vegas…or what’s left of it.


Blade Runner 2049 dethrones Baby Driver as the best film of 2017 so far. This is also the rare sequel that improves upon its original. Villenuve has been on the cusp of breaking out for some time now. He first arrived on my radar with the 2013 film Prisoners, which I thought was outstanding. That film also marked his first collaboration with his now go-to cinematographer, Roger Deakins, famous for his many films with the Coen Brothers and Sam Mendes. Deakins lends his lens to Villenueve for the third time here, and I think it’s his best effort yet. The visual landscapes, environments, and overall immersion experienced with this film are

Ana de Armas as Joi, an adaptive computer hologram companion in Blade Runner 2049.

breathtaking. Do yourself a favor and see Blade Runner 2049 on the big screen. In his previous film, Arrival, Villenueve used cinematographer Bradford Young, and Young received an Oscar nod for it. It turned out, while Villenueve was wrapping up Arrival, he was already working and storyboarding Blade Runner 2049 with Deakins. I mentioned in my Oscar predictions last year that I was excited to see Villenueve was coming off Arrival and going right into Blade Runner 2049 with Deakins. I now can comfortably predict that Deakins will receive his 13th Oscar nomination for this film, and, I also expect, his first win!

Blade Runner 2049 is a visual achievement, but it is also a triumph of science fiction and exploration into the flawed emotionality of the human being. Villenueve and original screenwriter, Hampton Fancher deepen the themes and ideas introduced in the 1982 original, creating a superb overall film that demands repeat viewings. A

Blade Runner 2049 is rated R and has a running time of 2 hours and 44 minutes.


It’s All About Choice

choice_mainThe recent film Baby Driver forced me to spend an unhealthy and inordinate amount of time contemplating film narrative development. My upcoming review of that film will go into more specifics in terms of how that film’s narrative is “driven” from a most unsuspecting source. In broader terms though, Baby Driver got me thinking about what at its core drives film narrative, and the answer I arrived at is one word: choice. Well choice, or the absence of it. Historically, there has actually been some debate about what the basis for Hollywood storytelling and narrative style is; however, in order to really arrive at any conclusions, we need to go back to the early days of film. There are actually two film theorists, Robert Ray and Jeanine Basinger, who hold two popular yet different views on the topic.  Robert Ray says in his book A Certain Tendency of the American Cinema 1930-1980, that classic Hollywood narratives revolve around the ideology of “the denial of the necessity of choice,” and this ideology can be utilized both in story as well as in film style/technique. What he means by this is that the narrative is propelled forward due to the appearance of a lack of choice for the protagonist and/or the filmmaker.  Jeanine Basinger, in her book A Woman’s View, on the other hand believes that choice, especially in the case of the movie female, is key to the storytelling and workings of classic Hollywood cinema.  Each of their views can be analyzed separately. For example, Ray’s view can be seen quite clearly in John Ford’s 1939 film Stagecoach while Basinger’s view is well illustrated in Alfred E. Green’s 1933 film Baby Face.

Coach-1In his book, Robert Ray uses the western genre as the best way to document the “denial of the necessity for choice.  He focuses on the western male individual and his “ad hoc solutions for problems depicted as crisis.”  Thus, Ray seems to believe the western hero, a man who is in complete control (or appears to be) of the world around him, is the ultimate example for his theory on how to drive a movie narrative.  Ringo (John Wayne) in John Ford’s Stagecoach is a character that strongly illustrates Ray’s theory.  Ringo is the perfect example for Ray’s statement that “the denial of the necessity for choice…discourag[es] commitment to any single set of values.”  Ringo has no solid set of values and the audience is well aware of this.  As the film progresses, the audience realizes Ringo is unique in the sense that they know the drunk is a drunk and the prostitute is a prostitute but they know very little, if anything at all, about Ringo.  Thus, he is the ultimate individual who can form his own values and not be labeled or expected to act in any particular way.  This frightens most of the characters in the film at first, but Ford demonstrates that Ringo’s qualities are reputable and add to his control of the narrative.  One scene that shows this is the famous dinner scene.  In this scene, everyone stops to eat at a dinner cabin and no one wants to sit near the prostitute, but Ringo thinks that everyone leaves the table because they do not want to sit by him.  Here the audience sees Ringo as completely nonjudgmental and honorable.  Much of this also rings true to the character of Baby (Ansel Elgort) in Baby Driver. He remains a mystery to most of the other characters in his “stagecoach,” yet his stoic silence and individuality propel the film. Watch the scene where Baby jams to his tunes while Doc (Kevin Spacey) lays out the plans for the next robbery, and tell me there are no similarities to the dinner scene in Stagecoach!

This also brings up Ray’s statement about the “law” versus the “heart.”  He says, “This sense of the law’s inadequacy to needs detectable only by the heart generated a rich tradition of legends celebrating legal defiance in the name of some ‘natural’ standard.”  In Stagecoach, Ringo shows that he defies the law for a moralistic reason, avenging his brother’s death, both when he went to prison as well as with the gunfight at the film’s finale (both instances also echoed in Baby Driver).  Ford also uses stylistic technique to show Ringo’s control over his environment.  In the scene where Ringo is first introduced, he climbs into the stagecoach with all the other passengers.  Here, Ford positions Ringo in a way so that every time the camera goes to him he dominates his own frame.  All the shots of the other passengers share the frame with other people, but Ringo is always shown as alone.  This preserves his individual characteristics as well as to allow the audience to identify with him and trust in him.  Furthermore, Ford also allows Ringo to wander freely in and out of frame throughout the film.  Several scenes show Ringo with this freedom of movement.  This represents the fact that Ringo is in control of his environment.  Therefore, Ringo is a strong example of how the western hero can demonstrate the “denial of the necessity for choice” forcing audience identification and, thus, drives the film’s narrative.

BabyfaceThe 1933 film Baby Face is a film that fits nicely into Jeanine Basinger’s theory about women in film.  The crux of that theory is that films on one hand show women with a passion for success where there are unending opportunities and outlooks for them.  However, on the other hand by the end of the film this power of opportunity and choice they once had is somehow deeply undercut and forced in one direction which usually adheres to the current cultural status of women.  Baby Face demonstrates this quite flawlessly.  One scene that brilliantly illustrates Basinger’s ideology is towards the end of the film.  In this scene, Lily (Barbara Stanwyck) has received Trenholm’s (George Brent) fortune.  This money represents all that she has passionately and ruthlessly worked for since she joined the workforce.  However, when Trenhom’s bank is bankrupt, Lily is faced with the choice to either help her husband whom she may love or leave with the money.  She eventually chooses love but at the cost of her husband shooting himself before she makes up her mind.  This alone strongly depicts Basinger’s theory that the woman full of passion is forced to make a choice, usually involving love.  However, Basinger is truly correct when the audience learns that Lily and the recovered Trenholm move to the factory town to start a new life together.  Here the film shows that Lily’s choice that she was forced to make deeply undercuts the passion she had earlier and she is forced to conform to a more socially accepted role for women of her time.  Thus, supporting Basinger’s statement that many films show women doing amazing things, however, in the big picture, the life of the average culturally accepted housewife is the best way to end up. Watch the evolution of Debra (Lily James) in Baby Driver compared to that of Darling (Eiza Gonzalez). How does the narrative treat them? What choices were made? Where do they end up and how does that reflect the current cultural status of women? Also, I would be remiss to not mention the similarity in title: Baby Face, Baby Driver.

MildredAlthough Ray and Basinger’s views are contrasting in some respects, I propose that the two theories can be reconciled.  An excellent example of this reconciliation can be found in an analysis of Michael Curtiz’s 1945 film Mildred Pierce.  Although Ray and Basinger’s theories for the basis of classic Hollywood narrative success differs on many fronts, Michael Curtiz’s 1945 film Mildred Pierce seems to correlate both theorists ideas into a very cohesive classic Hollywood narrative structure. It is at this reconciliation, that I believe we stand today in terms of what is driving our modern Hollywood narratives as well – Baby Driver being a strong example.  As Ray states, films of the classic Hollywood era were quite careful to try to draw as little attention as possible to the actual production of the picture itself.  That is to say, trying to make the audience forget that they are watching a movie or that choices are made for every step of the film’s progression.  However, as time passed many films began to deviate from this normal classic Hollywood style and create new genres of film style and mythology.  This transition away from the classic Hollywood style and storytelling did not occur over night and, thus, it is these transition films of the late 30’s and early 40’s that illustrate a clash of Ray and Basinger’s arguments.  Although they are still classified to be of the classical Hollywood style and narrative structure, these films also began to include new styles, choices, and techniques which, in the case of Mildred Pierce, were strongly focused towards the movie female.

choice2It is clear that Mildred Pierce demonstrates many of the characteristics Ray would say are commonly found in the classic Hollywood formula narrative.  For example, in the scene near the beginning where Mildred (Joan Crawford) is summoned to speak with Inspector Peterson (Moroni Olsen), Curtiz uses classic Hollywood style to show Peterson’s control and authority over the situation.  In this scene Peterson is positive that he has found the murderer and he explains the mechanics of how his detective work has succeeded.  In the first shot of the scene, the camera is positioned behind Peterson’s desk.  This shot allows Peterson to tower over Mildred as he stands up to greet her.  After he sits down, Curtiz cuts to a close shot of Peterson so that he dominates the frame as he begins to explain his case.  The camera then cuts to a longer shot of Mildred and then back to the same closer shot of Peterson.  This technique of cutting back and forth during a conversation while emphasizing one individual’s contribution more than the other’s echoes Ray’s theory of how there is very little choice involved here.  Like Ford, Curtiz too shows one character as completely dominant.  This method forces the audience to identify more with Peterson than with Mildred without drawing their attention to any camera movements.  This scene also uses other classic Hollywood techniques to show that Peterson is in control of this conversation.  Later in the scene Mildred wants to know who Peterson believes the murderer to be.  Peterson stands up and again the camera is positioned behind him allowing him to tower over Mildred.  After he tells Mildred that she is entitled to know who killed her husband, there is an eyeline match between Peterson and the buzzer on his desk, which alerts one of his officers to bring in the suspect.  Peterson is very much in control of his diegnesis here; all he has to do is push a button to make something happen.  This use of an eyeline match to reinforce Peterson’s control over the conversation helps suture the viewer into the film, and is also a common characteristic of the classic Hollywood cinematic style.  Before the scene ends, there is another shot that adds to Peterson’s control of the scene.  After Mildred’s first husband is brought in as the suspect, the camera cuts to another shot of Peterson.  In this shot, the camera is pointing slightly upwards at him to give him an aura of superiority as he confirms his position by saying calmly, “Yes, he did it, your first husband, Pierce.”  This technique again enhances the viewer’s trust and assurance in Peterson without drawing attention to the filmmaking process.  Thus, this scene is a very strong example of Ray’s theory that the classic Hollywood narrative is driven by an appearance of a lack of choice by the filmmaker as well as for the audience.

Basinger’s voice can be heard in another sequence of the same film. Mildred Pierce is one of the films of the late 30’s and 40’s that experiments with adding a distinct and noticeable style to the film and, thus, beginning to deviate from the transparent classic Hollywood style of filmmaking.  It seems that it is these stylistic sequences that hold strongly to Basinger’s theory of the movie female in classic Hollywood narratives.  A scene that demonstrates a deviation from classic Hollywood style is the final scene of the film.  Here Curtiz uses bright imagery contrasted with dark imagery in the same scene.  After Mildred’s daughter Veda (Ann Blyth) has been discovered as the murderer, Mildred exits the police station.  As she exits, her first husband, Bert (Bruce Bennett) is waiting for her.  As they leave the police station they walk out from the shadows and out through a bright sunlit arch.  This obvious contrast of darkness to brightness stylistically implies a positive future for the couple.  Here Basinger shines through as Curtiz creates an establishment or reestablishment of a man/woman couple.  He does this with rather expressionistic style as well as constructing his narrative so that the woman has made a very hard choice; Mildred realizes she had always neglected her husband for her daughter and, thus she chooses to start over.  This scene comes quite soon after the audience learns that Mildred lost her restaurant to Wally (Jack Carson).  This connection strongly supports Basinger’s statement that while movies say women should be both woman and wife, these same films show, (as in Baby Face) these “woman” options fail leaving the woman left to become the wife.

ChoiceRobert Ray and Jeanine Basinger have two very strong arguments about what drives a film narrative.  Ray has strong evidence to support his view that a film that guides the audience thematically and stylistically by displaying a “denial of the necessity for choice” is the best way to drive a narrative.  Stagecoach is a good example of this theory through use of the western hero.  Basinger, on the other hand, finds that characters, usually woman, forced to make a choice is what makes a film work and is seen in the film Baby Face.  However, most remarkably, is the fact that both theorists can be represented in one film, Mildred Pierce, and more modernly – Baby Driver, where their theories are demonstrated separately while still making the film work as a whole. This has lead to the evolution of the American film narrative paving the way for pioneers like Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, and most recently Edgar Wright.


Wonder Woman (2017)

wwDirector: Patty Jenkins

Screenwriter: Allen Heinberg

Cast: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Connie Nielsen, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, and David Thewlis

It was inevitable that some movie in the Detective Comics Extended Universe would eventually get it right. It wasn’t Man of Steel, it wasn’t Batman v. Superman, and it definitely wasn’t Suicide Squad. Did I think it would be Wonder Woman? No, but it was. Regardless, whatever it was, that particular film would be laden with praise far better than it deserves simply because it’s the film that stopped the DC bleeding. That’s the case with Wonder Woman. A fine film, but not to the degree that its being touted.

We open in modern day with an established Diana (Gal Gadot), working in her office at the Louvre, when she receives a curious brief case courtesy of Wayne Enterprises. Within is the original photo of the image Wayne (Ben Affleck) uncovered of Diana and a group of soldiers posing for a picture in war-torn Belgium mid World War II. With the photo, Wayne enclosed a note hoping to be able to sit down and hear the story that lead to this photo someday. Fortunately for us, that day is today, as the film flashes back to the War-era 1940s on a mysterious Mediterranean island populated with god-like Amazon women training as warriors.

The isolated island is hidden from all other people of Earth and is so protected that all inhabitants are unaware of the World War going on around them. Diana, now a child runs through the training areas, locking eyes with Antiope (Robin Wright), General to the warriors who seems to see some potential in young Diana that her sister, Diana’s mother, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) seems to be ignoring. While Hippolyta’s goal is to protect her daughter, the fact has not escaped Diana that she is the only child on the island and it is clear Hippolyta and Antiope know why, and it has something to do with the why their mysterious island remains hidden from the world of man. Diana, however sides with Hippolyta on the matter and eventually Antiope agrees to allow her sister to train Diana on the condition that she train her harder than any warier she’d ever trained previously.

The world of man does not stay hidden for long, however. Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) American CIA agent working for British intelligence posing as a Nazi crashes his plane and Diana, now grown, witnesses it and rushes to his rescue. What she doesn’t know is that Trevor is being pursued by the Germans and by rescuing Trevor, she leads the Germans right to her home. The ensuing battle between her Amazon warrior race and the pursuing Nazis introduces her to the conflict in the outside world, and with Trevor, she decides to leave home to fight a war to end all wars, discovering her full powers and true destiny.

There’s actually quite a bit to this movie, not in terms of complication, but in terms of its reach; think Captain America meets Thor meets Elf. In the end, Wonder Woman is more successful at what it represents than of what it actually is. As I mentioned in my opening, the first DC movie to strike a chord with audiences and critics will receive enhanced accolades. Wonder Woman represents a change in course. It is funny, heartfelt, romantic, and exciting. None of these adjectives can be used to describe the previous DCEU films. Furthermore, this disconnectedness in tone is further illustrated  by the film’s execution. This is a stand-alone film in every way. There are no pandering cameos or obvious Easter egg plot points to lessen the film’s impact. Wonder Woman strikes out to sink or swim on its own, and for the most part it swims just fine.

That’s not to say the film is not without its faults. There is a fairly forced thread involving the origin of Wonder Woman and her immortal Olympian ancestry, which paves the way for at least one too many villains for me. Villainy should have started and stopped with Elena Anaya’s haunting performance as Dr. “Poison” Maru. Furthermore, I have a little qualm with the film’s supposed message in combination with the history it presents, or shall I say decides not to present. I won’t say more, but it’s hard to ignore a certain historic event that does not play out in this film, which would certainly complicate its overall theme.

And then there’s the costume reveal, which came off kind of hokey, in my opinion. I costumeknow it’s a big deal, and I know it needs to happen in a big way, but as Diana trekked across “no man’s land” in her Stars and Stripes Amazon armor in slow motion, I was lost in in an female objectified patriotic feminist paradox! Later I would read that director Patty Jenkins did not change or reshoot a single scene for this film…except for this one. Which makes me wonder, what was it like before reshooting?

Still, this is an almost entirely satisfying, fresh, and enjoyable summer blockbuster.  The two main stars, Pine and Gadot, are terrific together, and finding Gadot for this role is an absolute miracle. She embodies the nearly 80 year history of the character brilliantly and will serve the character greatly in her various appearances in other DC films. Wonder Woman, while flawed, is a good time at the movies, which is all anyone is really hoping for in her next film as the Amazing Amazon, this fall’s Justice League, slated for November 17th. B+

Wonder Woman is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 21 minutes.