Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, March 05, 2018

2017 Film Roundup, Part 2: The Top Four

The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition. It comes in four parts. In addition to this section, there's The Oscars and the Year in Review, Noteworthy Films and The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful).

The Shape of Water: Much like Pan's Labyrinth, probably still Guillermo del Toro's best film (and the second film reviewed here), The Shape of Water is a fairy tale both dark and wondrous. It's 1962 during the Cold War, and mute janitor Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) works the night shift in a government lab with her friend, Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer), who translates Elisa's sign language for others as needed. They're tasked with cleaning up the mess after an amphibious humanoid creature (Doug Jones) attacks Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), the menacing and authoritarian figure running the facility. Elisa dares to try to communicate with the creature, first by offering eggs, and then by playing music. They slowly build a bond, despite or perhaps because of the lack of a shared verbal language. Elisa confides in her neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), a graphic artist struggling due to underemployment, alcohol and being gay in the 60s; the two of them share a love of musicals. The Soviets learn of the creature and are interested in obtaining it, thanks to their spy Dmitri Mosenkov, known in the lab under his alias of Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg). But Strickland, cruel by nature already, is under pressure from his boss to deliver knowledge that will give the Americans an edge over the Soviets, and decides over Hoffstetler's objections that they will vivisect the creature. Elisa learns of this, and is determined to rescue it from the lab.

As usual, del Toro brings a sense of magic and a visual flair, with a production design full of greens and blues and a camera that is often moving or at least floating, if subtly. Alexander Desplat's score emphasizes the wonder and menace. Hawkins is always good, but is particularly impressive here, using her facial expressions to tell most of the story. As the creature, frequent del Toro collaborator Doug Jones needs to covey emotion mostly with body language, and shows once again why he's one of the best prosthetics performers around. It's nothing new to see Shannon as an unsettling villain or Spencer as an amusingly no-nonsense character, but they're excellent in their roles. Stuhlbarg captures the torment and sensitivity required for Hoffstetler, and as Giles, Jenkins also narrates the film with a gentle sense of awe and affection. (By the end, we know which character is the "monster" he refers to.) The film works because we buy the relationships between the characters, most crucially between Elisa and the creature, and we care about them. We'll willingly enter this fantasy world, which includes a lovely musical number and some welcome female sexuality. As he always does, del Toro even humanizes his villains, bringing some moral and narrative complexity to the proceedings. Pan's Labyrinth was meant to be paired with The Devil's Backbone, but I think Pan also goes very well with The Shape of Water. I'd still rank Pan as the slightly better film, but it has an intensely sad side and is more of a tragic fairy tale with moments of wonder, whereas The Shape of Water is more of a romantic fairy tale with moments of darkness. As a few people have observed, it's too bad that Universal Studio's silly "Dark Universe" initiative to retread their monster movies yet again didn't hire del Toro and like-minded writers and directors instead, but maybe all the Oscars The Shape of Water justifiably nabbed will make the Universal suits reconsider their approach.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri isn't a perfect film, but its strong performances and original touches make it welcome viewing. Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is mourning the rape and murder of her daughter, Angela (Kathryn Newton), and comes up with the idea of renting three billboards to pointedly press local sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) for justice. Her son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges), is embarrassed by it all and Mildred's abusive ex-husband, Charlie (John Hawkes), blames her for their daughter's death. (He's taken up with a much younger woman, Penelope, played by Samara Weaving.) The townspeople may be sympathetic to Mildred, but most ultimately side more with Bill Willoughby, because they know he's dying of cancer. Willoughby's most aggressive defender is Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a racist cop who's alternately bumbling and menacing. Be warned that this is not a feel-good romp, as some of the ads suggested; it's a drama with some comic moments, and much of that comedy is dark.

This is Irish-British writer-director Martin McDonagh's third feature, and his most complex and substantial. His first, In Bruges (the ninth film reviewed here), is mostly a fun buddy film with violence; his second, Seven Psychopaths (the sixth reviewed here), is more uneven, often going for flash over substance, but has a few great scenes (the best one starring Sam Rockwell). McDonagh seems to have an uneasy relationship with America, and I'm not sure he completely understands it – In Bruges has a ton of digs, some of which are funny, whereas his latest two films occur in the States. More specifically, Three Billboards… is set in McDonagh's mythic idea of middle America, where the characters can shift from ungrammatical folksy dialogue in one scene to poetic eloquence in another (most notably with Willoughby – "I don't think those billboards is very fair."). I'd characterize McDonagh's work as a bit self-indulgent but still interesting and entertaining (for instance, the lengthy title seems unnecessary). In the case of Three Billboards…, the virtues of the film far outweigh the flaws and there's plenty to like.

The main characters possess depth and complexity, and our views on them shift over the course of the film. Mildred Hayes is sympathetic due to her terrible loss, and her feistiness is admirable to a point, but, for instance, she doesn't give a damn about due process, which Willoughby reasonably points out is not a workable system. As we see in flashbacks, she was emotionally damaged even before Angela's death. She's not always kind even to the people who help her and she takes increasingly extreme measures to achieve her idea of justice. Mildred's flaws make her much more interesting, and her redeeming quality is that she herself is generally taken aback when she sees the negative consequences of her actions. Likewise, Jason Dixon is a multilayered character. He starts off as mostly comic relief, but then we see he can be violent and legitimately dangerous. His desire for redemption seems sincere but also doesn't excuse his past excesses (nor does McDonagh suggest it does). It's a challenging role, and Sam Rockwell puts his likability to its most extreme test to date. I thought both performers deserved their Oscars; McDormand's won before but is reliably good and brings weight and nuance to the role. As for Rockwell, I've been a fan of his versatility since he first appeared on the scene. These two characters really become the core of the film. If there's a third lead, it's Willoughby, who starts as kind of a bureaucratic villain (because we see things from Mildred's eyes) but our notion of him significantly changes as we get to know him better. Meanwhile, almost all the secondary characters have at least a good scene or two. Robbie's exasperation at his mother is refreshingly real. Penelope is played as a ditz for most of the film but then says something fairly profound. Peter Dinklage has a minor role as a would-be suitor to Mildred, and is given a nice moment sticking up for his dignity. The characters aren't always likeable, but they're consistently interesting.

The film drags on a bit in the final stretch, but I'm glad McDonagh picked the ending he did. And although I have my quibbles with McDonagh (who I've followed since his playwriting days), I'm glad he's making films. Not everyone can write and direct roles like this. And whatever else Three Billboards… is, it is not a cookie cutter movie. A little originality plus performances this memorable are always welcome.

Logan: One of the best movies of the year just happens to be a superhero movie. For stretches, as Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Professor X/Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) verbally spar, it's easy to think we're watching a more conventional but still really good drama about aging, mortality and regrets. (I'm going to assume readers are at least somewhat familiar with the X-Men and these characters.) Logan's healing power is finally starting to fail him, and he doesn't help it any with heavy drinking; he just can't recover from external or self-inflicted damage as fully or quickly as he used to. Meanwhile, Charles remains one of the most powerful mutants on the planet, but he can't always control his telepathic powers anymore, which (we infer) lead to disaster at some earlier time. Logan as the best and most savage warrior on the X-Men and Charles as the most idealistic and pacifist always made for some interesting dynamics, and Jackman and Stewart embrace the opportunity fully, delivering two of the best performances of their respective careers. Add a stunning, dynamic feature debut by young Dafne Keen as the feral wild child, Laura, and you've got one memorable film.

Be warned that Logan is extremely violent, although it doesn't feel gratuitous. James Mangold's previous outing with Logan was The Wolverine (reviewed here), a mixed bag of a movie and pretty bloodless (thanks to censors) despite the depicted violence; in Logan, less is left to the imagination and we see more of the effect of Wolverine's claws. This feels necessary, though, because the film is so strongly focused on the idea of consequences and their continued weight; at this stage in his life, nothing comes easily anymore for Logan. Logan the film is, in the end, a story about an aging warrior, friendship, mentorship and choosing one's legacy. Genre snobbery seems to be slowly dying, thankfully, with more critics willing to acknowledge that Logan actually has better performances at its core than many a "straight" drama. If you know and like these characters, it's actually one of the most moving films of the year. (One quibble: one of the trailers used Johnny Cash's cover of "Hurt," which was an absolutely perfect choice, and I wish the ending credits had stuck with that. Meanwhile, the disc has a black and white version of the film, Logan Noir, which I've yet to see but have heard is pretty interesting.)

Hostiles: It's been a few years since we've had a really good western. It's 1892 New Mexico, and Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) is nearing his retirement from the U.S. Cavalry. He's given one last assignment – escort the dying Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family to their tribal lands in Montana. Bale refuses; he's fought native tribes for years, and has lost friends and comrades in the process; he's filled with bitterness and hatred, which he views as well-earned. But his pension is at risk if he doesn't comply, so he reluctantly agrees, taking with him a few men, most notably his friend, Sergeant Thomas Metz (Rory Cochrane), who's as world-weary as Blocker or more. Blocker also insists on putting Yellow Hawk and his family in shackles as soon as they're out of sight of the fort; the two share a history. Along the way, Blocker and his party encounter Rosalee Quaid (Rosamund Pike), a severely traumatized woman whose entire family has been massacred by the Comanche. Yellow Hawk urges Blocker to be unshackled, pointing out that the Comanche will kill them all, even the Cheyenne. Blocker is gradually forced to trust Yellow Hawk somewhat, and their relationship shifts over the course of the journey. Most notably, Rosalee's plight awakens compassion in Blocker, and he's genuinely kind to her; serving her awakens his humanity and over time eases his bitterness.

Centering on a journey, the plot is unsurprisingly episodic. A memorable section involves Blocker (after stopping for resupplies) escorting a cavalry officer to trial. Sergeant Charles Wills (Ben Foster) is due for hanging for brutally killing a Native American family. Blocker knows Wills, and the hate-filled Wills insists the two are exactly alike. Throughout the film, Blocker is confronted with moments like this, of facing who he was and who he wants to be, giving the film some moral complexity.

Bale always commits to his performances, and he's excellent again here, making Blocker's shifts and gradual overall transformation plausible. Pike likewise sells a difficult role, playing a woman who's understandably been driven beyond sanity but has increasing moments of lucidity and is, like Blocker, ultimately a survivor. Wes Studi has been one of the go-to Native American actors for decades, and he's very good here; it's interesting to contrast his performance as the dignified Yellow Hawk with his breakout role of the villainous-if-understandable Magua in 1992's The Last of the Mohicans. Western buffs will pick up on echoes of several classics, most notably with the film's final shot, which works on its own but has an added emotional punch for viewers who get the reference.

I've read some criticism that the story doesn't work for the depicted era; on the other hand, Hostiles has been praised for working to get the languages and other aspects of Native American culture right. I liked Jeff Bridges' performance in one of Scott Cooper's earlier efforts, Crazy Heart (the second film reviewed here), but was less impressed by the movie overall. I found Hostiles to be better and more moving than I expected. More in the:

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