THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 3 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Sexual Content, Graphic Nudity, Violence and Language

Directed by: Guillermo Del Toro

Written by: Guillermo Del Toro & Vanessa Taylor

Starring: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Lauren Lee Smith, Nick Searcy & David Hewlett

I’ve yet to see a bad movie from Guillermo Del Toro. Whether it be the eerie combination of Gothic horror and old-fashioned romance in his highly underrated CRIMSON PEAK, a dark fairy tale/war drama in PAN’S LABYRINTH, or Lovecraftian sensibilities in both HELLBOY movies, Del Toro clearly creates the films that he wants to make. Even lesser efforts like giant insect B-movie MIMIC still is miles above other 90s B-flicks of its same genre. Del Toro knocks another film out of the park with THE SHAPE OF WATER! This film plays out like CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON meets BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. With an audience-pleasing narrative and loads of imagination, THE SHAPE OF WATER is a wondrous cinematic experience!

In 1962’s Baltimore, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute custodian working at a top-secret government facility. Esposito is looked down on by her snobby superiors, but has two great friends in talkative Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and oddball artist Giles (Richard Jenkins). Everything changes when Elisa’s workplace receives its latest experiment: an Amazonian humanoid-like amphibian (Doug Jones). In a strange twist of fate, Elisa and the “monster” begin to form a romantic bond. All the while, headstrong Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon) turns into a fearsome villain intent on dissecting the creature and concerned scientist Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) tries to keep the creature safe at all costs.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that THE SHAPE OF WATER began as Guillermo Del Toro’s original idea for a CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON remake. When he was a child, he wanted to see the creature and Julie Adams romantically end happily ever after. Unsurprisingly, Universal (the same studio that effectively killed its “Dark Universe” in the space of one movie) rejected Del Toro’s original take on a remake. Del Toro then transformed his idea into THE SHAPE OF WATER and has also dubbed it as his first “adult” film that tackles issues he’s concerned about in the modern age…as opposed to childhood fantasies and nostalgia seen in previous entries in his filmography. As a result, THE SHAPE OF WATER just might be Del Toro’s best film since PAN’S LABYRINTH.

Although it might sound hard to buy in a believable manner, the romance between Sally Hawkins’ protagonist and Doug Jones’ creature is totally compelling from start to finish. The ways in which these two outsiders bond over food, music, and sign language is beautiful. Hawkins is able to communicate everything she means without ever speaking a word…save for one dream sequence that serves as a great stylish WTF moment in the best way possible. Doug Jones does his usual weird thing as a monster, but doesn’t deliver any frights (save for when the creature is threatened).

Besides being a simple fantasy-romance between a mute woman and a fish-man (a description that woefully undersells this film), SHAPE OF WATER also has many subplots that further flesh out its characters in interesting ways. Nearly every character in this film receives a story arc that occurs around the woman-monster relationship. The most interesting of which easily belongs to Michael Shannon’s unusual villain. Strickland is easily one of the best roles that the madly talented Shannon has taken so far and allows him to flex his evil acting muscles as the story’s despicable antagonist. He also delivers a particularly gruesome moment that made my theater’s entire audience cringe and exclaim in unison.

I won’t mention too many details about the rest of the subplots. However, Michael Stuhlbarg is a very interesting character and his story arc is especially relevant to the time period of the 1960s. Richard Jenkins is just plain weird in spots, but that’s his character in this film. His distinct brand of quirkiness provides some chuckles, as well as many emotional moments that resonate in unexpected ways. Octavia Spencer is exactly a major character, but she does very well as a best friend who’s caught up in this monstrous mess. One thing that’s easy to notice is that almost all of these good characters are outsiders in some way, shape, or form. All the while, the main villain is the stereotypical 1960s macho-man American who’d usually be the hero in a 1950s/60s monster movie. It’s a fascinating switch-up to watch and one that only Del Toro could create in such a compelling manner.

As you might expect, SHAPE OF WATER’s visuals look amazing…much like the visuals in pretty much every other Del Toro production. The 1960s era is captured in a way that almost seems foreign…pointing out big problems that existed in the supposedly clean old-fashioned 60s. However, this is never done in a way that seems distractingly excessive or intrusive to the film’s story. Instead, it adds yet another layer to this wonderfully creative cinematic beauty. The effects are also worth praising as the blending of practical effects (in Doug Jones’ monster suit and brief gory bits) and computer-generated imagery (in the underwater sequences and shots that would be impossible to capture practically) is seamless.

Del Toro has done it again! This director has yet to make a bad or even mediocre film as he continues his winning streak in THE SHAPE OF WATER. WATER’s performances are stellar across the board, with especially impressive acting from a soundless Sally Hawkins. Spectacular special effects, a whimsical soundtrack, fantastical atmosphere, well-developed characters, and clever writing that blends a main story with many subplots, all make THE SHAPE OF WATER worth your time. If you want to see an out-of-the-ordinary romance that is romantic but not conventional by any means, then dive into this wondrous cinematic oddity.

Grade: A+

ARRIVAL (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 56 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief Strong Language

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Directed by: Denis Villeneuve

Written by: Eric Heisserer

(based on the short story STORY OF YOUR LIFE by Ted Chiang)

Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma & Mark O’Brien

Denis Villeneuve is one of the best directors working today. Besides delivering two of the best thrillers of the 2010’s (PRISONERS and SICARIO), he’s also currently attached to helm the upcoming BLADE RUNNER sequel. After doing many realistic and human stories, ARRIVAL showcases what this man can do with a big budget, the sci-fi genre, and lavish effects. Half extraterrestrial tale and half emotional human drama, ARRIVAL is a refreshingly uplifting, emotional, and brilliantly written piece of smart science-fiction!

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After twelve shell-shaped UFOs touch down across Earth, expert linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) finds herself recruited on a top-secret government mission to forge communicate with the aliens. Nations across the globe are uniting together in an effort to discover what the aliens’ reason for coming to our world is and if they come in peace. However, rifts form between the countries as international paranoia sets in. Aided by scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and well-spoken military man Colonel Weber (Forest Whittaker), Louise is in a race against time to discover the purpose of the aliens’ visit…before potentially dire mistakes and miscommunications are made.

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While most alien films revolve around invasions and potentially apocalyptic scenarios, ARRIVAL has a refreshingly positive outlook on first contact. This is especially surprising when you consider that this director’s previous films have revolved around kidnappings, tragedies and drug cartels. ARRIVAL is an uplifting, beautiful film that had me walking out of the theater appreciating life and the world in general. The aliens are a huge plot point, but not necessarily essential to the film’s deeper message. As Louise Banks, Amy Adams sells herself as a genius linguist with tragic memories…while Jeremy Renner provides some laughs as her at-odds partner. Forrest Whitaker plays a three-dimensional military man, who doesn’t ever fully revert to the clichéd one-note “we need to blow them out of the sky” mentality. Michael Stuhlbarg is believable as a cynical jerk who is the closest thing to a full-blown antagonist in this story.

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ARRIVAL’s plot plays like an arthouse drama mixed with a sci-fi film as dual storylines move forward. We’re shown the alien encounters and attempts to communicate through their language, all of which are handled in a technical way that’s made easy to understand for the average viewer who doesn’t have a college-level knowledge of languages (myself included). Meanwhile, the emotional Amy Adams story arc almost seems like it might become cheesy or melodramatic at any moment, but surprisingly never crosses that line. The dual plotlines are expertly weaved so that they feed off each other and make the hugely impactful ending even more powerful. I won’t give any spoilers or details away, but I wanted to rewatch this film the minute that it was over. This complex plot will only get better with multiple viewings (ala THE PRESTIGE).

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Denis Villeneuve really hasn’t played around with large-scale special effects before and this is easily the biggest film that he’s made yet. The aliens almost resemble Lovecraftian creatures with their features wisely remaining obscured for the most part. Their visual language is creative and detailed, lending to a few of the plot’s later developments. The “shell” spaceship is simple, but executed with style and trippy gravity effects (making for one of the opening act’s more awe-inspiring moments). The effects aren’t the main focus of ARRIVAL though, instead that is firmly planted on the characters and story. Much like last year’s EX MACHINA, this is a brilliant piece of science fiction cinema that could easily go down as a future classic in the genre.

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In a year that’s been filled with a divided society and lots of big-screen movies based on depressing true life stories, ARRIVAL arrives as an unexpected bit of welcomed optimism. Though I can’t say for sure if this is my favorite of Villeneuve’s filmography (he’s delivered a few A+-worthy movies throughout the years), ARRIVAL definitely keeps his reputation high as one of the best filmmakers working today. Amy Adams plays a compelling protagonist, while the side characters are fleshed-out and never become walking clichés. The effects look impressive. The cinematography is gorgeous and the soundtrack subtly aids the film’s already strong emotional core. Most importantly, the writing is fantastic. ARRIVAL has one of the best endings that I’ve seen in years and makes me want to watch the film again through new eyes. This is one of the best science fiction films of the 2010’s and is sure to please those who love blockbuster entertainment with brains.

Grade: A+

DOCTOR STRANGE (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 55 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sci-Fi Violence and Action throughout, and an Intense Crash Sequence

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Directed by: Scott Derrickson

Written by: Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill

(based on the DOCTOR STRANGE comics by Steve Ditko)

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg, Scott Adkins, Mads Mikkelsen & Tilda Swinton

Fourteen films and eight years later, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is still going strong. DOCTOR STRANGE is a rather unique addition to this long-running cinematic franchise though, because it injects mystical powers and wizards into the MCU. I thought that GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY and ANT-MAN were tough films to sell, but DOCTOR STRANGE seems downright challenging. Fortunately, director/writer Scott Derrickson is more than up to the task. Aided by fantastic performances, astounding special effects, and a smart script, DOCTOR STRANGE is easily the best Marvel Cinematic Universe movie thus far!

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Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant surgeon with a huge ego. After saving lives and carving out an acclaimed career, Strange suffers severe nerve damage in his hands from a horrible car accident. When Western medicine fails him, the down-on-his-luck doctor turns to Eastern mythology. His skepticism turns to amazement upon meeting centuries-old sorceress The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). Strange soon finds himself immersed in a world of infinite possibilities, many universes, magical talents, mythical weapons, and dark threats. When evil zealot sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) attempts to bring use The Ancient One’s magic books for evil, it’s up to emerging hero Doctor Strange to save the world.

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Benedict Cumberbatch is a welcome addition to the bevy of A-listers who populate the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As Steven Strange, he starts off as completely unlikable and slowly begins to humble himself through magical teachings. Strange’s arrogance rivals Tony Stark’s cocky attitude, which makes me excited for the possibilities that might erupt when the two eventually meet face-to-face. After being an utter ass for the first third of the film, Strange’s changing attitude and emerging heroism ultimately wins the viewer onto his side. Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Karl Mordo, a good-natured wizard who finds himself constantly at odds with Strange’s view of the world.

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Though a lot of hubbub erupted for her part in this film, Tilda Swinton vanishes into the charming role of The Ancient One. Meanwhile, Rachel McAdams plays Strange’s former lover and best friend…providing great comic relief and believable emotion. Finally, Mads Mikkelsen plays Kaecilius, Marvel’s equivalent of Saruman and introduction for bigger threats in the future, as an intimidating presence with insane powers that make for great fight scenes…particularly when one of Strange’s plans backfires spectacularly.

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One has to admire how brilliantly written DOCTOR STRANGE’s script is. Yes, it’s a superhero origin story…but it’s the most compelling origin story to come out of the Marvel Universe thus far. This film stands entirely on its own and doesn’t fully seem connected to the MCU (a good quality), save for a few brief Avengers references and a mid-credits scene that promises more of Strange in future Marvel projects. Strange’s training takes time and introduces lots of complicated concepts that come into play throughout the story (astral projection, relics, other dimensions, spells, etc.). The ways in which we are given this complex information feel entirely natural and provide laughs…as well as sheer awe-inspiring moments.

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In terms of special effects and action scenes, this movie is awesome! I know that word has become commonplace, but it definitely applies to DOCTOR STRANGE’s jaw-dropping sequences of psychedelic head-trips, vibrant colors that look like a rave went to outer space, and an amazing INCEPTION/MATRIX-like battle through New York City that currently stands as one of my favorite action scenes of the decade. This movie is phenomenally trippy and cool the whole way through. Even visuals that might seem cheesy when taken out of context (a giant floating head, spirits leaving their bodies, etc.) all work perfectly within the film’s storyline and with the added weight of the characters inhabiting them. The film’s climax has also reinvigorated my love for superhero movies as a whole. I was slightly fatigued by the massive number of comic book movies hitting the multiplex in the past few years, but DOCTOR STRANGE has ignited the childlike spark inside of me and makes me crave the upcoming Marvel films now more than ever!

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DOCTOR STRANGE is easily my favorite movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It incorporates tons of complicated elements through a smartly written script and mind-blowing spectacle. The characters are all great, even if not all of them receive a ton of screen time. The humor works fantastically and never overshadows the film’s more serious moments. The action is exciting and adrenaline-pumping. The magical aspect delivers some of the most creative, head-trippy imagery to hit theaters in all of 2016! This is big entertainment done right in every conceivable way!

Grade: A+

TRUMBO (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 4 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language including some Sexual References

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Directed by: Jay Roach

Written by: John McNamara

(based on the book DALTON TRUMBO by Bruce Alexander Cook)

Starring: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, Louis C.K., Elle Fanning, John Goodman, Michael Stuhlbarg, Alan Tudyk, Stephen Root & Roger Bart

Though Hollywood has produced thousands of on-screen stories, filmmaking also produces a number of interesting tales that take place within the studio system itself. If you want evidence of this, just watch a few celebrity interviews and behind-the-scenes documentaries. Hollywood is not without its dark side though and its ugliest moment probably came in the blacklisting of cast and crew members during the Red Scare. Though many hard-working people (not just in Hollywood) lost their jobs, homes, families and lives based purely on their political beliefs during the Red Scare, some managed to persevere and make it out in one piece. Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was very much the latter and this biopic tackles his fascinating story.

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With a successful filmography under his belt and a promising future still ahead of him (a three-year contract promises to make him the highest paid writer in Hollywood), Dalton Trumbo is a talented man with a typewriter. He also happens to be vocal in his political beliefs (he’s a Communist) and this has led to scrutiny from his co-workers. When the FBI comes knocking and Trumbo is summoned to testify before Congress about alleged propaganda, he finds himself blacklisted, out of work, and facing potential prison time. Doing all he can in the face of seemingly impossible odds, Dalton takes to the black market of penning screenplays under different names and working on cheap B-movie crap to keep his family afloat. As years pass, we see the complex workings of one interesting man’s story play out on the screen.

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If any nominations come to TRUMBO this awards season, they will most likely be for Bryan Cranston’s performance. For someone who’s played one of the most memorable characters in television history, Cranston becomes Trumbo with a take-no-prisoners attitude and matter-of-fact way of speaking. The movie doesn’t idolize the screenwriter either in showing that he has definite faults, especially regarding tensions with his family as he furiously types out “black market” screenplays. Trumbo was no hero. He was a merely a man caught in insanely unfair situations that still seem disturbingly relevant in America today. Cranston owns the part and delivers a stunning performance.

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On the supporting side of things, TRUMBO boasts many different characters, some of whom only pop up for a couple of scenes. It goes to show just how well written and terrifically performed this story is that I never once had a single problem remembering who was who. The flow of the film feels natural and even. Diane Lane is a sympathetic as Trumbo’s strained wife, while Elle Fanning has never been better as Trumbo’s teenage daughter. Helen Mirren is positively hateable as Hedda Hopper (the human equivalent of TMZ during the 40’s and 50’s). Meanwhile, John Goodman is perfect as a studio exec who uses Trumbo’s services. Hands down, Goodman also has the funniest scene of the entire running time (you’ll know it when you see it). Other memorable performances that I can’t fully elaborate on for lack of space include Michael Stuhlbarg, Alan Tudyk, Stephen Root, and Roger Bart.

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TRUMBO isn’t without a couple of problems though. Louis C.K. sticks out like a sore thumb in that his character (though essential to the story) doesn’t meld well with the tone of the film. Also, Dean O’Gorman looks remarkably like Kirk Douglas, but David James Elliot only sounds like John Wayne and doesn’t bear much resemblance to the iconic actor. The movie can also get a little too melodramatic during a couple of moments. However, these sappy scenes don’t detract from the rest of the stellar qualities surrounding them.

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I’d rank TRUMBO next to 2012’s HITCHCOCK. Both are recent movies (from the 2010s) that take a look back at studio politics and life within the “Golden Age” of Hollywood. Though this film definitely examines a harsher and more frustrating tale. TRUMBO is a flat-out terrific story about a fascinating man during a horrible time. The film doesn’t get too bogged down in being a political statement either, but rather examines how someone succeeded through severe persecution. Though it has a couple of shortcomings (Louis C.K.’s performance and slight melodrama), TRUMBO comes highly recommended for those who might be interested in this sort of thing.

Grade: B+

CUT BANK (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 33 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence and Language

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Directed by: Matt Shakman

Written by: Roberto Patino

Starring: Liam Hemsworth, Billy Bob Thornton, John Malkovich, Teresa Palmer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Bruce Dern & Oliver Platt

CUT BANK is a movie that I discovered through its trailer. I previously had no idea this film even existed, in spite of it receiving a VOD release earlier this year and playing a couple of big film festivals last year. The well-cut trailer intrigued me as to whether or not this might be an undersung gem of 2015. So, throwing caution to the wind, I ventured out to the nearest Redbox and spent a dollar to see this flick. It seems that this is one of those many cases where the trailer is better than the movie its advertising, because CUT BANK is a film suffering from both an identity crisis and a bland script. The end result comes off like someone trying really hard to imitate the Coen brothers and not quite understanding what makes their movies work so well to begin with.

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Dwayne McLaren and his girlfriend, Cassandra, are recording a video in their small town of Cut Bank, Montana. Their little video shoot goes awry when they accidentally capture footage of a deadly crime in progress. The postman has been shot and killed by a mysterious stranger. Dwayne, who has been desperate to get out of his small town, sees this murder video as a possible ticket for a lot of money. However, the clumsy Sheriff Vogel is investigating the crime and finds that the simple crime is much more complicated than it originally appeared to be. While all of this is going on, creepy redneck Derby Milton is hunting, with deadly determination, for a mysterious package (that has disappeared with the mailman’s body). Through a series of events all of these characters will wind up encountering each other and not all of them will walk away alive.

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CUT BANK has a Coen vibe to it, whether that was intentional or not. However, it doesn’t quite have the story to back that up. Once an obvious plot revelation has been revealed in the first third, it becomes pretty apparent where everything will head. The screenplay doesn’t dissuade from that predictable route. One thing that CUT BANK does attempt to do is tell it’s crime story with a sense of humor. There are tense moments as well as attempts at comedy. However, the mash-up of these two genres doesn’t work nearly as well as other, better attempts that have come long before this film (e.g. anything from the Coens or Tarantino). Even with the tonal imbalance set aside, the main two protagonists in this story are ridiculously bland. Liam Hemsworth and Teresa Palmer just don’t sell their characters well, though the writing doesn’t do them any favors either. The likes of Billy Bob Thornton (who recently impressed in the first season of FX’s FARGO) and Bruce Dern (who received a Best Actor nomination for his performance in NEBRASKA) are handed equally boring roles. Thornton acts grumpy (what else is new?) and Dern acts even grumpier. That’s about all there is to their performances.

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This movie actually hits its stride in two subplots. John Malkovich is enjoyable to watch as the incapable Sheriff encountering his first murder on the job, which leads to scenes of him throwing up at crime scenes. A couple of Malkovich’s scenes also have him acting alongside Oliver Platt who plays a conniving businessman. However, Platt’s scenes only amount to about five minutes of total screen time. The best character and performance come from Michael Stuhlbarg, who’s unrecognizable as the central baddie. His character is the reclusive Derby Milton, a quiet hillbilly with a mean psychotic temper. Milton is just looking for his parcel and the mystery surrounding what exactly that is has a quirky pay-off, but not necessarily a satisfying one.

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CUT BANK is a weird, but predictable, movie that seems to be trying too hard to emulate the Coen brothers. It’s NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN by way of FARGO and doesn’t manage to measure up to either of those films or stand by itself. The tonal shifts don’t work nearly as well as the director and writer probably intended them to and the performances are mixed across the board. The best pieces of the film come in Malkovich, Platt, and Stuhlberg. Even then, I can’t fully recommend the whole 90-minute experience for those three performances alone. If you stumble across this on late-night cable or while scanning Netflix out of boredom, then you could do far worse. However, I wouldn’t recommend going through much effort to watch this middle-of-the-road thriller.

Grade: C

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