Lightning Round Reviews, Part 3: More of 2017

Phew. Really trying to make it through the full list of films from last year, and once again I find that I'm going to have to extend this series to a Part 4, as there are a handful of movies that I haven't gotten to yet, but will soon. Here's the latest batch:

PROFESSOR MARSTON AND THE WONDER WOMEN * * *

The real life of the guy who came up with Wonder Woman is  not  what you'd expect

The real life of the guy who came up with Wonder Woman is not what you'd expect

A sexy, vibrant account of a true story most people would find extremely surprising- the very unconventional life of Dr. William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans), the man who created Wonder Woman. He was a professor and psychologist, the inventor of the lie detector, and a man who lived the last twenty years of his life in a polyamorous union with his wife and fellow psychologist Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) and their lover Olive (Bella Heathcote), with whom he had two children with each. Both women and his interest in S&M would ultimately serve as his inspiration for the creation of the most popular female superhero in the world. This is the kind of “forbidden love” that’s not approved of today, to say nothing of the America of the 1930’s. Their arrangement isn’t judged by writer-director Angela Robinson though, who seems fascinated by it, as we can’t help but be as well. However, I myself suspect, given that the two women continued to live together as a couple for the rest of their lives after Marston’s death (without seeking out a third partner), that this may have been a case of two lesbians who sought the chance to make the best of their situation by using a man who was encouraging of their love (as long as he was part of it), to hide their relationship while still being able to live together and have children….but draw your own conclusions.

 

COCO * * *

Pixar remains the expert at drawing tears from the masses

Pixar remains the expert at drawing tears from the masses

Pixar’s latest film should be given a lot of credit for totally embracing a story centered on Mexican traditions, and even setting the story in Mexico itself. Little Miguel wants desperately to be a musician against the wishes of his domineering family, and when he gets lost in the world of the dead on Dia de los Muertes, he must find his way back while figuring out how to fulfill his dream and please his family at the same time. I won’t say the story is exactly revolutionary, but it fulfills the Pixar emotional requirement of making everyone in the audience cry senselessly by the time the credits roll. And needless to say, the visuals are gorgeous, but I do think the movie hedges its bets over whether it ought to be a full on musical or just musically inclined (should have gone with the former), and I also think the songs in this should have been kept in Spanish. Music has a way of transcending language with its own style of communication, which, oddly enough, is part of the film's message, yet they didn't think American audiences could handle Spanish lyrics? 

 

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME * * *

An early 80's love affair is a heartbreaker

An early 80's love affair is a heartbreaker

Luca Guadagnino directs this sensitive, coming of age tale of first love, in this case, a love between 17-year-old Elio (Timothee Chalamet) and the older Oliver (Armie Hammer) a student of his professor father who comes to visit in the summer of 1983. It’s kind of a coming out story, although Elio appears to be coming out mostly to himself, as he realizes the passion of his feelings for this other man, while still pursuing romances with teenage girls. The script was written by the 89-year-old filmmaker James Ivory, making quite a comeback after all these years, and the direction is lush, sensual, and uses the natural romance of its Italian setting to bring up feelings of nostalgia or even longing for a summer passion of your own. This is very much a story about the internal feelings of men (all female characters are pushed aside as props in fact), and the truth is I have never been on board with romanticizing relationships between teenagers and adults, no matter how “consensual” the affair may be. So that may be a barrier of mine that just can’t be broken, yet the performances and the filmmaking are so accomplished here that it demands appreciation.

 

THE SHAPE OF WATER * * * 1/2

A beautiful ode to the past and movie monsters

A beautiful ode to the past and movie monsters

Guillermo del Toro’s latest is an R-rated fairy tale and a tribute to monster movies and the disenfranchised, taking place in early 1960’s, Cold War era America where Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a woman with no speaking ability, works as a janitor in a government lab and falls in love with the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Well, he may as well be. It’s del Toro favorite Doug Jones in his usual full makeup job, who is being held captive and more than responds to Elisa’s affections. Then it’s up to Elisa and her friends, neighbor Richard Jenkins and co-worker Octavia Spencer, to rebel against the white male patriarchy (represented by Michael Shannon in a typical over the top, alpha male performance) and save the monster. This is del Toro’s most fully realized, stunningly directed film since Pan’s Labyrinth, and holds shots and sequences in it that are simply breathtaking. Even if you aren’t fully invested in the romance itself (the monster does come across as more animal than human, which brings up certain connotations regarding Elisa’s proclivities), the movie is a superb technical and storytelling achievement.

 

I, TONYA * * *

Margot Robbie deglams to play the notorious Tonya Harding

Margot Robbie deglams to play the notorious Tonya Harding

Tonya Harding is a divisive figure, to say the least. There’s no defending what was done to Nancy Kerrigan and Harding’s clear knowledge of the situation beforehand. But the movie of her life and dramatization of the “incident,” as it’s referred to here, is an entertaining and provocative exploration of the cycle of poverty and is so well-acted by Margot Robbie in the title role, Allison Janney as her monstrous mother, and Sebastian Stan as Tonya’s idiotic, abusive ex-husband that it’s easy to get wrapped up in the story as it’s happening and save the questioning of the characters for later. Craig Gillespie creates a kind of mockumentary style, darkly comedic take on Harding’s life, but she is hardly shown to be an angel or even a decent person. It does show what kinds of people can come out of an environment riddled with constant abuse and poverty, and the picture it paints is not pretty. I think the movie could go a little tougher on the tabloid sensationalism that sprung from 90’s cases like this one and the OJ Simpson trial, really explore what reveling in the hunger for heroes, villains and humiliation reveals about American society, but it stops short there, keeping the focus on Tonya herself. Does Harding deserve that? Well, I don’t know- did Jordan Belfort of The Wolf of Wall Street deserve that, or OJ Simpson for that matter? There’s never been a rule that movies are only made about American heroes. It also says right from the start that much of this might not have happened as shown, giving the movie an easy out in terms of whose “truth” is reality. Given the state of the world today, the parallels are obvious. 

 

THE POST * * * 1/2

Freedom of the press is once more under assault and Spielberg had to respond

Freedom of the press is once more under assault and Spielberg had to respond

Steven Spielberg’s latest episode in his American history saga (after Lincoln and Bridge of Spies) is a rollicking entertainment, an account of the drama surrounding the Washington Post’s decision to publish the Pentagon Papers in defiance of a federal injunction in 1971, a decision which put the paper in the national spotlight and forever changed its image. It’s also a love letter to American journalism, his answer to the current administration’s attacks on the free press, and the story of a woman who came out of her late father and husband’s shadows to reach heights that they never did. How’s that for timely? Meryl Streep is terrific as Katherine Graham, the new publisher of the family owned paper, who must manage the company’s going public during the crisis, while Tom Hanks is the famous Wapo editor Ben Bradlee, who pushes her to publish while attempting to change the focus at the paper from puff pieces to hard news. The atmosphere and environment of the newsrooms is meticulously recreated, recalling movies like Spotlight and All the President’s Men (which this is basically a prequel to) and as always Spielberg makes good use of the enormous casts willing to work with him (his movies are kind of like playing spot the TV actor). Spielberg being Spielberg, he can’t help but lather on the sentiment a bit at the end, but it takes nothing away from the crux of the story and the importance of the message, especially in today’s climate. Sometimes you need lessons from the past to remind you of what’s important in the present.