The Final Year

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Directed By: Greg Barker
Runtime: 89 minutes
Studio: Magnolia Pictures

This documentary, an attempt to illuminate the behind-the-scenes activity of President Obama’s foreign policy team, is an effort whose ambition greatly exceeded its ability to deliver. Alternating between scenes of Secretary of State John Kerry, U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes, and, almost as an afterthought, President Barack Obama, the movie, depending for emotional resonance on audience foreknowledge of the issues at stake and the outcome of the 2016 election, fails to provide a clear context, or rationale, for all this globe-trotting.

Carefully avoiding political polemics, and lacking a clear point of view, other than, perhaps, a confused thesis that diplomacy is better than military force except when it’s not, the movie is an occasionally bittersweet cinema verite mishmash of busy people on airplanes, at conferences, world historical sites, or their cars and offices. While focusing more on who these people are, and why they do what they do, would have made a much better movie, the few insights on display are mere interludes between yet more airplanes arriving, worldwide handshaking, and diplomatic conversations without much context.

The movie’s most emotionally powerful and engaging sequence, election night 2016 at Democratic headquarters, is what this movie might have been about if its makers hadn’t deliberately avoided the politics of Obama’s last year in office. That gloomy shadow, all but ignored by the filmmakers, overhangs everything that the foreign policy team does for most of the movie, but requires the lived experience of the audience to recognize it.

This movie is not really a bad one, mostly because its subjects work at the fascinating pinnacle of American global influence, but it’s not a very good one, either. It only hints at the fragility of nearly every diplomatic encounter, and never digs deeper than the most superficial layer. With a subject as vast as the American foreign policy establishment, during a year as fraught with unexpected consequences as 2016 turned out to be, maybe it was doomed from the start.

Recommendation: Watch it on HBO if you haven’t got anything better to do.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

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Directed by Paul McGuigan
Written by Matt Greenhalgh
Based on Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool by Peter Turner
Music by J. Ralph
Cinematography Ula Pontikos
Edited by Nick Emerson
Rating: R (for language, some sexual content and brief nudity)
Runtime: 105 minutes
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics

Starring Annette Benning, Jamie Bell, Vanessa Redgrave, Julie Walters, Kenneth Cranham, Stephen Graham, Frances Barber, Leanne Best

Cleverly bookended with title graphics blending film head leader at the beginning, and film foot leader at the end, this movie is about Gloria Graham’s rekindled romance with Peter Turner, her junior by almost 30 years, during the last two years (1979-1981) of her life, before she died, at the age of 57, from a cancerous abdominal tumor the size of a football. Who? The actress who won the 1952 Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for just over nine minutes of screen time in The Bad and The Beautiful, preserved in 2002 by the Library of Congress for its cultural relevancy, and available for rent at Amazon Video, that’s who. Fortunately, if her name still doesn’t ring any bells, it doesn’t really matter, because the movie is less about her stardom than it is about the ephemerality of fame, the inevitability of death, and the absurdity and value of love.

Tackling such rich themes, it’s not a great film, but not a waste of time, either. Emotionally moving when it should be, respectful of Gloria Graham herself, with original scenes and photos, unphotoshopped with Annette Benning’s image, sprinkled throughout, the movie remembers an actress whom younger people never knew, and those old enough to remember have, most likely, long since forgotten.

Indulging in flashbacks to fill in the backstory, some awkward, some brilliant, the movie is least convincing in its hurried depiction of Peter’s conversion from mild infatuation to full blown love, but it doesn’t irreparably hurt the main story: the painful last years of a woman, in thrall to her past beauty, willfully blind to her own age and illness, and her last affair with the young man who loves her in spite of her shortcomings. All of the actors, in subtle and nuanced performances, bring this sad story of unlikely love, waning fame, and family struggles to life, and death, without the potential histrionics that might have ruined it.

To be sure, the movie is not without its faults: stereotypical lighting (bright yellow for the happy times, dusky orange for the sad times), too many confusing flashbacks without orienting time titles, a misguided use of obvious stage sets against rear screen projections, but it’s virtues, excellent acting, understated direction, and attention to period detail bring honesty and poignancy to the scenes that matter: the lovers’ confrontation with her mother (more Vanessa Redgrave, please!) and sister, the discord and sympathy in Peter’s family, and Gloria’s final few days and departure from Liverpool, on the day she died in New York.

Rating: Worth seeing.

The Shape of Water

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Directed by Guillermo del Toro 
Screenplay by
Guillermo del Toro
Vanessa Taylor

Starring
Sally Hawkins
Michael Shannon
Richard Jenkins
Doug Jones
Michael Stuhlbarg
Octavia Spencer  

Music by Alexandre Desplat
Cinematography Dan Laustsen
Edited by Sidney Wolinsky
Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures
Running time
123 minutes

Rating: R (for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence and language)

 

With films like The Devil’s Backbone, and his fantasy masterpiece, Pan’s Labyrinth, to his credit, there’s no denying that Guillermo del Toro is a cinematically imaginative, gifted writer/director, capable of creating sumptuous visuals, complex plots, and fully realized characters, but his resumé also includes a lot of contrived, manipulative, gratuitously violent schlock, like Blade 2, Crimson Peak, Pacific Rim, and the FX TV series, The Strain. Despite the critical praise and awards showered on The Shape of Water, I found it to be a frustrating, unconvincing amalgam of both tendencies.

Featuring gorgeous cinematography, accomplished editing, and a stellar cast, led by Sally Hawkins and Michael Shannon, del Toro pays homage to 1954’s The Creature From The Black Lagoon, a literal “creature feature,” by reframing it as a 50’s romantic fantasy in which the real monster is a sadistic human. As skilled as he and his actors are, though, del Toro fails to make the characters or romance convincing, or stop himself from indulging in excessive and unnecessary spilled blood.

With deliberate contrivance, Sally Hawkins’ Elisa is not only a mute, low paid cleaning woman, but a single Latina as well, guaranteeing sympathy from the first frame, while Michael Shannon’s Strickland is the heartless, cruel, loud, overbearing director of some clandestine government agency, an irresistibly contemptuous combination. Doug Jones’ Amphibian Man’s marvelously lovable eyes, all too human lips and chin, appreciation of hard-boiled eggs and classical music, and agonized response to Strickland’s painful, irrational torture, is inescapably pitiful. Richard Jenkins’ lonely gay man, Olivia Spencer’s shameless revival of a black female stereotype, and Michael Stuhlbarg’s self-sacrificing “good” scientist are stock characters, driven by a plot intended to pluck an audience’s heartstrings, and ensure that no one underestimates just how cartoonishly awful Strickland is.

The most important element of the story, what determines the success or failure of the entire movie, is the unconvincing development of the amphibian biped/human female, interspecies romance, and its consummation. It’s at that crucial moment, when Elisa disrobes, in a deliberately flooded bathroom, in order to have sex with a scaly, web-fingered, gill breathing member of another species, that my will to disbelieve was squashed. I never doubted that she had a real soft spot for the gentle, music loving, speechless, amphibian animal of undetermined sex, rescued by her from the super-evil clutches of that monster, Strickland, and living mostly in her bathtub. Like any abused animal, I felt affection and pity for it, too, but I would never have sex with it. Whatever drives Elisa to see the creature as a lover, or the creature to reciprocate, is never developed, leaving it up to the audience to just accept it, or not. I didn’t.

What follows this unbelievable moment is predictable melodrama, grotesque, gratuitous violence, and possibly the most manipulative plot device of all: implications of the creature’s possible god-like powers, including resurrection of the dead. It saddens me that so much undeniable talent was invested in such a poorly written story. Maybe it’s the zeitgeist, but why this movie has charmed so many people completely escapes me.