The Shape of Water

Directed by critically acclaimed Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro who is best known for 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth and 2004’s Hellboy, The Shape of Water is a beautiful and strange fantasy drama benefiting from evocative cinematography and terrific acting performances from a stellar cast. Set in early 1960s Baltimore, the story follows Elisa Esposito, played by the always brilliant Golden Globe winner Sally Hawkins, who is a lonely and compassionate mute woman working as a janitor for the mysterious Occam Aerospace Research Center. Her life dramatically changes when a new so-called Asset arrives at the laboratory after being discovered by the vicious Colonel Richard Strickland, played by the remarkably creepy Oscar-nominated actor Michael Shannon. Primarily living a quiet life alone with the exception of her charming coworker Zelda, played by Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, and eccentric neighbor Giles, played by Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins, Elisa develops a very close and warm relationship with the Asset, a sea creature that somewhat resembles a human. Strickland along with his overly officious boss General Hoyt, played by Nick Searcy, only see the Asset as a scientific experiment who can possibly help with space technology and allow the United States military to have a competitive advantage over the Soviet Union. Fully aware that the military leadership has plans to exterminate the Asset so that it cannot fall into the hands of the Soviets, Elisa devises a plan to free the Asset from the laboratory with the help of Zelda, Giles, and the secretive scientist Dr. Robert Hoffstetler, played by Michael Stuhlbarg best known for his role on the HBO TV series Boardwalk Empire. Although it is a very peculiar story and features a somewhat grotesque fantastical creature, the movie becomes something much more than simple fantasy; the dark and mysterious setting created by the mesmerizing cinematograph blends with the powerfully poignant emotions of the characters to create a very special movie. Overall, I found it to be one of the best films of the year despite probably being one of the weirdest movies that the audience will see; even though the subject matter may not be for everyone, it is definitely a very worthwhile cinematic experience.

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Justice League

Directed by Zach Snyder who is best known for 2006’s 300 and 2009’s Watchmen, Justice League follows a long line of superhero comic book movies that ultimately falls short of reaching the more entertaining adaptations in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As the sixth installment in DC Comics Extended Universe that desperately tries to emulate the success of Marvel, the film is unfortunately only marginally better than the other critically unsuccessful installments, including 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and 2016’s Suicide Squad. Similar to The Avengers, the plot revolves around a group of famous superheroes who come together to fight off a villain trying to destroy the world. An alien creature awoken after thousands of years, Steppenwolf, along with his army of Parademons, is set on conquering Earth by locating three so-called Mother Boxes whose combined power would set off the destruction of the world. Eventually, Diana Prince who is better known as Wonder Woman, played by Gal Gadot, is alerted to Steppenwolf’s malevolent goal and eventually joins forces with the superheroes Batman who is played by Ben Affleck, The Flash who is played by Ezra Miller, Aquaman who is played by Jason Momoa, and Cyborg who is played by Ray Fisher. After their first major battle with Steppenwolf in Gotham City, the team learns there may be a way to resurrect Superman, played by Henry Cavill, who died at the end of Batman v Superman and is universally mourned as one of the last great heroes. The ending is fairly formulaic because it involves the newly formed Justice League entering into one epic final battle with the villain Steppenwolf and the outcome has major repercussions for Earth and humanity. Overall, although it has many fine actors, the movie feels like a hodgepodge of several different superhero action flicks that includes several new characters that are not properly introduced for the casual filmgoer. It should have followed the extremely successful formula of 2017’s Wonder Woman in which the characters’ back stories are told in greater detail and thereby the audience feels a greater emotional connection.

Thor: Ragnarok

Directed by New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi who is best known for the brilliant 2016 comedy Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Thor: Ragnarok is a wildly entertaining and hilarious comic book superhero movie that is unlike most of the other sixteen films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the third installment of the Thor franchise, we first meet Thor, played by Chris Hemsworth, as a prisoner on a fiery planet who eventually escapes to return to his home planet Asgard to discover that his father and ruler of the realm Odin, played by Anthony Hopkins, is living on Earth and his trickster brother Loki, played by Tom Hiddleston, is the de facto leader. Both brothers learn from their father that there is a prophecy soon to take place known as Ragnarok that says that Asgard will be destroyed. Soon afterwards, Thor meets his secret evil sister Hela, played by the particularly devious Cate Blanchett, whose appearance will hasten Ragnarok through her destruction and enslavement of those living on Asghar. On a desperate mission to get rid of his powerful sister, Thor finds himself on an extremely colorful alien planet called Sakaar, which serves as the garbage planet for the universe, where he is captured by the female bounty hunter Scrapper 142, played by Tessa Thompson. She turns over Thor to the comically over-the-top ruler of the planet known as the Grandmaster, played by a perfectly cast Jeff Goldblum, who forces Thor to participate in a gladiator-like tournament against the dim-witted yet strong Hulk, voiced by Mark Ruffalo, who appeared with Thor in The Avengers movies. After several funny reunion scenes with Thor and Hulk, they team up with Scrapper 142 who turns out to be from Asgard and embark on a joy ride adventure to save Asgard and kill the deadly Hela. Reminding me of the equally comedic Guardians of the Galaxy films and the vulgar Deadpool movie, the film is chock-full of self-deprecating humor that pokes fun at superhero franchises and references to the other movies as well as today’s pop culture. It also includes completely random and unexpected cameos that further conveys a fun and sometimes ridiculous atmosphere. Overall, I found it to be one of the more entertaining Marvel movies and thereby provides a refreshing reboot of the increasingly stale comic book superhero genre. Even if you are not a fan of comic book superheroes, I would highly recommend going to the film if you are looking for an amusing and good old time at the movies.

The Mountain Between Us

Based on a novel of the same name written by Charles Martin in 2011, The Mountain Between Us is an interesting take on the romance genre by fashioning it as a survival movie and whose greatest asset is the always terrific acting performances of Golden Globe winner Idris Elba and Academy Award winner Kate Winslet. Both are strangers who find themselves chartering a small plane out of Idaho because they need to be somewhere after flight cancelations. Dr. Ben Bass, played by Elba, is a talented neurosurgeon who must be back in Baltimore to perform an emergency pediatric surgery, while Alex Martin is an acclaimed photographer who must be home for her wedding the next day. Piloted by Beau Bridges’ character and accompanied by his loyal dog, their small aircraft crashes in the extremely remote mountains of the High Uintas Wilderness somewhere in Utah en route to Denver. Both Ben and Alex, along with the dog, survive the crash but quickly realize that they are stranded because no flight plan was filed and none of the radios and cell phones are working. The more pragmatic and cautious Ben urges Alex who injured her leg that they must stay at the crash site in hopes that rescuers will come to them. Despite her condition, the much more adventurous and emotional Alex decides that it would be in their best interest to hike down the mountains to find civilization and survive. Eventually, they decide to venture through the increasingly brutal wilderness even with the full knowledge that it could lead to their deaths. Throughout the ordeal, they discuss fairly intimate details of their lives, including Ben’s wife and Alex’s engagement and marriage ceremony that she is missing. Their unique bond caused by the human desire to survive over time leads to a romantic spark, which puts their future lives into question if they make it out of the mountains alive. For better or worse, the movie is a relatively simple romantic story of two strangers coming together and finding love in the most unusual way possible. Overall, I was expecting more of a survival movie with thrilling adventures and came feeling like something was lacking to create a movie worthy of the immense talents of the two actors.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

The sequel to the widely successful 2015 film Kingsman: The Secret Service from the director Matthew Vaughn, Kingsman: The Golden Circle is a crowd-pleasing action spy comedy that like its predecessor has an irreverent twist and is brimming with comically over-the-top violence. It takes place a year after the original and follows Eggsy, played by Taron Egerton, as a newly recruited member of the secret British intelligence agency known as Kingsman. Towards the beginning, he is still dealing with the loss of his mentor and fellow agent Galahad, played by Colin Firth, when the entire Kingsman organization is obliterated after missile strikes on its safehouses, including its London headquarters at a high-end tailor. Eggsy along with the only other surviving agent Merlin, played by Mark Strong, are confronted with a vengeful former recruit and a secretive criminal organization known as The Golden Circle. They must activate the so-called Doomsday protocol, which connects them with a similar secret American organization based out of a whiskey distillery in Kentucky called Statesman and led by Jeff Bridges’ character Champagne. Eggsy and Merlin must join forces with the very Western Statesman agents Whiskey, played by Channing Tatum, and Tequila, played by Pedro Pascal from the hit Netflix TV show Narcos, and are subsequently taken on a globe-trotting, shootout-filled mission to save millions. They are put into action after a previously unknown and extremely powerful drug trafficker named Poppy, played by Julianne Moore, has laced her illicit drugs with a deadly poison that will kill millions of drug users throughout the world unless the President of the United States agrees to legalize drugs at which point she will release the antidote. One of the more bizarre characters, Poppy is portrayed as ridiculously vicious and lives in a 1950s-themed headquarters in the jungles of Cambodia where she also has Elton John held captive. Eggsy learns that no one can be truly trusted and must also please and protect his beautiful girlfriend who happens to be the Crown Princess of Sweden during some particularly inappropriate missions. Overall, I found it to be an entertaining movie that contains some of the same elements of fun and thrills as the original, but, unfortunately, falls short of the first film’s originality and hilarity and is hampered by its bloated two and a half hour runtime. 

War for the Planet of the Apes

The third installment of the third movie series franchise that began with 1968’s Planet of the Apes starring Charlton Heston and was revamped in the current series starting with 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, War for the Planet of the Apes like the previous two films represents a dramatic tonal and quality shift, arguably for the better. The movie takes itself much more seriously and delves into the negative impacts of modern science and the oppression of the unknown other. Portrayed by the great CGI motion capture artist Andy Serkis who is best known for creating the Gollum character in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the first real intelligent ape Caesar is the leader in hiding with the remaining faction of apes in Northern California. Caesar’s desire for peace is destroyed by a renegade unit of the American military trying to eradicate the Simian Flu that has decimated the human population and made the apes intelligent. Serving as a prequel to the original 1968 film before the apes take over the world, Caesar and his followers are portrayed as sympathetic downtrodden minorities that are brutally oppressed by mankind out of fear. The plot line follows Caesar who suffers a tragedy at the hands of the humans and tries to lead his group to safety in the desert far away from humans. To protect the other apes and avenge the murder of his family, Caesar breaks off into a small group to enact “gorilla” warfare on the barbaric human militia, including its ruthless leader simply known as the Colonel, played by the terrifically vicious Woody Harrelson. Along with a orphaned young girl suffering from a mysterious ailment, Caesar’s ragtag group discover that the Colonel has imprisoned the remaining apes that were supposed to escape to the desert. The apes who prove to be smarter than the humans must figure out a way to rescue those enslaved at the remote former military outpost on the California border. The Colonel’s forces are also faced with an attack from a different group of soldiers to the North that has a more sympathetic view of the apes. Although it may sound strange, the movie does an excellent job of humanizing the apes through the emotionally powerful script and the remarkable magic of CGI to create realistic human-like apes. Overall, I found it to be a very high-quality blockbuster that brings a certain level of seriousness and cinematic beauty wholly unexpected from a story about talking apes.

Spider-Man: Homecoming

The second reboot of the Spider-Man film series with the first starring Tobey Maguire beginning in 2002 and the second starring Andrew Garfield beginning in 2012, Spider-Man: Homecoming is rather unnecessary but nevertheless spins a entertaining web that takes a more lighthearted approach to the superhero. Played by the fresh-faced British actor Tom Holland, Peter Parker/Spider-Man is approached by Tony Stark, played by Robert Downey Jr., about the possibility of becoming a full-fledged member of the Avengers after assisting in an operation featured in the 2016 Marvel movie Captain America: Civil War. Unlike the prior Spider-Man films, Parker appears to be much younger and is shown as a relatively typical highschooler who tries to fit in and impress his popular crush Liz. Without telling anyone, including his guardian Aunt May, played by Marisa Tomei, Parker dons his Spider-Man outfit to combat mostly petty criminal activities throughout New York City. Eventually, he is faced with a much more dangerous criminal, a spiteful weapons dealer named Adrian Toomes who has stolen alien technology from the Department of Damage Control following an alien attack on New York. Toomes, played by the film’s real star Michael Keaton, uses the alien weaponry to develop a flying suit to become the villain Vulture and continues to steal more alien technology to enrich himself and increase his powers. Parker is faced with the dangers of being a superhero after he must rescue Liz and his other classmates during a trip to Washington, D.C. Back home in his “real life,” he makes a shocking discovery when he takes the young and beautiful Liz to the homecoming dance and must make a fateful decision to finally stop Toomes. Overall, I found it to be a fun cinematic experience that told a funny and more human side of Spider-Man, and I enjoyed it more than I thought I would because of my initial misgivings about the originality of a movie that has been rebooted several times in the past decade.