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.

The Mummy

A reboot of three different franchise series beginning in 1932, The Mummy is a fairly average Hollywood summer blockbuster action adventure monster flick that simply seems to be a money-making vehicle for the action superstar Tom Cruise. Tom Cruise portrays Nick Morton, a treasure hunter and mercenary for the U.S. Army, who, along with his wisecracking partner Chris Vail, played by comedian Jake Johnson, discover a large mysteriously secret Egyptian tomb in present-day Iraq. They soon realize with the help of the young and beautiful archaeologist Jenny Halsey, played by British actress Annabelle Wallis, that the mummy is a cursed Egyptian princess named Ahmanet, played by Algerian actress Sofia Boutella, who comes to life to make a pact with the evil Egyptian god Set. Morton finds himself possessed by the malevolent undead mummy princess and as a result survives a horrific plane crash in England with the sarcophagus. After battling reanimated corpses under Ahmanet’s spell, Morton and Jenny meet up with Dr. Henry Jekyll, played by Russell Crowe, who runs a secret organization known as Prodigium with the purpose of hunting down and destroying evil and supernatural forces. The organization’s soldiers are able to trap and keep Ahmanet prisoner in their underground base in London. However, her supernatural powers allow her to escape and wreak havoc on London with a dramatic CGI-enhanced sandstorm and creation of an undead army. At the end of the movie, Morton makes a drastic sacrifice in order to save Jenny and prevent Ahmanet’s further reign of terror. Overall, I found the so-called horror sequences not so scary and rather cheesy, and the film was less of an entertaining thrill ride like the most recent series starring Brendan Fraser that started in 1999. Its lackluster quality as a movie that did not really need to be rebooted and poor reception among critics and audiences is not a good starting point for Universal’s new Dark Universe movie series that wants to bring back the classic horror monsters.

Wonder Woman

Directed by the first female director of a superhero film with a female protagonist, Wonder Woman is one of the better comic book superhero movies that I have seen because it effectively blends action, humor, and drama, all underscored by a unique feminist approach. We first meet Diana, later known as Wonder Woman and played by the beautiful and strong Israeli actress Gal Gadot, as she grows up on the mystical island of Themyscira, which is home to the female warriors the Amazons, and begs her mother Queen Hippolyta to train as an Amazonian warrior. Her aunt General Antiope considered the greatest fighter, played by Robin Wright, secretly trains Diana to become one of the best warriors on the island. Throughout the first part of the film, we learn the back story based on ancient Greek mythology of the Amazons: they are a group of strong females created by Zeus to protect humanity against Ares, the god of war who murdered all of the gods except Zeus, and his corrupting influence on mankind to engage in war. Suddenly Diana’s idyllic life changes after she rescues Steve Trevor, played by the charismatic Chris Pine, who is an American pilot spying for the British whose airplane crashes off the coast of Themyscira. Eventually, Diana travels with Steve to help bring World War I to a peaceful end and prevent the use of a new deadly chemical weapon developed by the evil female scientist Doctor Maru, also known as Doctor Poison, under the guidance of the equally villainous German General Erich Ludendorff, played by Danny Huston. When Diana first arrives in London, the movie becomes more of a funny fish out of water story as she tries to understand feminine fashion and that she cannot carry a sword and shield out in public. Eventually, Diana and Steve along with Steve’s hodgepodge team, including Sameer the North African spy, Charlie the drunk Scottish marksman, and Chief the Native American smuggler, make their way to the Western front in Belgium in hopes of discovering Ludendorff’s weapons factory. In an unusual twist for the superhero genre, Diana is the one with super-strength and superhero powers who helps the male protagonists complete their mission and kill most of the bad guys. At times, Steve and other men are shocked and somewhat embarrassed when they see Diana outmaneuver and outfight them. The film ends with Diana facing an unlikely enemy and losing a newly loved one, but, otherwise, she successfully completes her mission to save human lives. Overall, I found the movie to lend a greatly refreshing take on the wildly successful yet male-dominated superhero genre by creating a strong-willed feminist superhero who can take down the bad guys herself without male intervention. The filmmaker is able to avoid the pitfalls of many recent DC Comics movies and craft a greatly entertaining action hero film, complete with realistic World War I settings and explosive CGI effects while subtly relaying a message of female empowerment and equality for Hollywood and beyond.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

The fifth film in the Hollywood Blockbuster movie series beginning with Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl released in 2003, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is an entertaining swashbuckling fantasy that ultimately suffers from being basically a retread of the previous films and not as fun and innovative as the original. The highlight of every Pirates of the Caribbean is Johnny Depp’s character Captain Jack Sparrow who is both charismatic and a buffoon that keeps audiences entertained. This film follows Henry who is the son of Will Turner, previously played by Orlando Bloom, and the beautiful Elizabeth Swann, previously played by Keira Knightley, as he embarks on an adventure to release his father from a curse by finding the mythical Trident of Poseidon. He is faced with daunting obstacles, especially after encountering the villainous undead Spanish Captain Salazar and his equally cursed crew. Salazar, played by Oscar-winner Javier Bardem, is also trying to find the Trident to break his spell and leaves a path of shipwrecks to enact revenge. At the same time, a young woman named Carina is imprisoned for witchcraft and eventually meets up with Henry and Jack, and they all escape after Carina tells them of a way to find the Trident of Poseidon. Also, Captain Barbossa, played by Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush, is searching for Jack while Salazar pursues him and destroys much of Barbossa’s fleet. After eventually making a deal with Salazar, Barbossa switches allegiance to Jack, Henry, and Carina in hopes of finding the Trident. All of the film’s constant, almost excessive compared to the other movies, swashbuckling and high-speed and often explosive maritime chases across the Caribbean finally lead all of the characters to an island and an epic fantastical CGI-enhanced sea battle. Overall, I found it to be your typical summer blockbuster sequel that was an unnecessary addition to the already bloated Pirates of the Caribbean franchise; the originality is lost at sea, and it feels like the same movie as the others, even with the new young characters Henry and Carina appearing as look-alikes of Will and Elizabeth. 

Beauty and the Beast

Based on the beloved Disney animated feature released in 1991, Beauty and the Beast is a visually spectacular film that faithfully retains many of the same elements of the original, including being filled with recognizable songs and an enjoyable family friendly experience. As Disney has done for many of its famous animated classics, the movie is a live-action reinterpretation of a fairy tale about an unorthodox romance between a terrifyingly ugly beast, portrayed by Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey fame, and a beautiful young French country girl, played by Emma Watson of Harry Potter fame. Having not seeing the original in many years and not remembering it being a musical, the resulting adaptation remains very much a musical, which leads to an overall joyous and fun atmosphere, despite containing several dark and dramatic moments. Watson’s character Belle who is very attached to her father, played by Kevin Kline, finds herself a prisoner in the large and decrepit castle of the Beast who has been cursed for his prior life as a selfish and cruel prince and will remain a monster until he finds true love. To her surprise and eventual delight, Belle discovers that the entire castle is also enchanted and that many of the servants have been turned into previously inanimate objects, such as a sweet and motherly teapot voiced by Emma Thompson, an officious clock voiced by Ian McKellen, and a talkative candelabra voiced by Ewan McGregor. Assisted by CGI, the filmmakers did a terrific job of realistically bringing many of the characters to life and creating a visually arresting magical world, components essential to the animated version. The costumes and sets also really capture the setting of the French countryside in the late 1700s, albeit a glossed over and probably unrealistic depiction of real life at the time. Overall, I found it to be a rather good live-action remake of a now classic story that will surely delight fans of the original and other Disney animated movies, in addition to those simply looking for a light-hearted family flick.

Kong: Skull Island

Part of a long line of films revolving around the classic monster King Kong who first appeared in 1933, Kong: Skull Island is a fun and stylish action-adventure flick that is unlike any other King Kong movie by being heavily influenced by the 1979 Vietnam-set film Apocalypse Now. John Goodman plays the director of a secretive government
organization investigating the supernatural who leads a group of researchers and Army personnel in 1973 to an unexplored island called Skull Island that may reveal unusual creatures. After their first encounter with King Kong, the expeditionary group gets
split up and must cross the mysteriously dangerous island to reach their helicopter rendezvous pickup point. The soldiers led by a gung-ho lieutenant colonel, played by Samuel L. Jackson, lean on their militaristic instincts and feel that Kong is a threat and must be eliminated with military force. On the other hand, the other group comprising of a mercenary and former officer in the British Special Air Service, played by Tom Hiddleston, and a young female photographer and pacifist, played by Oscar-winner Brie Larson, sympathize with Kong after realizing that he is the protector of the island and the human inhabitants that they encounter. The latter group are amazed to discover an American soldier, played by John C. Reilly, who has been stranded on the island since 1944 after crash landing his airplane towards the end of World War II. Similar to Marlon Brando’s elusive character who lives deep in the jungles of Vietnam with natives in Apocalypse Now, John C. Reilly’s character named Marlow has become the de facto leader
of the indigenous people and warns the newcomers of the dangers of Skull Island, particularly the sinister creatures known as the Skullcrawlers. Eventually, the militaristic group pull out all the stops, including napalm and other explosives, to try and kill Kong while the group that met up with Marlow try all their best to save Kong knowing his role as the island’s godlike protector. Overall, I found it to be an enjoyable moviegoing experience that provided all the cheap thrills and excitement from a typical
action movie involving monsters but went one step further by capturing the mood of the 1970’s and the Vietnam War in its striking resemblance to the classic Apocalypse Now.