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Josh Reviews Robert Zemeckis’ Adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches

Robert Zemeckis’ new film adaptation of The Witches is now available on HBO Max.  The pedigree of this film had me immediately excited.  Robert Zemeckis is, of course, the director of some of my favorite films (the Back to the Future trilogy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and Contact).  I adore Roald Dahl’s original novel.  The film’s screenplay was written by Mr. Zemeckis, Kenya Barris (mastermind behind Black-ish), and Guillermo del Toro (a master of horror who is one of my favorite directors working today, responsible for such great films as Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water).  On the other hand, Mr. Zemeckis’ films haven’t connected with me in recent years; I haven’t really enjoyed his new movies since the one-two 2000 punch of What Lies Beneath and Cast Away.  What would I think of The Witches?

I liked it!  The film is a fun, all-ages tale.  It’s very competently made, with lovely visual effects and very likable characters to guide us through the tale.

Is The Witches a masterpiece?  No.  It doesn’t have the pop of startling originality that most of Guillermo del Toro’s films possess.  The adult aspects of most of Mr. del Toro’s work have been rounded off (the violence, the scares) — but how could they not have been?  This is an adaptation of a kids’ story!  So I’m not saying that’s the wrong choice.  But the film doesn’t grab me as viscerally as most of Mr. del Toro’s work does.  Nor is there anything in the film nearly as memorable as what can be found in Robert Zemeckis’ best films from the eighties and nineties (such as the movies I listed in the first paragraph, above).  So one should enter into The Witches with measured expectations.  That being said, I thoroughly enjoyed watching the film.  It’s easily Mr. Zemeckis’ best film in almost two decades.

The cast is terrific.  I love the choice to center the story on an African-American family.  Octavia Spencer (The Help, Hidden Figures, The Shape of Water) is spectacular as Grandma.  (Whereas in Roald Dahl’s novel Grandma was from Norway, here she is from Alabama.  The change works very well.)  Ms. Spencer’s charisma and her comedic chops make her the perfect fit for this tough, smart, maternal figure.  I loved watching her.  Young Jahzir Kadeem Bruno is great as Grandma’s grandson, the boy (whose name is never given in the book, nor the movie!) who finds himself on this adventure with the witches.  And I was delighted that Chris Rock voiced an older version of the boy!  I was not expecting Chris Rock’s voice to be the first voice I’d hear in this adaptation of … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Shape of Water

Guillermo del Toro’s latest masterpiece, The Shape of Water, is set in the early sixties.  Sally Hawkins plays Elisa, a mute woman who works as a janitor at a government installation.  Her routine, lonely life is shaken when she discovers that the scientists and military officers at the base have captured a monster: a humanoid amphibian creature whose ability to survive the pressures of the deep they believe holds the key to the U.S.’s successfully mastering the hostile conditions of outer space.  Elisa gradually develops a connection with the monster, and when she fears that the military is going to kill him, she hatches a plan with her friends, fellow janitor Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and her neighbor artist Giles (Richard Jenkins), to attempt to free him.

I adore the films of Guillermo del Toro, and The Shape of Water is a return to the near-perfection of Mr. del Toro’s best Spanish-language works such as Pan’s Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno) and The Devil’s Backbone.  Once again, Mr. del Toro has crafted a gorgeous fantasy film that is grounded in real-life settings with fully-realized, rich characters, and with a fantastically memorable new monster creature.  

The Shape of Water belongs to Sally Hawkins, who is magnificent as the mute, lonely Elisa.  Mr. del Toro and co-screenwriter Vanessa Taylor have created a beautifully drawn character, and Ms. Hawkins knocks the role out of the park with her deeply emotional, affecting performance.  And all without speaking a single word!  Without any dialogue or “internal monologue” narration, Ms. Hawkins and Mr. del Toro are nevertheless successful in creating a film that is focused on Elisa’s inner life.  It is her emotions, and her actions, that drive the film.  This is a very clever approach, and yet one that could have been fiendishly difficult to achieve.  Yet Ms. Hawkins’ phenomenal work makes this all sing.  This is an incredible performance, and it is worth seeing this film just to watch what Ms. Hawkins is able to achieve.

Mr. del Toro’s films always show an enormous affection for the fantasy/monster creatures.  Each of his films contain wonderfully detailed, well-thought-out and beautifully-realized new monster/creatures, and the amphibious creature in The Shape of Water is a wonderful addition to Mr. del Toro’s filmography.  Mr. del Toro’s frequent collaborator, Doug Jones, does an extraordinary job in bringing this creature to life.  Although the creature, like Elisa, does not speak a word in the film, the gorgeous makeup/prosthetics design, combined with Mr. Jones’ incredible performance, communicate exactly what this creature is thinking and feeling.  I have seen many talented actors whose performance was lost under elaborate prosthetics or makeup, but Mr. Jones is a master at this sort of … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Hidden Figures

February 3rd, 2017
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Hidden Figures, based on the recent book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, tells the true story of three pioneering African-American women: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson.  These three remarkable women worked for NASA in the 1960’s and beyond.  Katherine Johnson calculated the launch windows and trajectories for many of the flights for Project Mercury, including Alan Shephard’s first American manned spaceflight in 1961 and John Glenn’s first American orbit of the Earth in 1962.  She was later involved in the moon landings.  Dorothy Vaughan was the first African-American woman to be promoted to being a head of personnel at NASA, and she became a leader in computer programming, mastering the FORTRAN coding language of the early electronic computers at NASA.  Mary Jackson became NASA’s first African-American woman engineer, winning a court case in order to be allowed to take classes at a whites-only school that were necessary in order for her to qualify for that engineer position.

HiddenFigures

The film Hidden Figures tells the story of the friendship between these three African-American women, and chronicles the years between 1957-1962 in which they, and other African-American women, played key roles in the groundbreaking work being done at NASA that resulted in Alan Shephard and Scott Glenn’s historic flights in 1961-62, and eventually in the United States’ winning the race to land on the moon.

This is an incredible story, and a very important one that has been mostly ignored by the many historical accounts of the space race in the sixties.  I’m delighted that Ms. Shetterly’s book, and now this film directed by Theodore Melfi and written by Allison Schroeder and Mr. Melfi, is telling this story.

The power of this true story carries the film, and makes Hidden Figures an enjoyable film even though I often felt the incredible true story was let down by the filmmaking choices.

I saw Hidden Figures soon after seeing Manchester by the Sea, a film that was striking in its naturalism — that film felt so viscerally real, with fully-fleshed-out characters and dialogue that felt honest and realistic to how people really talk and behave.  Hidden Figures, by contrast, felt to me to be full of scenes that felt declarative and fake, scenes whose purpose was to make a point or to ensure the audience understood something, rather than reflecting the way anyone actually would talk or act.  Take an early scene with Mary, in which we see her with a group of engineers testing a capsule in a wind-tunnel.  Mary’s supervisor encourages her to become an engineer, and Mary responds with a very blunt statement, saying something like: “I’m a Negro woman, no one will let me become … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Snowpiercer

An attempt to reverse global warming has gone catastrophically wrong, resulting in frigid temperatures covering the entire planet and wiping out almost all life on Earth.  The few survivors of humanity exist inside Snowpiercer, an enormous train on a track that circles the globe once each year.  The product of a wealthy inventor, Snowpiercer is a fully self-contained, self-supporting ecosystem.  But within the train, a strict class system has developed, with the wealthy in the front cars living a life of luxury, while the impoverished are crammed in together in the tail section, living in gulag-like conditions.  Curtis (Chris Evans), assisted by the wizened old man Gilliam (William Hurt), decides to start a revolution, breaking out of the tail section and leading his followers through one train-car after another, on their way to the front and the revered, perpetual-motion engine.

Any time I get to see an original work of science fiction I am happy, and the South Korean film Snowpiercer (adapted from the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige) sure is original.  The film reminds me of the wacko-crazy extraordinary visual sensibility of Terry Gilliam.  (is it a coincidence that William Hurt’s character is named Gilliam?  I doubt it.)  The movie is gorgeous, a feast for the eyes, with extraordinary work done by the sets and costume departments.  Each train-car is its own unique, fully-contained world.  Each time Curtis and his fellows enter a new car, so are we the audience drawn into a wonderful new, fully-imagined reality.  It is extraordinary.  (All the more-so considering this was far from a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster.)

I am not sure how much of Snowpiercer is meant to be taken literally.  There are many questions I could ask about the logistics of the reality of this sci-fi world within the train.  But I don’t think we’re meant to ask those questions, and the film is strong enough that I never got bogged down in asking myself those questions.  There is extraordinary power in the simple metaphor of the train’s linear class system.  Like the best sci-fi, Snowpiercer dazzles at creating a world outside of our own, while, at the same time, having so much to say about our present-day reality.

The film also reminded me of Apocalypse Now, as with each train-car Curtis’ group passes through, it’s as if they are on their own Heart of Darkness journey down the river into the unknown.  Just like Willard (Martin Sheen’s character in Apocalypse Now), Curtis finds at the end f his journey a figure of complex, ambiguous morality.  And just like for Willard, it is left to Curtis to make the final moral judgment as to whether this individual can be permitted to remain alive.… [continued]

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Catching up on 2011: The Help

In preparing to write my Top 15 Movies of 2011 list, I made an effort to watch as many 2011 films as I possibly could.   I’ve already written about many of those movies here on the site, but there were many that I saw that I haven’t had a chance to write about yet.  I’ll be trying to remedy that with my “Catching up on 2011” series this week and next.

Let’s start with The Help, the film adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s acclaimed novel.

As I’m sure most of you know, the novel and the film depict the lives of several African American maids working in wealthy white homes in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s.  The story is set in motion when the young, white Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan returns home to Jackson after finishing college.  After several years away, Skeeter is able to see her town in a new light, and she finds herself shocked at the way the African American “help” is treated by her friends and neighbors, and even by her own mother.  Skeeter’s path eventually crosses with two fascinating African American women, Aibilene Clark (played by Viola Davis) and her friend Minny Jackson (played by Octavia Spencer).

I haven’t read the novel, so my evaluation of The Help is based entirely on the film.  For the most part, I found the movie, which was adapted and directed by Ms. Stockett’s friend Tate Taylor, to be entertaining albeit a bit slight.  There is no question that the story of the generations of African American women who worked as maids/house-keepers/etc. to affluent white families in the South is an important subject.  And I respect the desire by Ms. Stockett and the filmmakers to try to wrap that story in as entertaining a package as possible, so that while we’ll hopefully feel the emotion of the story, we won’t be too depressed by too “heavy” a presentation of the subject-matter.

But I think the filmmakers erred in going a bit too far into the light and fluffy side of town.  (And while it seems to me this is likely a flaw of the source material, as I wrote before I can’t say for sure having not read the book.)  For instance (and there are some small spoilers ahead, but even I knew of this plot twist before watching the movie, without having read the book), there’s the whole matter of the shit-pie that Minny baked for Hilly (played in the film by Bryce Dallas Howard).  Quite a lot of the film’s story hangs on that event, as Hilly’s desire to cover it up is the leverage that Minny and the maids have over her.  But the event is such … [continued]