Isle of Dogs

Cast: (voiced by) Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Kunichi Nomura, Ken Watanabe, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Fisher Stevens, Nijiro Murakami, Harvey Keitel, Koyu Rankin, Liev Schreiber, Scarlett Johansson, Akira Ito, Akira Takayama, F. Murray Abraham, Yojiro Noda, Mari Natsuki, Yoko Ono, Frank Wood

Director: Wes Anderson

Writer: Wes Anderson


When someone says they’re making an animated movie about dogs, this isn’t the kind of movie you expect them to make. But then, there isn’t really anybody out there who makes movies quite like Wes Anderson. His second foray into feature-length animation after Fantastic Mr. Fox, Isle of Dogs takes us far away from the childishly delightful All Dogs Go to Heaven to a morbid fable with a twisted sense of humour and a lot of bite. There is grisly imagery throughout the film from a dog getting its ear bitten off to a human character getting a bolt stuck in his head to a school of squirming fish getting chopped up to make sushi, all making for a PG film where the PG actually means something. Yet that doesn’t necessarily mean this movie isn’t for kids. Those who can handle it will find by the end that Isle of Dogs is a surprisingly soft-hearted and even endearing movie.

The movie is set in a post-apocalyptic, futuristic Japan where an outbreak of a canine virus in the city of Megasaki leads the autocratic mayor Kobayashi to sign a decree banishing all dogs to Trash Island. The first dog to be exiled is his own orphaned nephew’s dependable dog Spots. The 12-year-old Atari, bereft for having lost his best friend, ventures to Trash Island to search for him. There he crosses paths with “a pack of scary, indestructible alpha dogs”. There’s Rex, a gutsy house dog desperate to return to his master; Duke, a gossipy hound; King, the former star of a commercial for dog food; and Boss, the mascot for a high school Baseball team. Leading them, as far as any alpha dog can lead a pack of alpha dogs, is Chief, a vicious tramp who is deeply mistrustful when it comes to humans. When the pack agrees to help Atari in his search (they take a vote on it, just like they do when faced with pretty much anything), Chief only agrees to join them at the insistence of purebred show dog Nutmeg.

One of the things that makes Isle of Dogs compelling to watch is that the story can be pretty much whatever you want it to be. If you want to look at it as an allegory for disenfranchisement where the unfortunate mutts are stand-ins for those who live in the margins of our society (or even for animals if you want to look at it in more of an animal rights kind of way), it works. If you want to watch it as the simple tale of a boy and his dog embarking on a quest together and forming an affectionate bond that transcends species and language, that also works. There is much that the film leaves open for the viewer to interpret however they see fit. While all the canine barks, growls, and howls are delivered in English, the human Japanese dialogue is left largely untranslated save the occasional interpretations of a Frances McDormand character. The intention here is for the viewer to infer the meaning through the context and emotion of the moment, though some have criticised this approach, saying that it serves to cast the Japanese characters (as opposed to all human characters) as villainous ‘others’. Considering that one of the more heroic human characters is Tracy, an American white girl voiced by Greta Gerwig who speaks English, I can understand why this route has proven problematic (although, in light of how her ultimate confrontation with Kobayshi actually turns out, I don’t agree with the notion that she is a white saviour).

What was quite clear to me is that Anderson is quite enamoured with Japanese culture and desperately wanted to convey some of its aesthetics to an American and European audience. It follows a recent tradition in children’s animation with such films as Moana, Kubo and the Two Strings, and Coco of portraying stories from non-Western cultures with histories, traditions, and values that differ from our own (with admittedly varying degrees of success). As a Brit who has never even set foot in Japan, I am far from qualified to judge whether or not Anderson’s depiction of Japan is accurate or perceptive. It seems to me however that there is a strong effort being made by Anderson to engage with Japan’s culture and to try and find that fine line between appropriation and appreciation. Kunichi Nomura, the voice of Kobayashi, shares a writing credit, the cast features a great range of Japanese names from Ken Watanabe to Yoko Ono (of all people!), and there is no shortage of identifiably Japanese imagery to point at such as taiko drums, sumo wrestlers, sushi, a mushroom cloud explosion and various nods to Akira Kurosawa. Whether what we see is simply a white Westerner’s distortion of Japan is a question I will have to leave to others, but I do believe that in order for progress to be made, honest, well-meaning efforts do have to be attempted even if there are some mistakes along the way.

As far as the visual aesthetics go, I must say that I was blown away. Anderson has distinguished himself as a terrific visual director time and time again with his love of vibrant colours and symmetry and his idiosyncratic attention to detail and his style is put on full display coupled with the splendid use of stop-motion animation. The movie has a scratchy texture that contrasts with the technical precision of his compositions and allows the setting of Trash Island and the dogs that inhabit it to feel harsh and unrefined while still also strangely elegant. The landscapes of mountains and shelters made up of multi-coloured refuse are utterly breathtaking. The movie puts particular care into the movements and mannerisms of the dogs themselves, going so far as to show their fur shuddering in the breeze, and it uses certain flourishes that enable them to feel truly active such as animating the fight scenes to look like a swirling dust cloud with random limbs sticking out like something from a children’s comic book. It’s that level of detail that enables the film to feel as remarkably physical as stop-motion animated films are uniquely able to feel.

As many people have noticed, the title is a homonym for ‘I love dogs’ and it’s essentially a promise that this movie will offer something of a love letter to the canines of the world and will appeal to all the dog lovers out there. As a lifelong dog lover myself, I think the movie delivers on that promise in spades. Not only are these mutts fun and interesting characters in their own right, but the movie is able to find much humour and heart in their canine behaviour and personality. There’s a good example of dog logic used in an exchange between Chief and Nutmeg where he asks why he should bother to help Atari and she answers, ‘because he’s a twelve year old boy, dogs love those’. The movie is a celebration of the bond that humans and dogs share and the friendship that eventually forms between Atari and Chief is as moving as it is unlikely. The film is not without it’s problems, many of them to do with the grey area between cultural appropriation and appreciation that the movie inhabits, but there is more than enough humour, style and charm to make Isle of Dogs an enjoyable watch.

★★★★

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A Wrinkle in Time

Cast: Storm Reid, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Michael Peña, Zach Galifianakis, Chris Pine

Director: Ava DuVernay

Writers: Jennifer Lee, Jeff Stockwell


A Wrinkle in Time is a noble, well-intentioned film with a lot to root for. It marks the first instance of a female African-American director helming a $100 million fantasy blockbuster, it boasts a richly diverse cast, and its central message is about love and acceptance of yourselves and others. Good intentions however do not a great film make, and those intentions can even work against the film when they take precedence over story, character, sensation, and everything else that makes for great cinema. So strong is this film’s desire to celebrate liberalism and to be inspirational that it cannot help but lead its viewers by the hand at every turn and ensure that none of the morals get lost on them. The film is quite clearly targeted at a young audience of 6 to 12 year olds and isn’t embarrassed about it (nor should it be), yet it doesn’t seem to trust them enough to rely on their own imaginations and to learn the lessons through inference. The movie spoon-feeds us its rhetoric so forcefully that its message of empowerment and affirmation loses all power and meaning, making for an unfulfilling watch.

The film tells the story of 13-year-old Meg Murray (Storm Reid), an introverted teenage girl with low self-esteem. She possesses a curious, inquisitive mind and an unfathomable fascination with the world around her that she shares with her scientist father Dr. Alexander Murray (Chris Pine), who disappeared without a trace four years ago. Since then Meg has lived a withdrawn and lonely life; she underperforms at school, has no friends to speak of, and she lashes out when attacked by her bully Veronica (Rowan Blanchard). While Meg and her mother Kate (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) continue to mourn their loss, her prodigious, six-year-old adopted brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), relentless in his optimism, provides a source of joy and comfort for them both. These early scenes are the most affective in the whole movie as we get a strong sense of the affection that Meg shares with her family and of her adolescent troubles.

Meg soon learns that his father is still alive and that he has been lost in space ever since solving the mystery of the tesseract, a mode of travel that can cross dimensions. She, Charles Wallace, and would-be boyfriend Calvin O’Keefe (Levi Miller) are invited to help search for him by three celestial beings. These are Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), a scatter-brained, unearthly woman who hasn’t quite mastered keeping her thoughts to herself, Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), who speaks only in quotations attributed to such great thinkers and artists of the world as Shakespeare, Buddha, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, and the all-knowing Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), who towers over everybody else and looks as regal as a deity played by Oprah ought to look. She reveals that Meg’s father is trapped on the planet Camazotz, home of the dark force known as the IT, and that it is up to Meg to find and rescue him in a journey across time and space.

The adventure that follows however doesn’t feel very adventurous. Meg doesn’t so much set out on a quest as she does get carried along one (by a flying lettuce creature no less), get told what to do, and be reminded at every turn about how special and extraordinary she is. Even when Meg, Charles Wallace and Calvin must make it on their own in the third act, the conclusion still feels far too easy considering the universe-shaking, existence-threatening stakes that were set up. It would be like if Frodo simply flew to Mordor on the back of an eagle with Sam and Gandalf showering him with praise and support the whole way and then ultimately defeated Sauron by learning to love himself. I get that A Wrinkle in Time isn’t trying to be The Lord of the Rings, but the point is that in order for a story with a quest to feel like an adventure, a journey with obstacles and trials has to actually take place. There is no sense of urgency propelling them from place to place and no tension in the tasks they must complete. The movie is instead so focused on validating Meg as a heroine and making sure that the children who relate to her are empowered by her victory that it neglects to make the journey itself all that interesting.

If the intention was for Meg to be a passive participant in a fantastical voyage like Alice or Dorothy that would be one thing, but here she is built up to be a chosen one upon whose shoulders the fate of the world rests. “Be a warrior”, says Mrs. Which, obviously not intended in a literal Joan of Arc sense but rather in an emotional sense, yet still a role that requires Meg to be more assertive and active than she’s allowed to be. The film doesn’t seem to trust that Meg’s positive qualities will make themselves evident to the viewer if displayed through actions and instead must assure us whenever possible that she is a great person capable of great things. Even when her wits and scientific know-how actually help to get them out of a spot when they’re caught up in a twister, the movie still has to stop for a second so that Calvin can remark on how incredible Meg is. Reid for her part delivers a remarkably confident performance and does a terrific job of showcasing Meg as the complex and flawed character that she is. I wish this film showed half as much confidence in depicting her arc.

What’s equally as disheartening is that the film’s visuals and style are shockingly weak given what DuVernay has proven herself capable of crafting as a director with films like Selma. There are some neat looking visuals such as the designs of the three Mrs. Ws and the orange corridor where Dr. Murray is trapped, but then there are others that just look bland and unoriginal. The dark forest where the kids wind up upon reaching Camazotz looks like any other foreboding forest you’ve ever seen. The use of CGI in the cave in the scene with the balancing stones and with the aforementioned flying lettuce creature is so fake looking that they could’ve been lifted straight out of a Disney Channel TV Movie. Even when we get a nice-looking setting like on the planet with the resplendent grass, shimmering lake, and colourful flowers, we don’t get to appreciate them much because DuVernay makes continuous use of tightly framed medium and close-up shots with seldom an establishing shot. The staging of each scene is often so awkward that it almost seems like some of the performers are acting in different films. It was only in the creepy, nightmarish neighbourhood scene where we see a row of children bouncing their basketballs in unison that I was reminded of what a great director DuVernay can actually be.

I really did want to like this film because I like what it’s trying to be. I like the message that it wants to convey, I like that it takes chances and risks and tries to do something a little different, and I like cast and crew involved. Winfrey, Kaling and Witherspoon are still fun to watch even in their roles as glorified exposition spouters, Pine continues to prove himself the most versatile of the Hollywood Chrises, and Reid is a star in the making. There’s even a fun Zach Galifianakis cameo to enjoy. I did find Charles Wallace pretty insufferable, but a lot of people seem to like him so maybe that’s just me. A Wrinkle in Time however is simply not a good film. The story is incoherent and not compelling, there isn’t nearly enough style to make up for the lack of substance, and the liberal ‘believe in yourself’ rhetoric is so constant, generic, and is hammered in so much that the ultimate lesson loses whatever power it might have had in the original L’Engle novel (which I have not read). I suppose the film is fun enough that it might work alright for its target audience, especially those who aren’t used to seeing themselves represented on screen, and maybe for them that’ll be enough. All that I, a 25-year-old white guy, can really say is that it didn’t work for me.

★★

Tomb Raider

Cast: Alicia Vikander, Dominic West, Walton Goggins, Daniel Wu, Kristen Scott Thomas

Director: Roar Uthaug

Writers: Geneva Robertson-Dworet, Alastair Siddons


In the two and a half decades that Hollywood has been attempting to adapt video games into movies, the results have been mixed to say the least, ranging from weak to underwhelming to awful to batshit insane. There are a few in there that are pretty fun to watch despite (or maybe because) of how flawed they are (I would cite Angelina Jolie’s Lara Croft as one example of this), but so far there still hasn’t been an all out success. However, I think that Roar Uthaug’s Tomb Raider has brought us one step closer to realising that dream. It has its flaws, but for me this movie felt life the most competently made, narratively engaging, emotionally affective adaptation so far. The bar is admittedly very low, but I walked from Tomb Raider feeling like I had watched a good, exciting movie that had more thought and creativity put into it than anyone could have expected. It’s not Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it’s a baby step in the right direction.

Based in part on the 2013 game that rebooted the franchise, the movie follows Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) a young Englishwoman with a privileged upbringing who stands to inherit her father Lord Richard Croft’s (Dominic West) business, wealth and estate following his disappearance. Believing her father to still be alive, Lara refuses and makes a living on her own as a bike courier. In the film’s first action scene we see Lara racing on her bicycle through the streets of London in a ‘fox hunt’. As she navigates the winding streets and dodges all the cars and lorries in her way, her stamina, quick-wittedness, and endurance are put on full display, as is her reckless nature. This incident gets her into trouble and she is bailed out by her father’s business partner Ana Miller (Kristen Scott Thomas), who reasons that the time has come to let her father go.

Upon gaining access to a puzzle box left by her father however, Lara is led by a breadcrumb trail of clues to a secret chamber in the family tomb. There she finds a message from Richard detailing his research into Himiko, a mythical queen who was said to possess extraordinary powers over life and death. Richard, anticipating that this expedition may get him killed, warns Lara to destroy his findings and not to come searching for him. There are no prizes for guessing what Lara does next. She sets out for Hong Kong in search of her father and hires Lu Ren (Daniel Wu), captain of the Endurance, to escort her across the Devil’s Sea to the island of Yamatai. On the way there, the ship gets caught in a violent storm and Lara is swept away and washed ashore. There she is found by Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins), the leader of the expedition to locate Himito’s tomb and the man responsible for her father’s disappearance. Lara escapes and, lost and alone on the forbidding island, she must survive the perils of the jungle and learn the truth of what lies within Himito’s tomb.

In the game that provided the basis for this film, a greater emphasis was placed on Lara Croft’s character than in previous games and Vikander does a wonderful job of bringing her to life. This Lara is a more emotional person than action heroes are usually allowed to be. The affection she feels for her father is strongly evident, as is the pain she feels in his absence. She is both intelligent and sensitive and those are both sides of her character that the film is as keen to explore as it is her strength. The first time we ever see her kill a man, it is a moment that upsets her on a deep, personal level and she isn’t able to shrug the deed off the way that a more standard, one-dimensional action lead would be able to. It’s fairly typical of action films with female leads to try and make their protagonists stronger and tougher (i.e. more masculine) by giving them the clichéd personality traits we’d expect from a strong and silent killing machine like those Schwarzenegger and Stallone used to play. This movie however puts more thought into its main character’s emotional experience and presents the act of killing as an event that actually matters to someone who feels empathy.

Vikander also delivers an intense and committed performance, making you feel the physicality of every blow she’s dealt and every muscle she strains. What sets Lara Croft apart from, say, Wonder Woman is that she doesn’t have the strength or the constitution to overpower her opponents with ease. The movie thus has to devote much deliberation into figuring out how a woman can plausibly win the upper hand against foes who are physically bigger and stronger than she is and finds the answer in her speed, tactical thinking, endurance, and grit. This is indicative of the level of thought and the attention to detail that the previous Tomb Raider movies lacked and makes for a more compelling film where the physical and emotional experience of its main character is more visceral and more deeply felt. There are a ton of great action scenes that follow, the best of which for me was when Lara gets swept away in a river and narrowly avoids going over a waterfall by clinging herself to a rusted Second World War fighter jet hanging precariously over the edge. Her delivery of “Really?” as she sees the plane start to fall apart is worthy of Indiana Jones.

The movie does have its shortcomings here and there. There are a number of supporting characters who show promise in their first scenes but who never really get the chance to shine. Goggins, who is usually irresistibly enjoyable and wildly charismatic when he plays villains, is pretty forgettable as Vogel. A man who has spent years away from his family in search of Himito’s tomb and has lost his humanity somewhere along the way, there is a tragedy to the character that the movie never finds the time to explore. Another is Lu, a character who suffers from the same abandonment issues as Lara (having lost his own father in that same expedition) and who forms a non-romantic relationship with her built on shared experiences and mutual respect. He is pretty much sidelined in the film’s third act. There are also issues with plotting as the film takes a while to get going and is wont to drag when there isn’t some action taking place.

Still, even putting aside the standard set by video game movies, Tomb Raider is an overall well-made and often thrilling film. It has an emotional core in Lara’s journey as a character and her relationship with her father, and that gives the movie a point of focus that is so often lacking in these adaptations. The absentee father is no stranger to films of this type (even Indiana Jones tackles this theme), but it feels fresher here for having a daughter as the protagonist rather than a son. The efforts of Vikander and West also play no small part in making the story feel that little bit more affective. There is more effort at work in this film than was needed and it pays off not only in Lara’s character and story but in the action scenes as well. While there is still a ways to go before video game movies cease to be a cinematic punch line, Tomb Raider shows that the potential is definitely there. It is compelling, action-packed and surprisingly touching and it also brings to life one of pop culture’s most iconic and badass heroines.

★★★★

Peter Rabbit

Cast: James Corden, Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki, Daisy Ridley (voices), Rose Byrne, Domhnall Gleeson, Sam Neill

Director: Will Gluck

Writers: Rob Lieber, Will Gluck


Peter Rabbit, a modern adaptation of a beloved British children’s literary classic, is inevitably going to draw comparisons to Paddington. The latter is a charming, enjoyable film that was able to depict an updated version of the Michael Bond stories while retaining and respecting what people loved about them in the first place and that offers something for children and grown ups alike. Peter Rabbit is none of those things. Not only is this film entirely devoid of charm, wit, and wonder, it unapologetically flies in the face of everything that made the Beatrix Potter stories so appealing. The movie is so obnoxiously deaf to the quaint, pure, profusely British tone of the source material that those who made it ought to be ashamed that they had the audacity to attach this mockery to the same name. If there is one things that disgusts me about this clueless, insufferable travesty above all else, it is the thought of young children being taught that this abominable caricature is an accurate representation of what Potter’s original stories stood for.

Here Peter Rabbit is irritatingly voiced by James Corden (although it would be more accurate to say that the character is James Corden as James Corden as Peter Rabbit as James Corden). He plays Peter as a smart-talking, troublemaking rascal but comes across less as the Artful Dodger and more as Alex DeLarge, a nasty, deceptive, narcissistic sociopath committing juvenile acts with reckless abandon. We first meet him as he and his posse, made up of his sisters Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail (voiced by Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki and Daisy Ridley respectively) and their cousin Benjamin (Colin Moody), hatch a plan to sneak into Farmer McGregor’s (Sam Neill) garden to steal his vegetables. While there Peter cannot resist the urge to try and insert a carrot into the unsuspecting farmer’s exposed rear end, a prank that ends up triggering a fatal heart attack. McGregor dies and Peter, celebrating his victory without an inkling of remorse, invites all the woodland animals into the empty house before the unfortunate old man’s corpse is even cold to run rampant and feast on vegetables all day long.

Their revelry is brought to an end however by the arrival of Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson), the distant nephew who inherited McGregor’s estate not long after losing his job at Harrods. Thomas is a neurotic city boy who cannot abide chaos or messiness and hates everything about the countryside. His sole intention is to clean up the house, sell it, and use the profits to start his own toy shop to rival Harrods. He reinforces the estate’s security to keep intruders out, leading to an all out war between himself and the woodland creatures involving electric fences and dynamite. The neutral power in this war is Bea (Rose Byrne), presumably a surrogate for Beatrix Potter considering that she is an artist whose work evokes the watercolour illustrations of the books. She lives next door to the McGregor farm and simply adores Peter and all the other animals, but she soon develops a bit of a soft spot for Thomas as she gets to know him and they start spending time together. A jealous Peter thus devotes himself towards destroying Thomas and banishing him from the land.

I wish this film could have just been about Bea and Thomas because Byrne and Gleeson actually work really well together. Both actors try their utmost to bring some layer of appeal to this film and they almost succeed in the brief moments when they are alone together without this detestable CGI pest butting in to make everything about him. She is a compassionate, nurturing figure with a talent for seeing the best in everybody and he is a rigid, obsessive buffoon whose heart is gradually warmed by her presence. Both actors put real feeling and effort into their performances and their chemistry is undeniable. I daresay the two could even have made a half-decent film together about the lives of Beatrix Potter and her husband William Heelis were they not too young. Their quirky countryside love story however is trapped in a crass, abhorrent, shamelessly puerile farce with digital animals and there is nothing either actor can do to save it.

I shudder to think what Potter might have thought had she seen this incarnation of her most beloved character. Peter Rabbit, a mischievous but lovable creature, resilient and brave but also impulsive and childish, a boy who gets wiser as he grows older and learns from his mistakes, and a model of the Edwardian morals and sensibilities of Potter’s generation, is reduced here to an amalgamation of James Corden’s personality and 21st century millennial tropes. This is a Peter who twerks, sings a song written by the guy from Vampire Weekend (because James Corden can never not sing under any circumstances whatsoever), and makes leaves of lettuce rain as if he were a rapper in a strip club. He’s also utterly loathsome from start to finish; he is one of those characters who simply has to be the centre of attention no matter what, is unbearably full of himself, and is indiscriminately horrible to all around him, friend and foe alike. He manipulates and exploits his loved ones, looks out for his own interests above all else, and is incapable of empathy and reason. The final straw for me was the film’s infamous allergy scene, not because allergies are off limits in comedy, but because it’s the scene that truly shows this Peter for the irredeemable piece of trash that he is.

Peter Rabbit is just an awful, awful film. It has an attractive duo in Byrne and Gleeson and there is the occasional laugh, but the pros don’t even begin to make up for the cons. For every decent joke, there are five that range from obvious to crude to stupid. Even then, I feel I could have gone along with more of those jokes were Peter himself not so excruciatingly horrible. Anytime I feel like I’m about to be drawn in by Bea and Thomas, Peter rears his ugly CGI head in and kills the moment dead. Never before have I wanted to punch a rabbit in the face so badly. The film is gaudy, low-brow and obnoxious and is nothing less than an insult to Potter’s memory. There is one scene in the film where we see a flashback recounting the deaths of Peter’s parents which adopts the style of Potter’s illustrations and matches her tone. It is the only scene in the entire film that I liked and, by showing me just a glimpse of what this movie could have been, it made me accordingly hate the rest of the movie even more. The adults who grew up with Potter’s timeless works and the children who have yet to be introduced all deserve better than this.

Call Me by Your Name

Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel, Victoire Du Bois

Director: Luca Guadagnino

Writer: James Ivory


As I was watching Call Me by Your Name, an Oscar winning film that has been almost universally lauded as a landmark of LGBT cinema, one of the things that struck me the most was how far the movie transcended the same-sex quality of its love story. The fact that the two lovers are men is significant and plays an important role in defining their relationship, but the story is ultimately a coming-of-age romance and that simple distinction allowed for a movie that defied what I’ve come to expect from gay cinema. For example, as this film progressed I spent a good deal of time anticipating the obstacle that would inevitably conspire to drive the two lovers apart. Maybe it would come in the form of disapproving parents, a spurned and jealous ex-girlfriend, or maybe an intolerant culture and community. But that never happens, because that’s not what this movie is about. Call Me by Your Name is really a story about self-discovery, sexual awakening, and first love.

Another way that this film subverts expectations is that it doesn’t really have a plot. The movie progresses at a leisurely pace that Guadagnino advances bit by bit with the meticulous patience of a sculptor as it transitions between scenes without appearing to drive itself along any clear narrative line. There is no tangible objective, journey, or force pushing things along, the film simply moves from moment to moment and lets them play out in their own time. The scenes more or less blend into one another the same way that long summer days often do and the cuts between them are motivated more by emotion than they are by events. The movie is set in the summer of 1983 in an idyllic, eternally sunny region of northern Italy and mainly follows 17-year-old Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet). Elio often finds himself bored by the summer and tends to spend his days reading, playing the piano, and picking fruit. He lives with his Jewish-American father (Michael Stulhbarg), a professor of archaeology, and Italian mother (Amira Casar), a translator, in their country home. Despite his youth, Elio is well-read and a musical prodigy and possesses an intellect and wit beyond his years. He is also awkward and insecure, but has learnt to hide his anxieties behind a mask of sophistication.

Every year his father invites a student to spend the summer with their family to assist him with his academic research. This year he invites 24-year-old American doctoral student Oliver (Armie Hammer). Oliver is tall, handsome, confident, and charming; he is everything that Elio isn’t (or doesn’t believe himself to be). Oliver also has a largely carefree personality. He is effortlessly likeable and attractive to many of the Perlmans’ friends and he has a typically American habit of abruptly ending conversations and leaving the dinner table with a nonchalant, “Later”. He and Elio, finding that their personalities somewhat clash and that they haven’t got much in common, are initially prickly towards one another. Nevertheless they are drawn to each other: testing each other out, pushing out against one another, and wondering what the other thinks of them. Elio at first doesn’t know what to make of Oliver with his casual demeanour and may not even realise at first that what they are doing is flirting. There are looks and caresses that he doesn’t know how to interpret and feelings that he seems reluctant to confront. Over time however Elio does become acutely aware of his attraction to Oliver, thinking of him while he masturbates and sneaking into him room to smell his clothes. Before long Elio and Oliver confess their feelings to each other and embark on a sexual relationship for the remainder of the summer.

The chemistry that Chalamet and Hammer share is electrifying. With the help of Guadagnino’s direction, the two are able to convey a clear attraction that grows and develops over time without ever actually speaking about it until around an hour in. It’s in the way that Oliver’s touch triggers a sensation throughout Elio’s entire body. It’s in the tension that emerges between them as they chat by the pool or on their way into town, as in one scene where Elio relates a night-time rendezvous with his (sort of) girlfriend Marzia (Esther Garrel) in order to gauge Oliver’s reaction. It’s in their exchanged glances and expressions. When we see Oliver with Elio, the way that he looks and composes himself suggests that the 24-year-old understands what is happening better than the 17-year-old, but is hesitant to do anything about because of some unspoken taboo (in this case the taboo has less to do with being attracted to a young man than it does with being attracted to an inexperienced 17-year-old virgin). When they do finally speak openly about the attraction and start acting on it, it is the culmination of all the pent-up emotions they’ve felt to this point and it feels organic and earned.

The love they share is tender and intimate and there is an agonising beauty to the way that these two characters, who have both kept a part of their true selves hidden from even the most important people in their lives, are able to be truly open and free when they are alone together. This is best encapsulated in the moment that gives the film its name when Oliver lies in bed with Elio, looks deeply into his eyes, and says, “Call me by your name and I’ll call you by mine”. It is a bittersweet love they share, not only because they have to keep it a secret, but also because they both realise that it cannot last. Again, this isn’t something either of them says out loud, it’s something that they just feel and we feel it as well in the long takes and the moments of silence. It is a romance that makes itself all the more intensely felt to the viewer because Guadagnino and Ivory do not shy away from showing Elio and Oliver in their most erotic and vulnerable moments, most notably in the film’s controversial and remarkable peach scene.

The beauty of it all is complemented perfectly by the setting and the way it is shot; seldom a close-up is used in this film because Guadagnino wants us to appreciate the scenery and its relation to the characters. The images he and cinematographer Mukdeeprom create are utterly sensual. The sound of leaves gently rustling in the breeze, the look of the water and sweat on everybody’s bare bodies, the warm reds, oranges, and yellows of the Italian sun; all of these are captured with such realness and intensity that it’s almost like we’re actually there. It manages to look sublime and picturesque without also looking artificial. The sights, sounds, tastes, odours, and textures, they all feel tactile, which in turn combats any sense of idealisation or inauthenticity. What we are essentially watching is a memory of a summer long since past and what we see is supposed to be an embellishment of that time, but not to the point that everything seems too perfect. This is a memory that evokes as many feelings of pleasure as it does pain and sadness, and the film’s visual style matches that perfectly.

The romance does ultimately reach an end, as it must, and it is as heartbreaking and poignant an end as one could imagine. When it all seems like it might be too much for Elio, his father reaches out to him with an exquisite monologue that Stuhlbarg delivers eloquently and heartrendingly. The sentiments he shares with his son are as beautiful as anything else we’ve seen or heard in this film and could have been the ideal way to conclude the story if not for the epilogue that follows. The final image we see of Elio is allowed to linger for several minutes as the credits roll and it allows for a full summation of all the emotions that have been felt by him throughout, the deep effect that whole summer has had on him, and the impact his relationship with Oliver has had on the man he will one day become. Call Me by Your Name is an exceptionally beautiful portrayal of love and growth and is one of the most profound and moving films of 2017.

★★★★★

Red Sparrow

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeremy Irons

Director: Stephen Lawrence

Writer: Justin Haythe


With the recent explosion of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, the subject of feminism has never been more public and pertinent. A greater demand is being made for the increase of female representation in cinema, for more stories about female empowerment, and for more honest depictions of patriarchal oppression. Wonder Woman is one recent movie that pulled this off wonderfully with its inspirational story and strong, compassionate protagonist that brought a distinct and heretofore lacking female perspective to the Hollywood blockbuster. The inevitable downside is that some of the films that rise up to champion the feminist cause will end up being either bad films, bad feminism, or both. Red Sparrow is such a movie; it has marketed itself as an erotic feminist thriller about how female sexuality can be used both as a weapon against men and as a means of emancipation and it falls short of the mark.

Red Sparrow is set in modern-day Russia, where it is somehow simultaneously 2018 and 1962, and depicts the physical and psychological ordeals of Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence), a former prima ballerina whose career has come to a sudden and gruesome end, leaving her alone and unable to provide for her ill mother Nina (Joely Richardson). She is approached by her uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts), a high-ranking member of the Russian secret service, who offers her work as a spy. After agreeing to what was supposed to be a one-time job that ends up going badly, Dominika is faced with a harsh choice. She must give herself completely to the Russian state and become their tool, or else she’ll be executed. Thus Dominika is sent to the Sparrow School where she is taught the ways of seduction and espionage.

Her instructor is the pitiless Matron (Charlotte Rampling) and her classmates are all young men and women who were similarly hand-picked for their cunning, resourcefulness, and physical attractiveness. They are told that their bodies now belong to their country and that they must use them to seduce those who hold the secrets that the government desires. Dominika is made to endure humiliating trials and traumatising attacks, including exposing herself before the class, watching hours of violent pornography, and being prepared to sexually service men of all deviancies and perversions such as paedophiles and rapists, in order to become the perfect spy. Her first assignment is CIA agent Nick Nash (Joel Edgerton), an operative with an asset, code-named Marble, in the Russian government. Dominika is to seduce Nick and learn the identity of the mole.

The movie is graphic and violent by design but too much of it feels sordid and exploitative. Obviously the point of portraying such ordeals is to demonstrate Dominika’s fortitude and it does so on the logic that the more uncomfortable the movie can make us feel, the more we will want to root for her. To the film’s credit, it is very good at making these scenes uncomfortable. I remember wincing at least twice, once during the opening ballet performance where Dominika’s leg is broken and again in a later scene where a character has their skin flayed. The problem however is twofold. For one thing, the movie is so unrelentingly and blandly violent that these scenes become monotonous and gratuitous. Secondly, there is something deeply unsettling about the way the movie lingers on the violence as it is committed on women, as opposed to men. There is one scene where Dominika sneaks up on a man and woman in the shower and attacks them with a blunt object. The man is dealt with promptly, relatively cleanly, and with little attention brought to his nakedness. The woman is fully exposed and her beating is brutal and prolonged. It’s not the violence itself that’s disturbing but the way that the violence is so specific to the female victims and their bodies, as in another scene where we see the mutilated corpse of a woman lying in a bathtub.

I cannot help but think that this is the result of having a male director at the helm. While I don’t agree with the notion that men are incapable of creating great feminist cinema (I would cite Mad Max: Fury Road as a recent example), it seems to me that Stephen Lawrence was unable to escape the male gaze he possesses and that it has proven detrimental to the story he was trying to tell. This is evident in the film’s use of nudity as well, as in one scene which is supposed to be empowering for Dominika and humiliating for one of the male characters. Here Dominika is completely nude while the man remains fully clothed and, even though the man is the one who is supposed to be totally vulnerable and defeated in this moment, the camera cannot help but fixate on Lawrence’s nudity, keeping one of her breasts in view the whole time. Once she gets to work on her target, Dominika sports some skimpy clothing, including an absurdly revealing swimsuit, which makes sense given that she’s trying to make herself look irresistible to Nick, but the way that the camera leers at her, inviting the audience to ogle her, tells us that the film is more interested in her body than it is in her experiences.

Even with the movie’s problematic relationship with feminism taken out of the equation, Red Sparrow is by all means a dull, uninspired film. Its 140-minute runtime is exhausting given the sheer banality of the plot and punishing given the unyielding prominence of its violent content. Lawrence and Edgerton have so little chemistry in their scenes together that they could both have been played by mannequins. Whatever intrigue there is between them at the start dissipates as soon as the masquerade between them is dropped, which happens far too soon, and the romance that follows is as passionless as it gets. When the question is raised over whether either of them will betray their country for the other, neither can muster enough affection to justify their seeming vacillation. Occasionally there is a British star with a vaguely Russian accent to liven things up such as Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling or Ciarán Hinds, but there is only so much any of them can bring in their limited screen time.

This was a difficult film to get through and not for the intended reasons. There is clearly some kind of feminist statement being made as we watch this woman use her sexuality to combat the misogynistic adversity she faces and to create an identity for herself to replace the one imposed on her by the patriarchy, but it gets lost in a movie that has no idea how to portray physical and sexual violence against women in an introspective, tactful way (and I say this as a man; I cannot even imagine how grotesque these tortuous scenes must feel for a woman). The movie is as soulless as the hackneyed caricature of Soviet/Putinist Russia it portrays; all we get is viciousness, misery, and the barrenness of a harsh winter. It is a consistently unpleasant film throughout and it offers no reward or fulfilment for those who manage to endure it.

I, Tonya

Cast: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson, Bobby Cannavale

Director: Craig Gillespie

Writer: Steven Rogers


I, Tonya has a well-chosen title. It evokes a phrase that one might hear in a court of law when a statement is given (“I, Tonya, do solemnly swear…”). It suggests a declaration that the testimony we are about to hear shall be given in the named party’s own words and will be the truth as they understand it. That right there is pretty much the premise of this movie. It is a construction of the major events in Tonya Harding’s life based on a series of contradictory, self-serving, irony-free interviews conducted with herself, her ex-husband, her mother, her trainer, and her bodyguard. Somewhere between their varying accounts, the film suggests, is the truth behind the ‘incident’ that ruined Harding’s career and reputation but the film is less interested in learning what that truth is than it is in giving each key player a chance to tell their version of the story and allowing the audience to draw its own conclusion.

We meet Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) as a young girl (played by McKenna Grace) who is compelled to ice skate by her abusive mother LaVona (Allison Janney). As she grows, she is trained exclusively by her coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) and is poised to pursue a career as a competitive figure skater. As a young woman she meets and falls in love with Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and, much to her mother’s disapproval, marries him. Tonya comes to regret her elopement as the marriage soon becomes abusive. It isn’t long before Tonya distinguishes herself as a professional skater, becoming the first American woman to complete the triple axel jump in competition, but finds that the judges disapprove of her ‘white-trash’ persona. After a humiliating loss at the 1992 Olympics, Tonya prepares to give it one more shot at the 1994 games. This leads to the so-called ‘incident’ where Tonya’s main rival, Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) suffers an attack organised by Jeff and his friend and Tony’s incompetent bodyguard Shawn Eckhart (Paul Walter Hauser).

Gillespie has managed to capture this very particular tone with I, Tonya that could very easily have backfired, one that is able to accommodate both dark comedy and profound earnestness without seeming inconsistent. He allows these characters to speak about what happened in their own words, cutting between dramatic re-enactments and footage of the interviews (albeit, recreated with the actors in their place) and manages to be funny and serious in all the right places. There is a lot of mocking, so much so the film almost borders on parody, as the movie takes shots at the ostentatious, superficial standards of competitive figure skating, the incompetence of those who take part in the ‘incident’, and the fashion and culture of the early 90s. Yet, when the film wants us to feel sympathetic for Tonya, for her difficult upbringing and the abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband, for the uphill battle she had to fight to be taken seriously as a professional sportswoman, and for the way the press and the world at large turned so antagonistically against her without knowing the full story behind the ‘incident’, it does so with complete sincerity.

Robbie is a force of nature as Tonya. She plays the role with the grit and attitude of a scrapper who has had to fight for everything in her life and has had obstacles thrown at her at every step of it. She has the confidence of a champion who is the best at what she does and is at the top of her game and the steeliness of someone who learnt at too young an age that she would need a thick skin to make it. Beneath all that is a buried layer of wretchedness and self-hatred that comes from the years of physical and emotional abuse she has suffered. Matching her blow for blow is Janney as Tonya’s curt, ruthless mother who decided long ago that her daughter would be a champion and is prepared to push her there even if it kills her. She is constantly insulting her daughter (as well as anyone foolish enough to cross her) and manipulating her to get her into the right competitive mindset. The character is a little one-note, but when that note is being played by a pro like Janney that’s alright by me. The comic highlight for me though was Hauser as Eckhart, a man so impossibly delusional that I refused to believe he was a real person until they showed his actual interview over the credits.

One of the interesting things the film reveals about the attack on Nancy Kerrigan is how little Nancy herself had to do with any of it. She barely features as a character in this story and, once the whole ‘incident’ starts to take shape, it becomes clear that she was neither the first, second, third, nor the twentieth reason why the attack actually happened. There were other factors at work, some spontaneous and some years in the making, that led up to this moment. There was the pressure that Tonya felt to become a champion in a sport that was biased against her. There’s the impulsive nature of her husband, his emotional hold over her, and his tendency to solve his problems through aggressive means. There’s the truly inspired stupidity of Eckhart and the goons he hires and their extraordinary ability to screw up their tasks to such a remarkable degree that even Mr. Bean would blush with shame. There’s the way that the press and public, hungry for a sensational story, tried to pit the working-class, uneducated, trailer park girl from Oregon against her pristine, princess-like adversary in a rivalry that neither competitor really felt. The movie does such a good job of bringing all of these different elements together, it is able to make the eventual result feel somehow unpredictable yet inevitable.

I, Tonya is also a wonderfully structured film that is constantly jumping between timelines, changing perspectives, and cutting to talking head pieces without slowing down. There are quirky transitions, fourth-wall breaks, and narrative-stopping digressions, kind of like The Big Short, but the movie never feels like it’s being gimmicky for the sake of being gimmicky. All of these devices play into the idea that this a story being told in the words of those who were involved. In one scene Jeff is describing an incident where Tonya chased him out of their house with a shotgun, an incident that plays out in front of us only for Tonya to pause halfway and say to the camera that this never actually happened. In another the movie takes a moment to take explain to us exactly how the triple axel jump works and why it’s such a big deal, then it allows us to appreciate the moment that Tonya actually performs it in slow-motion. The ice-skating scenes are quite riveting to watch, largely due to the film’s decision to cast a professional skater to perform the challenging routines and pasting Robbie’s face over hers. This means the movie never has to resort to distracting editing or camera tricks in order to compensate for the actress’ limited skills. We get to see these feats performed in clear, unbroken shots.

You wouldn’t think that a movie like this could be that emotionally effective, but by hearing Harding out and depicting her story in her own words without irony, without judgement, and without hostility, the movie was able to bring everything together into a sympathetic portrait of a woman who has suffered her own share of injustices. What we see may or may not be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, but that’s not really the point. The movie is really about things like competition, class, abuse, sensationalism, and scandal. It’s about a woman who had the odds stacked against her because she came from the wrong background and was unfairly maligned and cast as the villain in the story that unfolded, not because she was guilty or culpable it what happened, but because that’s what the people wanted her to be. Here you see what the whole affair was like from Tonya’s perspective and in the end when she bursts into tears upon being banned from professional skating, it’s as heartbreaking a moment as you’ll see in any other sports movie.

★★★★

Lady Bird

Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Lois Smith

Director: Greta Gerwig

Writer: Greta Gerwig


Lady Bird has a note-perfect opening scene that accomplishes more than some movies do in their entire runtime. It features the titular Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) and her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) sitting together in a car. They are on their way back to their home in Sacramento after visiting a state university and are both in tears as they listen to the final seconds of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath audio book. In that brief moment they are emotionally in sync with one another, but that changes as soon as they start talking about Lady Bird’s future. Despite her mother’s wish that she go to an affordable in-state college, Lady Bird is impatient to leave Sacramento and travel to someplace like New York, “where the culture is”. This erupts into an argument that Lady Bird ends by jumping out of the running car. It sets exactly the right tone, packs so much humour and conflict in the mother-daughter exchange, and ends in such a jarringly unexpected way that if Lady Bird had ended up being nothing more than a five-minute short film, I still would have been satisfied.

There’s plenty more to come though. We next see Lady Bird being fitted with a cast on her arm and proceed to follow her as she completes her final year at school. Over the course of that year Lady Bird joins the school’s theatre programme with her best friend Julie (Beannie Feldstein), she dates two guys, good-mannered Catholic boy Danny (Lucas Hedges) and rebellious musician Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), and loses her virginity, and she conspires with her father Larry (Tracy Letts) to apply to Columbia behind her mother’s back. She also learns a few things along the way, like how much her family is struggling financially ever since her father was laid off, forcing her mother to work double shifts at the hospital to make ends meet, and how much she still has to learn about life, love, and herself. This is not a plot driven story; it works more like a chain of short episodes in the life of 17-year-old Lady Bird, née Christine McPherson, on her passage into adulthood, detailing the lessons, troubles, and pleasures she experiences along the way.

Written and directed by Greta Gerwig and based largely on her own experiences as a Catholic teenager in California, there is a definite sense of time and place to this film as well as a strong authentic voice. The film is set in 2002, where people are still reeling in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks (it’s just one of many reasons why Marion is so apprehensive about her daughter moving to New York City) and where the modern digital age hasn’t quite fully arrived yet. By setting the film in her hometown of Sacramento, Gerwig is able to create a backdrop that feels both lived-in and intimate, partly through her use of impeccably-cast character actors such as Lois Smith and Stephen McKinley Henderson, who leave sound, memorable impressions in their few minutes of screen time, and also through the investment in detail that could only have been provided by one who has lived this life. From the subsiding middle-class lifestyle that the family lives to the Catholic rituals practiced at the school to the specific atmosphere of the city of Sacramento in 2002, the film is filled with features from Gerwig’s life that she is able to depict in a personal and familiar way with a few little touches.

The key relationship at the heart of this film is that between Lady Bird and her mother. Far from the docile Irish girl she played in Brooklyn, Ronan is utterly boisterous as the restless, defiant Lady Bird. As a character who is impatient for her life to begin but still doesn’t quite understand that she doesn’t yet know what she doesn’t know, Ronan hit that perfect balance between acuity and naiveté and is able to be sensitive and vulnerable while still being impulsive and imprudent. Metcalf meanwhile plays her exasperated passive-aggressive mother with a truly profound sense of world-weariness and maternal affection in equal measure. That she loves her daughter is never in doubt, but she doesn’t always know how best to express it and oftentimes doesn’t have the patience for her teenage angst on top of everything else she has to deal with. There is a scene near the end that focuses squarely on Metcalf’s face for a prolonged, unspoken take in which her performance reaches a moving, heartbreaking peak. In their scenes together the mother and daughter are constantly playing jump-rope with the line between familial harmony and antagonistic quarrelling, as in one moment where they go shopping together and switch from having a heated argument to cooing over a pretty dress in one second flat.

Lady Bird is a thoroughly enjoyable film full of humour, insight and heart. It can occasionally be a little too repetitive and is sometimes a little evasive when faced with a moment that threatens to be too hard-hitting or upsetting. But then that evasiveness is pretty characteristic for a film where the main character throws herself out of a moving car in order to escape an argument with her mother. While I cannot fault a film for being true to its own character, there were still one or two moments where I would’ve liked to see Gerwig follow a moment through and see where it led. Anyway, none of that is a slight against the many things that the film does well. Lady Bird treats its story with much honesty and authenticity, Ronan continues to shine as one of the best young actors working today and brings much humanity and warmth to what is often an unlikeable character (and ditto to Metcalf), and the film at its best is irresistibly funny and affective. I hope this will be the first of many films in Gerwig’s career as a director.

★★★★

The Shape of Water

Cast: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Writers: Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor


Oftentimes when we think of fairy tales today, we think of children’s stories in the vein of Disney; wholesome fantasies about adventure, love, and imagination that teach us a moral. Historically that hasn’t been the case with this genre. Many of the fables we know today as popularised by the Victorian likes of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen find their origins in frightful folklore originally intended for adults. Indeed, the Brothers Grimm had to revise their original publication of Children’s and Household Tales upon receiving complaints that their stories were too sexual and violent. There has always been a dark heart to fairy tales, and it is one that del Toro has dedicated his career towards exploring in films like Pan’s Labyrinth. He has always been fascinated by the way fairy tales use monsters and beasts to represent the negative qualities of humanity and has often found these creatures to be profoundly human as a result. In his “fairy tale for troubled times”, del Toro seeks to tell a timeless fable for a modern audience in all of its wonder and darkness.

The film is set in the USA in 1962, an idealistic time in American history. The Second World War was a memory, the country was prospering, and the Kennedys were in the White House. However, beneath that glitzy surface of glory, growth, and glamour the reality wasn’t quite as wholesome. The oft-romanticised 1960s was a nightmarish time, a period when two nuclear superpowers were engaged in an ominous staring contest with the threat of global annihilation hanging in the balance. It was a mythological time for the United States where the ideology of ‘greatness’ contributed towards the intolerance and contempt of those who fell short of the All-American ideal, whether it be because of the colour of their skin, their sexual orientation, or their disability. It was an age of brutality and prejudice where the outcasts who lived in the margins of society had long been rendered speechless, unable to speak out and make their voices heard. In The Shape of Water this sense of voicelessness is represented literally by the central couple, the mute Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) and the Amphibian Man (Doug Jones).

Elisa is a cleaner who has long since lost her voice in an accident that left her neck disfigured. She lives alone above the Orpheum Cinema, an old-timey movie theatre that plays classic films to an almost empty auditorium. The one person she spends any time with when not at work is Giles (Richard Jenkins), an ageing, balding, closeted man whose days consist of black-and-white movies starring Betty Grable and Shirley Temple and fantasies about the young, handsome waiter at the local pie emporium. At night she works shifts at a secret government laboratory in Baltimore where the scientists are laboriously trying to work out how to get to the moon before the Russians. Working alongside her is Zelda (Octavia Spencer), a matronly, vivacious African-American woman who speaks more than enough for the both of them. One night the facility receives a delivery in the form of an aquatic, humanoid creature. Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) wants to study the creature that was once revered as a god by local Amazonian tribes and see what they can learn from it. Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon), the military official in charge of the facility, however sees it as an affront to both man and God and orders the doctor to exterminate and dissect it.

Elisa encounters the Amphibian Man and sees not a monster or a god, but a forlorn being, as lonely and as voiceless as herself. She reaches out to the creature and shows him kindness, feeding him boiled eggs, playing him musical records, and teaching him sign language. She learns that the Amphibian Man is an intelligent creature capable of thought, reason, and empathy and that her affection for him is reciprocal. They form a bond with each other akin to Beauty and the Beast (Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête was clearly a source of inspiration), except that here the romance does not depend on the beast’s transformation into a handsome prince. The star-crossed lovers are attracted to each other as they are, both spiritually and physically. As fairy tales were modernised in the 19th and 20th centuries and targeted towards children, a point was made to remove the sexual content and connotations of such fables as Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, and Little Red Riding Hood so that these stories might reflect the chaste (or, if you prefer, repressive) values of their times. In his contemporary adult’s fairy tale, Del Toro feels that it is more honest to allow the couple’s romantic feelings to manifest themselves as sexual desires and does not shy away from portraying it. Beauty and the Beast consummate their love and it is treated and shot like a romantic coupling between two souls, rather than in any kind of a fetishised or exploitative way.

However, in the midst of this “tale of love and loss” there is “the monster who tried to destroy it all”. This is Strickland, a demonstrative, almost stereotypical, symbol of the toxic masculinity of 1960’s America. He lives in the suburbs with his blonde 1950s wife (with whom sex is silent, dour, and missionary) and has two kids, a military career, and a Cadillac. He is also a sadistic bully who preys on the ‘Others’ and demonises them. He eroticises Elisa’s disability and sexually harasses her, he is unabashedly racist towards Zelda, he viciously dominates the physically inferior Dr. Hoffstetler, and he gets glee and elation from torturing the defenceless creature with his cattle prod. At one point he pushes the Amphibian Man too far and provokes him into lashing out, losing two fingers in the process. As the rotting flesh on his hand deteriorates and spreads with each passing day, so does the rot devour his soul more and more like a cancer until it finally drives him well and truly into a vengeful, furious state of madness. He is a familiar type of villain from the Gothic literature and art that has inspired del Toro throughout his career, a man whose heart is so black that he proves himself the real monster of the story, but an updated one whose outdated yet prevalent values are as relevant today as they are harmful.

Like many fairy tales, The Shape of Water is not a very probable story. As well as drawing on elements of fantasy, it takes illogical leaps in its plot and a lot of what follows suspends belief. But then, that’s why the magic of it all is so crucial. One of the great things about fairy tales as a genre is that their stories don’t have to follow logical plots if the emotions are strong enough to lead the way instead (The Wizard of Oz and La Belle et la Bête are both great examples of this). Part of the reason why this film succeeds is because the actors do such a tremendous job of conveying the emotions driving their actions. Hawkins is so expressive in a role that goes entirely unspoken (save a musical fantasy sequence in the style of Ginger Rogers and an aquatic Fred Astaire) she could have been a Hollywood silent movie star had she been born a century earlier. There were scenes where Elisa spoke more with her eyes than any actress could possibly have said with a hundred pages of dialogue. Opposite her, Jones (who has brought so many of Del Toro’s monsters to life in his previous films) delivers a remarkable physical performance as the Amphibian Man, a creature who speaks through musical cries, expressions, and movement.

Another reason The Shape of Water works so well as a fairy tale is the dreamlike atmosphere del Toro and his team were able to create. The film often employs watery imagery from the constant rainfall to the aquatic blues and greens of the sets and costumes to the dim lighting and wavering shadows. We see all this through the lens of a camera that hovers as if it were floating and which flows seamlessly across scenes. It all invokes the feeling of being submerged in the underwater world that we see in the opening scene and watching the film often felt like watching a dream. Accompanying that otherwordly sense throughout is the film’s musical score, a wistful composition that expresses what cannot be said in words. The feelings of melancholy and wonder that emerged were so overwhelming I couldn’t help but be swept away by the magic of it all. The Shape of Water is a beautiful, moving tale of love and loss and of finding your voice. It is a breathtaking, stunning picture that conjures profound emotions and explores the enigmas and ethics of humanity in the way that only fairy tales can.

★★★★★

Black Panther

Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whittaker, Andy Serkis

Director: Ryan Coogler

Writers: Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole


This is a groundbreaking film for Marvel, and for superhero movies in general, and it’s not just because Black Panther is the biggest, most expensive film to be written and directed by African-Americans and to feature a predominantly black cast. It is also the most politically ambitious film Marvel has ever produced as it seeks to speak openly about the struggles of black people, both historical and modern-day. There are obviously limits to what a film such as Black Panther can accomplish in this regard. It is a work of fiction that can only incorporate so much conflict in its two-hour runtime, it is an American production that, despite being set in Africa and drawing much inspiration from its culture, incorporates a decidedly Western viewpoint, and it is a mainstream blockbuster that cannot afford to make its politics too radical for fear of alienating audiences (including white ones). What the movie can do is reflect on the turmoil and experience of black people living in the world today and convey them in a personal and emotional way that speaks to the audience. That is exactly what Black Panther does and it works wonderfully.

The film is set in the fictional African nation of Wakanda, the home of the Earth’s only source of vibranium, the strongest metal known to man (it is the same metal used in Captain America’s shield). To protect themselves and the world at large from those who would use the metal and its immense power for destructive purposes, Wakanda has kept itself in isolation for centuries and today poses as a third-world nation with little to offer in trade. In truth Wakanda is the most technically advanced civilisation on the planet. There the people live in a metropolis of space-age skyscrapers, holographic computers and magnetically powered monorails. Culturally it is a society of an unmistakably African heritage. This is evident not just in the high-tech spears and shields used by the Wakandan army and their armoured rhinos (I don’t think I can emphasise this point enough: this movie has armoured rhinos!), it is also evident in the art, fashion, and architecture. It imagines a pure, utopian version of Africa that never saw the interference and devastation of European colonialism.

Following the death of King T’Chaka (John Kani) in Civil War, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) must assume his place both as king and as the Black Panther, the protector of Wakanda whose strength is enhanced by ingesting the Heart-Shaped Herb. Through the process of his inauguration as performed by Zuri (Forest Whitaker), a Wakandan elder and the people’s spiritual leader, we learn a few things about T’Challa. We learn that has great affection for his late father, his mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), and his kid sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) and that he still harbours a flame for his former girlfriend, Wakandan spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o). We learn that he is a strong but noble-hearted warrior, as we see when he emerges victorious in the ritual combat challenge for the throne and persuades his foe to yield rather than kill him as an example. We also learn that he feels a strong sense of duty to his people and nation and that his main priority as king will be to follow his father’s example and maintain the status quo. Thus, upon receiving word that the arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) has stolen a Wakandan artefact and intends to sell it, T’Challa, Nakia, and Okoye (Danai Gurira), the country’s greatest general, set out to South Korea to stop him.

The trio get there and learn that the deal is with CIA operative Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman). A series of chases and firefights results in the disruption of the deal, the escape of Klaue, and the grave injury of Ross. T’Challa decides not to pursue the arms dealer and instead takes Ross back with him to Wakanda, where they have the technology to heal him, thereby letting the CIA officer in on their secret as a technologically advanced civilisation. His decision is strongly opposed by many of his people, most notable his friend and head of security W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya). In the middle of the rift that emerges, Erik ‘Killmonger’ Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) enters the scene. A former black-ops soldier who more than earned his nickname, Killmonger reveals himself to be the son of T’Chaka’s brother N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown) who was killed in Oakland. He challenges T’Challa for the throne, which he sees as his birthright, making clear his intention to use Wakanda’s power and technology to unite their black brothers and sisters all over the world and lead them in a global revolution against their oppressors.

Killmonger falls under one of the most interesting categories of villains, those who are so sympathetic and relatable you could argue that they are not villains at all. At first Jordan wins you over with his swaggering charisma and playful viciousness, making Killmonger one of those villains you love to hate because the glee he gets from being evil is so infectious. But then we learn a bit more about him and the tragedy that shaped him into the man he is today. More importantly the movie takes his arc and creates parallels and contrasts between him and T’Challa, making them two sides of the same coin. They both live in the shadows of their fathers, both are driven by a desire to achieve something great, and both feel a strong sense of duty to their people. The difference is that T’Challa desires peace while Killmonger desires war. But it’s not as black and white as that. True, Wakanda has endured as a peaceful and prosperous nation and has kept the world safe from the harmful potentials of vibranium, but by isolating themselves from the rest of the world and failing to use their technology for the global good of mankind, they’ve been at best neglectful and at worst culpable in some of the world’s worst atrocities including the slave trade and the two world wars. That Coogler, Boseman, and Jordan are able to take this larger conflict and express it on such a personal level makes it all the more complex and compelling.

This movie isn’t just about T’Challa and Killmonger though, they have an entire ensemble supporting them with no less than three women who each deserve their own spotlight. There’s Nakia, the skilled fighter whose heart is more temperate than that of her ex and who teaches him that it is compassion and not strength that makes a great king. There’s Shuri, the child genius who is exactly the right amount of imaginative and reckless to invent the weapons and gadgets that T’Challa uses to fight and is just itching for the chance to use them herself (goodness knows what kind of mischief she’d get up to in Tony Stark’s lab). Best of all is Okoye. T’Challa may be the strongest warrior in Wakanda but even he wouldn’t disagree that Okoye is the fiercest. She is a soldier who serves Wakanda above all else, including her lover W’Kabi, and might very well have the most gripping arc of all. Sworn to defend the throne, whoever may sit on it, much of the drama hinges on whether she will uphold her oath to the death or whether her duty to her country compels her to rebel.

Visually, Black Panther is up there with Marvel’s best. Wakanda is a stunning realm of rich colours and imaginative designs, again all drawing heavily from African culture. (As someone who lived in Lagos for a few years, I can tell you that there is plenty of Nigeria to be found in the fashion, art, and accents). Coogler, who already proved in Creed that he knows how to shoot a great fight scene, keeps the combat small so that it never gets too cluttered, enabling him to keep things personal and intense. Even in the climax when things get a little bigger, his expert command over the geography of his scenes means that you never lose track of who is where at a given time. Add in the clearly defined progressions and turning points in the plots and the well established motivations and you have fight scenes that are all the more enjoyable because you know who everyone is, what they are doing, and why they are doing it.

And yet, even with all that going for it, it’s the social relevance that really makes Black Panther stand out. It offers a villain who stands as a symbol of black radicalism in opposition to white supremacy and, without endorsing its violent means and inescapably violent ends, allows us to understand and sympathise with the oppression and turmoil that drive this kind of rage. In the end the Wakandans do of course reject the path of revenge, but not in favour of a return to isolation. Instead they choose the path of compassion and improvement. Black Panther is a movie which acknowledges that times change and that what made sense and worked before may not be right anymore. The way forward then is to grow and change with the times and to try and create a better future. The alternative is Killmonger’s way and there are only two possible outcomes, either the hate destroys you or you become the very thing you want to destroy. T’Challa says it best in the line that speaks most directly to the world as it is today: “The wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers”. We need more movies like this.

★★★★★