Hello and welcome to the movie blog of author John DeFrank - FilmZ and Guy Sobriquet Malone - Researcher

The Shape of Water

The Shape of Water review by FilmZ

Guillermo Del Toro's most acclaimed movie since Pan's Labyrinth is several things: a fable, an espionage film, a dark satire of the Cold War, a critical look at the hatred and fear of "otherness" in America in the 1960s--and, for the most part, it all comes together.  The screenplay by Del Toro and Vanessa Taylor (though it was recently hit by accusations of plagiarism) easily could have become a mess, but under his artistic vision--augmented by Dan Laustsen's Cinematography and Alexander Desplat's dreamlike score--it comes to the screen a romantic fairy tale, darkened by moody atmospherics.

Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a mute cleaning woman who lives in a rundown apartment above a movie theater.  Her neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), underemployed and in the closet, is a sweet, sad soul who is her best friend outside of work.  At work, fellow custodian Zelda (Octavia Spencer) looks after her as they clean a government facility in Baltimore.  It is 1962, the height of the Cold War, and paranoia runs rampant.  One day, a government agent named Strickland (Michael Shannon) shows up, wielding an electric cattle prod, accompanied by a sealed tank, containing an amphibian hominid (Doug Jones) that had been captured in the Amazon.  The creature is to be studied by a team of scientists, headed by Dr. Hoffstetler (the ubiquitous Michael Stuhlbarg), and staff is warned not to discuss anything they see, lest the Russians find out.

Elisa is fascinated; she feels a personal connection with the creature from the start, and she is horrified by Strickland's sadistic treatment of him.  Equally fascinated is Dr. Hoffstetler, albeit from a scientific perspective, and sympathetic, too.  He sees the growing fondness shared between Elisa and the creature.  During her lunch breaks, she brings him eggs and begins to communicate with him through sign language (don't think too much about how it is that a cleaning lady is permitted unlimited private access to the biggest government secret).  A bond forms between our beauty and beast.  Then a general arrives and demands progress with the "asset," and Strickland decides the only quick way to get answers is through vivisection, despite the emphatic objections of Dr. Hoffstetler, and as he tries to decide a course of action, Elisa has already swung into hers, with the complicity of Giles and Zelda.  Here, the film flows into thriller mode with moments of eroticism, some violence, and several twists we won't discuss here.

The Shape of Water takes several detours from Elisa's main storyline, mostly to lift the rock of the unsightly underside of what we remember as the halcyon days of the Kennedy years, a side that has made a recent resurgence.  We see Strickland's schizophrenic life as a suburban father of two--although he is equally strange but less vicious at home.  Giles excitedly takes Elisa to a pie shop he believes to be as all-American as, well, pie, only to find the deep-seated evangelical bigotry beneath the homey ambiance.  Dr. Hofftetler's private life is filled with secrets and loneliness.  With each shift in tone and mood, Del Toro makes clever choices in his color palette: During the main storyline, featuring Elisa, shades of green dominate, as if the creature has brought his world with him; outside the lab, in Strickland's and Giles' subplots, the screen is suffused with pastels, an unnatural veneer covering society's ills; when we follow Dr. Hoffstetler the movie takes on a film noir look.

As we know by now, TSoW has been nominated for a near-record 13 Oscars.  How many it wins may be influenced by how the plagiarism accusations pan out.  It is a gorgeous film, though not necessarily for everyone's tastes.  The cast is marvelous--rarely will we see a better group of supporting actors the quality of Jenkins, Stuhlbarg, and Shannon--and Del Toro brings out the best in them.  When Serfing Dude, Captain HE, and Guy S. Malone, Researcher, exited the theater, they acknowledged seeing a work of art, but as much as they appreciated it, they questioned how much they liked it.  We felt much the same, but in the days since, and as we write this, it has risen in our affection.  TSoW is not as accessible as Lady Bird, that's for certain, but it is nonetheless a must see.
8.5 out of 10 on an Entertainment Scale
8.5 out of 10 on an Awards Scale (we acknowledge its many nominations, but other films and other factors may chip away at the number of wins).

2018 Oscar Nominations and Early Picks

Some Observations and Early Thoughts on the 2018 Academy Awards
by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

The 90TH ACADEMY AWARDS will be telecast from the Dolby Theatre at the Hollywood & Highland Center on Sunday, March 4, 2018.  On Tuesday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences revealed its nominations for the 2018 Academy Awards.  As a wild year winds down, the fallout resulting from the disgusting acts of Weinstein and his ilk still permeates filmdom like a poison gas.  The Oscars telecast will deal with it, we are certain, but they will focus on the art and the light.

And the new.  While the structure of the program remains the same, and many old hands return to the scene, we feel a tide shifting.  Yes, Meryl Streep returns to claim what has become the honorary Meryl Streep slot, allowing for the recognition of only four other excellent actresses, but it's safe to say that only Margot Robbie stands less of a chance of winning.  Meryl's film, The Post, is standard Oscar-bait, and its director surely had that in mind when he cast her and Tom Hanks in the lead roles, with an eye on the Best Director slot for himself.  We know what happens to those best-laid plans, though, don't we?  Jordan Peele, in his rookie debut as writer-director, landed nominations in those two categories, plus Best Picture and Actor in his satirical horror film, Get Out.  Topping that, Greta Gerwig, in her solo directorial debut, wrote and produced Lady Bird, a quasi-autobiographical, coming of age film that has garnered five nominations.  And even more impressively, Guillermo Del Toro's beautiful fable, The Shape of Water, became the tenth film in Oscar history to earn 13 nominations (the record of fourteen nominations is held by All About Eve (1950), Titanic (1997) and La La Land (2016).

Enough pontificating.  Let's get to the films and the categories that will take center stage.  Below is a breakdown of each category, with early frontrunners in bold.  Sometime during the week before the Awards telecast, we will return with our final and more informed predictions.

First, here are the films that have earned multiple nominations:

The Shape of Water (Fox Searchlight) 13
Dunkirk (Warner Bros.) 8
Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (Fox Searchlight) 7
Darkest Hour (Focus Features) 6
Phantom Thread (Focus Features) 6
Blade Runner 2049 (Warner Bros.) 5
Lady Bird (A24) 5
Call Me by Your Name (Sony Pictures Classics) 4
Get Out (Universal) 4
Mudbound (Netflix) 4
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Walt Disney) 4
Baby Driver (Sony Pictures Releasing) 3
I, Tonya (Neon/30 West) 3
Beauty and the Beast (Walt Disney) 2
Coco (Walt Disney) 2
The Post (20th Century Fox) 2
Victoria & Abdul (Focus Features) 2

THE CATEGORIES (with early favorites in bold):

Since increasing the Best Picture category from five nominations to a maximum of ten, much discussion revolves around not only which films but also how many films will earn nominations.  Originally, the thought was that some box office monsters would be chosen, with hope that a pleasant result might be increased viewership of the Academy Awards show, but that has rarely been the case.  This year, 3rd top grosser Wonder Woman held hope, but it was overlooked; however, Dunkirk (14) and the year's surprise film Get Out (16) got in.  After that, we have to scroll to The Post  (52, as of this article) to find the next ranked nominee.  In a competitive year, notably overlooked films include The Big Sick, Molly’s Game, Mudbound, Victoria and Abdul.  Three of the best--Detroit, The Killing of a Sacred Deer and mother!--were too polarizing for the gentle tastes of the Academy, but history will elevate them, at least in cult status.  And Wind River fell victim to the Weinstein curse.
Right now, The Shape of Water and Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri are running neck and neck.  Before the Oscar nominations came out, it looked like Three Billboards had become the favorite, but McDonagh was not awarded a Director nomination and Del Toro was, so slight edge to TSoW.

Call Me By Your Name


Get Out

Lady Bird

Phantom Thread

The Post

The Shape Of Water

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

Dunkirk provides Christopher Nolan with his fifth nomination overall but his first for Director, a surprise to many who follow his work.  Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird), in her first solo directorial shot, is the fifth woman nominated for this award.  Despite winning several precursors Martin McDonagh (Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri) was not nominated in this category, a major snub, as was Director Luca Guadagnino (Call Me by Your Name) after earning BAFTA and Independent Spirit nominations.  Slightly less of a snub is the omission of Stephen Spielberg (The Post).  Darren Aronofsky (mother!) and Yorgos Lanthimos (The Killing of a Sacred Deer) made works of art extolled by peers and critics, but they were deemed too far outside the acceptable parameters of AMPAS and general audiences.  AMPAS must have figured one female director was enough because Kathryn Bigelow's terrifying Detroit and Patty Jenkins, whose Wonder Woman became the first billion-dollar film ever directed by a woman never entered the conversation.

Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk)

Jordan Peele (Get Out)

Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird)

Paul Thomas Anderson (Phantom Thread)

Guillermo Del Toro (The Shape Of Water)

Strong arguments could be made that any two among a group including Jessica Chastain (Molly's Game), Judy Dench (Victoria and Abdul), Nicole Kidman (The Beguiled), Jennifer Lawrence (mother!), Florence Pugh (Lady Macbeth), Kristen Stewart (Personal Shopper), and Michelle Williams (All the Money in the World) to be more deserving than Streep and Robbie.  But Streep is Streep. so she's going to get a nom any time she is eligible, and Robbie's people and her studio put on a publicity blitz that would make even the old Weinstein campaigns blush.

Sally Hawkins (The Shape Of Water)

Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)

Margot Robbie (I, Tonya)

Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird)

Meryl Streep (The Post)

Kaluuya and Washington are relative surprises--deserving, yes, but still surprises.  Timothy Chalamet is a 22-year old revelation, but his reward is the nomination.  Daniel Day-Lewis gets in on the "Streep Effect," especially since he announced his retirement after this.  No, folks, this is Gary Oldman's win, and not because "it's his time."  He earned it.  Some performances,  such as Jake Gyllenhaal's powerhouse in Stronger, Robert Pattinson's career best in Good Time, and Jeremy Renner, also a career best in Wind River could have earned nominations.

Timothée Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name)

Daniel Day-Lewis (Phantom Thread)

Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out)

Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour)

Denzel Washington (Roman J. Israel, Esq.)

Sam Rockwell won most of the precursors, but he wasn't running against another actor from the same movie (Woody Harrelson).  Is it possible those two split votes, enabling Willem Dafoe to sneak in?Michael Stuhlbarg and Armie Hammer (both Call Me by Your Name) were strong contenders who missed out.  (In fact, Stuhlbarg appeared in three nominated films--Call Me by Your Name, The Shape of Water, and The Post--and he gave awards-worthy performances in the first two.  And where in the name of all that is holy was the electrifyingly evil turn by Will Poulter or one of his victims, Algee Smith from Detroit?

Willem Dafoe (The Florida Project)

Woody Harrelson (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)

Richard Jenkins (The Shape Of Water)

Christopher Plummer (All The Money In The World)

Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)

Early favorite Hong Chau (Downsizing) merited Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations but was overlooked here, as were Kirsten Dunst (The Beguiled), Holly Hunter (The Big Sick), Michelle Pfeiffer (mother!), and Tatiana Maslany and Miranda Richardson (Stronger). When the awards season started, it looked like a race between Allison Janney and Laurie Metcalf, but Janney has kicked butt with the precursors.

Mary J. Blige (Mudbound)

Allison Janney (I, Tonya)

Lesley Manville (Phantom Thread)

Laurie Metcalf (Lady Bird)

Octavia Spencer (The Shape Of Water)

Noah Baumbach's The Meyerowitz Stories, sadly,  never made a dent in the conversation here.  In a very tough category, experts are saying Lady Bird, but we have a feeling that The Shape of Water or Get Out will take the day.  Let's say ...

Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani (The Big Sick)

Jordan Peele (Get Out)

Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird)

Guillermo Del Toro and Vanessa Taylor; story by Guillermo Del Toro (The Shape Of Water)

Martin McDonagh (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)

Not quite the competition here as in Original Screenplay, it seems to be boiling down to Mudbound versus Call Me by Your Name.  This will come as a surprise to the self-aware talents of Aaron Sorkin (also in his directorial debut for Molly's Game).  Also, Logan is the first superhero/comic book film nominated for Adapted Screenplay--it won't win, but it's an interesting bit of trivia.

James Ivory (Call Me By Your Name)

Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (The Disaster Artist)

Screenplay by Scott Frank, James Mangold, Michael Green; story by James Mangold (Logan)

Aaron Sorkin (Molly's Game)

Screenplay by Virgil Williams and Dee Rees (Mudbound)

Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049) is the most-nominated Cinematographer in the Academy’s 90-year history (18), Rachel Morrison (Mudbound) is the first woman ever nominated in this category, and Hoyte Van Hoytema's achievements in Dunkirk are astounding.  Deakins has been robbed a few too many times; this is a pick of my heart as well as my head.  Under-appreciated was Matthew Libatique (mother!), Ed Lachman (Wonderstruck)

Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049)

Bruno Delbonnel (Darkest Hour)

Hoyte Van Hoytema (Dunkirk)

Rachel Morrison (Mudbound)

Dan Lausten (The Shape Of Water)

I, Tonya is a bit of a surprise, considering some of the clunky skating sequences, but a good argument can be made for the rest.  A sliver above, though, are Dunkirk and Baby Driver.

Paul Machliss and Jonathan Amos (Baby Driver)

Lee Smith (Dunkirk)

Tatiana S. Riegel (I, Tonya)

Sidney Wolinsky (The Shape Of Water)

Jon Gregory (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)

Anyone who has seen the close-ups of Gary Oldman as Churchill has to favor Darkest Hour.

Kazuhiro Tsuji, David Malinowski and Lucy Sibbick (Darkest Hour)

Daniel Phillips and Lou Sheppard (Victoria & Abdul)

Arjen Tuiten (Wonder)

Well, here's a no-brainer.

Jacqueline Durran (Beauty And The Beast)

Jacqueline Durran (Darkest Hour)

Mark Bridges (Phantom Thread)

Luis Sequeira (The Shape Of Water)

Consolata Boyle (Victoria & Abdul)


John Nelson, Gerd Nefzer, Paul Lambert, Richard R. Hoover (Blade Runner 2049)

Christopher Townsend, Guy Williams, Jonathan Fawkner, Dan Sudick (Guardians of The Galaxy 2)

Stephen Rosenbaum, Jeff White, Scott Benza, Mike Meinardus (Kong: Skull Island)

Ben Morris, Mike Mulholland, Neal Scanlan, Chris Corbould (Star Wars: The Last Jedi)

Joe Letteri, Daniel Barrett, Dan Lemmon and Joel Whist (War For The Planet Of The Apes)


Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spencer (Beauty And The Beast)

Dennis Gassner and Alessandra Querzola (Blade Runner 2049)

Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spencer (Darkest Hour)

Nathan Crowley and Gary Fettis (Dunkirk)

Paul Denham Austerberry, Shane Vieau and Jeff Melvin (The Shape Of Water)

Carter Burwell also provided moving soundtrack on Wonderstruck.
Hans Zimmer (Dunkirk)

Jonny Greenwood (Phantom Thread)

Alexandre Desplat (The Shape Of Water)

John Williams (Star Wars: The Last Jedi)

Carter Burwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)

Unless a blockbuster musical has a nominated song, always go with the blockbuster animated feature.

"Mighty River" by Mary J. Blige, Raphael Saadiq and Taura Stinson (Mudbound)

"Mystery of Love" by Sufjan Stevens (Call Me By Your Name)

"Remember Me" by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez (Coco)

"Stand Up for Something" by Diane Warren and Lonnie R. Lynn (aka Common) (Marshall)

"This is Me" by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (The Greatest Showman)


Julian Slater, Tim Cavagin and Mary H. Ellis (Baby Driver)

Ron Bartless, Doug Hemphill and Mac Ruth (Blade Runner 2049)

Mark Weingarten, Gregg Landaker and Gary A. Rizzo (Dunkirk)

Christian Cooke, Brad Zoern and Glen Gauthier (The Shape Of Water)

David Parker, Michael Semanick, Ren Klyce and Stuart Wilson (Star Wars: The Last Jedi)


Julian Slater (Baby Driver)

Mark Mangini and Theo Green (Blade Runner 2049)

Richard King and Alex Gibson (Dunkirk)

Nathan Robitaille and Nelson Ferreira (The Shape Of Water)

Matthew Wood and Ren Klyce (Star Wars: The Last Jedi)

Loving Vincent is the first film done completely in oil paints, Ferdinand is adorable, but it won't overcome Coco.  While the absence of The LEGO Batman Movie is a surprise, the inclusion of Boss Baby is an absolute shocker.

The Boss Baby

The Breadwinner



Loving Vincent

There were three significant snubs: In the Fade (Germany), which won the Golden Globe and was considered a favorite here, Angelina Jolie's First They Killed My Father, and the AIDS activist drama, BPM (Beats Per Minute).  Otherwise, I have no idea about this category so I will mention the only other film I have heard of--A Fantastic Woman.

A Fantastic Woman (Chile)

The Insult (Lebanon)

Loveless (Russia)

On Body And Soul (Hungary)

The Square (Sweden)

In a surprise, Jane, the most rewarded Documentary Feature of 2017, misses out here.  So, another guess
Abacus: Small Enough To Jail

Faces Places


Last Men In Aleppo

Strong Island

For the following categories, you're on your own.  I haven't even researched yet I won't hazard a guess:


Edith + Eddie

Heaven Is A Traffic Jam On The 405


Knife Skills

Traffic Stop


DeKalb Elementary

The Eleven O'Clock

My Nephew Emmett

The Silent Child

Watu Wote/All Of Us


Dear Basketball

Garden Party


Negative Space

Revolting Rhymes

The Post

The Post review by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

Stephen Spielberg has a tendency to show an interest in more projects than ones to which he ultimately can commit (IMDb lists 20 projects in development).  In March of 2015, he and Jennifer Lawrence won the rights to It's What I Do, the compelling autobiography of war photographer Lynsey Addario, who has covered the hottest spots in the Middle East and was taken captive in Libya.  Last year, he began pre-production on The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara with Oscar Isaac, the true story of a Jewish boy in Italy, kidnapped by the Vatican because he had been baptized by a priest.  Instead, he moved forward with The Post, starring Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, old faithful John Williams, and a slew of TV stars, dramatizing the 1st Amendment battle between the press and the government over a cover-up of events surrounding US involvement in Vietnam.

A compelling story, but considering those involved, a cynic might accuse the Director of a naked Oscar grab.  No such cynic is Captain HE, a member in good standing of our august film group, who saw it as "Spielberg’s effort to counter the Trump created fake news storm, educate a new generation of Americans and praise the reemergence of the Woman’s Movement.  Really, an entertaining movie that reminds us that to trust your government to tell you the truth is like expecting Donald Trump to sacrifice for any cause but himself."

The film opens in Vietnam, where Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), a Harvard-educated Marine, embedded with US troops, is gathering information and reporting to Robert MacNamara (Bruce Greenwood, never better), Secretary of Defense, who want to compile a historical archive on US involvement in the region.  When Ellsberg becomes aware that US officials consider the war unwinnable but are determined to prolong it for political reasons, he decides to make his research public so that more soldiers won't have to die in a futile war.  He delivers the report to NY Times reporter, Neil Sheehan.  Enter Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks, hardass true believer), managing editor of the Washington Post.  Sheehan had dropped off the grid, and Bradlee, who wants to elevate his paper from a local rag to a national player like the NY Times, fears that Sheehan is onto something big.  Too late, he learns his fears are justified, but as soon as the Times releases a portion of the information, the Nixon White House obtains a court injunction, barring further publication arguing national security and the endangerment it would bring our troops.

Meanwhile, Katharine "Kay" Graham (Meryl Streep), has taken ownership of the Post after the suicide of her husband.  Trying to find her way in the established patriarchal order, she is about to make the paper a publicly-traded stock.  The only hurdle to Graham's plan is that the Post must avoid a catastrophic event for the next eight days, after which the banks' commitment will be contract-bound.  What could possibly happen to jeopardize that?  Well, star Post reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) connects the dots on the source of the Times' story, and they lead to his old friend Ellsberg.  Bradlee sees an opportunity to get the full report and publish material the Times has not yet revealed--in his mind going beyond the purview of the injunction.  As Bradlee reveals his plan to Graham, she realizes that the revelations could destroy MacNamara who happens to be one of her oldest and closest friends; further, it could land both Graham and Bradlee in jail and destroy the paper.  With Byzantine intrigue, Bagdikian contacts and arranges a meeting with Ellsberg (an adventure in itself that takes advantage of Odenkirk's comic touch to lighten the suspense) and ends up with thousands of pages, boxed up beside him on a plane back to Washington.

Thus sets up the many-faceted drama, pitting Bradlee, Bagdikian, and other Post notables like Meg Greenfield (a charismatic Carrie Coon) against the Nixon White House.  But first, they have to get the approval of Graham and to do that, they have to get past her top advisor Fritz Beebe (the chameleonic Tracy Letts), Board veteran Arther Parsons (Bradley Whitford, purse-lipped and patrician), and the Post legal team represented by Roger Clark (Jesse Plemons, excellently cast against type).  Spielberg masterfully cuts from one group to the next, to interactions between and among all, culminating in a decision that Graham can't avoid.

Journalism has been the fodder of some excellent films, notably All the President's Men and Spotlight.  Despite uniformly excellent performances by a quality cast,  The Post does not reach those ethereal heights, mainly because Speilberg leans a bit too far into Clint Eastwood territory: he tells us how just and righteous it is instead of simply relating the story and letting us judge for ourselves (at one point Bradlee says, “We have to be the check on their power. If we don’t hold them accountable, who will?”).  And the feminist iconography of Graham's victorious exit from the Supreme Court through a throng of adoring women cuts the ham close to the bone.  Having gone to Spielberg's film just days after we saw Darkest Hour, it was easy to compare the two: The Post was slicker and more polished, like a movie; Darkest Hour rang truer, looked truer, and as a result carried more suspense.  Overall, heed Captain HE's words though, and see The Post not only because is it is a very good film, but more importantly as a well-timed reminder of the importance of an unfettered free press and the First Amendment protections against government tyranny.
8.5 out of 10 on an Entertainment Scale
7.0 out of 10 on an Awards Scale

Logan Lucky

Logan Lucky Review by FilmZ

We missed Logan Lucky when it made its theatrical run because my associate, Guy S. Malone, Researcher, dismissed it as "Oceans 11 for the NASCAR set."  The fact that his summation was accurate doesn't alter the fact that our family thoroughly enjoyed it on New Year's Eve while Guy S. Malone, Researcher, turned up his nose and decided instead to, erm, "research" a gallon of moonshine his Allegheny Mountain cousin Harley distilled and named "Daytona 500 Fuel."  I only mention this because the delicious irony was lost on my associate along with several million of his brain cells and nearly his eyesight.

We should have appreciated the fact Steven Soderbergh, a master of crime movies, including the Oceans trilogy, came out of his brief retirement to direct Logan Lucky, a film produced by and starring former collaborator (Magic Mike) Channing Tatum.  Along with first-time screenwriter Rebecca Blunt (rumored to be a pen name of Soderbergh's wife, Jules Asner), they have concocted a fast-paced heist movie whose implausibilities and coincidences we go along with because everyone is having so much fun.

Jimmy Logan (Tatum) is a former West Virginia high school football hero, who has just lost his construction job at the Charlotte Motor Speedway.  His ex, Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes) has custody of their daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie) and is intent on making her a child beauty queen, but in spirit she's more like her dad.  Jimmy has a hairdresser sister Mellie (Riley Keough), fast driver and quick wit, who also happens to be the smartest of the Logans, and a brother Clyde (Adam Driver), a bartender who lost his left arm in the military.  Unemployed, with no discernible skills, and living under the infamous "Logan curse," Jimmy hatches a dubious plot: to rob the Charlotte Speedway.  He has a plan, written in simple, and simple-minded steps on butcher block paper tacked to the wall in his home.  While he was on his job, you see, he discovered the system of vacuum tubes by which the race track gathers its money and whooshes it to a central underground vault.  After recruiting his siblings, he and Clyde visit Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), an appropriately-named safecracker in prison.  With the promise of an airtight alibi and a split of a take, they bring him in, but at a cost: Jimmy must also employ Joe's moronic brothers, Sam (Brian Gleeson) and Fish (Jack Quaid).

As the convoluted (in a good way) scheme becomes operational, the Logans and their crew run into Soderbergh's typical array of extended cameos: nasty Brit Max (a Snidely Whiplash-mustachioed Seth MacFarlane), angelic bloodmobile nurse Sylvia (Katherine Waterston), reckless racecar driver Dayton (Sebastian Stan) unwittingly helpful prison warden (Dwight Yoakam), and dogged FBI agent (Hilary Swank), and true cameos from LeAnn Rimes, Darrell Waltrip, Jeff Gordon, and Mike Joy.  The primary cast is uniformly likable, and they seem to have had genuine fun in the same way the old Burt Reynolds rural working-man comedies did.  Riley Keough is sharp and strikes all the right notes as the savvy, sassy sister; Adam Driver shows a comic flare as brick-dumb but sincere brother, and Channing Tatum keeps getting better.  But the real star is Daniel Craig cast against type, as a bleached blonde, comic hardcase.  Soderbergh's signature finishing touch--a step-by-step flashback trail revealing how the pieces of the heist came together don't come together perfectly without our buying several implausibilities and coincidences, but in the end we should allow the Logans a little luck, shouldn't we?

7.5 out of 10 on an Entertainment Scale
4.0 out of 10 on an Awards Scale

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Star Wars: The Last Jedi review by FilmZ

The Last Jedi is the best Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back.  I realize that might be considered as damning with faint praise, especially after the sheer garbonia (garbage with a foul odor) the series has produced, from Ewoks through young Anakin.  In 2015 came the reboot with The Force Awakens--or should we say the remake of A New Hope?--with the familiar swings from wooden acting to over-emoting and gung-ho corniness.  Then came Rogue One, a B-level Guns of Navarone.  So, yeah, as the lights lowered, our belief was that only the "Star Wars" label saved these films from a stint on Mystery Science Theater.  Then came the thrilling strains of John Williams score and the opening crawl, and I returned to 1977 and my own new hope.  This time, it was rewarded, and credit goes to new writer-director Rian Johnson who, as scribe, created an original, layered story, infused with passion; as director, he actually directs the actors, coaxing honest, believable performances out of most of them.

We pick up where we left off with Rey (Daisy Ridley), having flown with Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) to the remote island where Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), AKA The Last Jedi, is holed up in a state of self-loathing Depression.  We've been waiting two years for Rey to hand off that lightsaber, and as she does, Luke becomes, shall we say, difficult.  Rey is nothing if not determined.  Refusing to leave, she splits time between meditating and haranguing Luke to train her.  During the former, she makes a psychic connection with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), and begins to develop the notion that she can turn Ren away from Snoke (Andy Serkis) and the Dark Side.  Luke is doubtful, given his experience with his former padawan, not to mention Ren's homicidal history.

A subplot follows the ragtag band of Rebels as they try to survive a race across space, pursued by First-Order dreadnoughts and destroyers, led by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and Ren.  It opens with flying ace Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) leading a squadron of X-Wings in support of bombers, trying to down a dreadnought (yes, we mean down, for, in Star Wars outer space, somehow gravity exists--bombers descend when hit, the bombs drop down from bombers).  The Rebels prevail, but at such a cost of bombers and crews that Poe incurs the wrath of Gen. Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), whose prime directive is to escape the pursuing First Order while saving as many rebels as possible.  They don't reveal their strategy in what seems like a hopeless situation, which drives Poe to the brink of mutiny, as he wants to attack (with equally hopeless odds).  A third subplot is murky and, ultimately pointless, other than to give Finn (John Boyega) something to do--and, most hopefully, provide the seed for another spinoff film.  On the positive side, it introduces two terrific characters to the SW universe.  The first is Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), a resourceful mechanic smitten with Finn who also wants retribution for the loss of her bomber pilot sister.  The second is DJ (Benicio DelToro), a safecracker Finn and Rose recruit to assist is the Rebels' escape.

Smash cuts from plot to subplot to subplot move faster than we can sort at times, and, although the story moves forward only incrementally it becomes deeper and richer.  With a runtime of more than two-and-a-half hours, TLJ could have easily cut a couple cycles.  The film is never boring, though, just redundant at times, mainly the flying combat and Finn's adventure, though the hand-to-hand and lightsaber fights are well-choreographed--the fight in Snoke's throne room is one of the best in the entire series.  And Johnson makes room for welcome humor.  As the pompous but ineffectual Hux, Gleeson shows a deft comic flair that serves as a release valve during some otherwise heavy scenes.  Tran is a find; her Rose is both offhandedly brilliant techie and exuberant fangirl.  And Johnson even made inventive use of a nuisance: On Luke's island, so many puffins disrupted filming that the director decided to CGI them into adorable "porgs" that bring some soulfully comic moments with Chewbacca.  And then, of course, there is every scene BB-8 steals.

Perhaps the greatest improvement is the acting, and in this, we can make direct comparisons with just two years ago.  Actors from whom we expect top performances, based on their other film work deliver this time around.  Oscar Isaac is less hammy flyboy and more passionate warrior, Adam Driver is no longer Emo-Vader; he is a psychologically damaged young man, resentful of his abandonment.  In 2015, we didn't have a book on Daisy Ridley; for all we knew her ever-present threat-level midnight grimace comprised the extent of her talent.  In TLJ, we see her performance nuanced--searching, ardent, determined; in short, Rey is a character we can identify with, have feelings for.  With John Boyega, it's a little different.  Like Ridley, in The Force Awakens he was unimpressive; in TLJ, it seems like he's trying to imitate Denzel.  Oh well.  Special effects, of course, are a Star Wars specialty, and as the years have advanced, so have they.  The aerial battles still push the edge of our patience, but the new creatures are cool.  In addition to porgs, there are "caretakers," creatures indigenous to Luke's island that look like amphibian potatoes; "fathiers," space horses raced competitively; coolest of all, "vulptices," crystal foxes that can light the way at night.  And finally, that most consistent of the series stars, John Williams' score.  His variations on the basic theme and specific motifs still drive both our nostalgia and adrenaline.  Enjoy The Last Jedi, folks, just as Rey handed the lightsaber to Luke, Rian Johnson will be handing the baton back to J.J. Abrams for Episode IX.
8.0 out of 10 on an Entertainment Scale
7.0 out of 10 on an Awards Scale (potential nominations in technical production catagories)

Darkest Hour

Darkest Hour review by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

Director Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice) teamed with writer Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything) on Darkest Hour, a historical drama about Winston Churchill's early days as Britain's Prime Minister, and they succeeded where so many have failed: even though we knew the ultimate outcome, they kept us on the edge of our seats.  Curiously, this is the third of three Dunkirk movies released in 2017 (comedy-drama Their Finest in April, Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk in July).  Darkest Hour chronicles the viewpoint of Churchill (a fabulous Gary Oldman) and drives home how dire the situation was--for the world, for Europe, for Great Britain, and for Churchill himself.  One of the many strengths of this film is Wright's and McCarten's ability to bring context and perspective to the cataclysmic events of May 1940 while rarely leaving Churchill's side.

It is early May, and British Parliament has delivered a vote of no confidence to the government of Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), due to his appeasement of Hitler.  Hopes are high that Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) will pick up the gauntlet, but he argues his time has not yet come.  They strike a reluctant political decision to recruit Churchill, the only candidate to meet favor with the opposition, even though he is hardly in favor with his own party and, more importantly, with King George (Ben Mendelsohn).  Time is of the essence, though: Germany has overrun Belgium; France is falling; the Western Front is disintegrating so fast that over 300,000 British troops are trapped on the Dunkirk beach and may be driven into the sea before Churchill can mount an evacuation.

That is the macro.  The micro is filtered through Churchill's interpersonal relations, mostly with Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), his new secretary, whom he initially terrorizes but soon develops a fondness.  She is our British everywoman, and it is through her eyes we see the man's inner workings and thoughts as her nuanced expressions--frustration, pain, fear--mirror our own.  At home, his loyal wife Clemmie (Kristen Scott-Thomas), whose tart wit exceeds even that of her husband, buoys his spirit and cuts him down to size as the situation demands.  In the War Ministry, elder statesman Chamberlain quietly tries to temper Churchill's combative impulses, while Halifax is oppositional to the point of undermining the Prime Minister.  As each day brings Britain closer to the brink of destruction, Halifax urges peace negotiations with Hitler as brokered by Mussolini while Churchill rejects any and all solutions that smack of capitulation.  Through weekly lunch meetings with King George, Churchill grudgingly shares information.  For his part, the monarch, initially untrusting and somewhat cowed by his blustery PM, maintains a calm, objective distance.  Over time, that relationship develops, and at the darkest hour, when Churchill seems to have exhausted all options, a bit of simple, subtle wisdom from the King lights the path for Churchill.

Amid high profile Hollywood fodder, bombastic campaigns, hyped performances, and film festival darlings, Darkest Hour slips in unobtrusively, taking a modest nibble out of the holiday box office.  With uniformly excellent performances across the cast, cinematic authenticity, and compelling narrative, our regard for this film increases upon reflection.  This is Gary Oldman's finest hour; inside remarkably invisible prosthetics, he becomes Churchill, and very well may garner that elusive but richly deserved Oscar.  Lily James continues her impressive roll; if she had the benefit of Margot Robbie's aggressive publicists, she would be among the favorites for Supporting Actress.  Ben Mendelsohn's subtle perfection of the King's speech, is among the year's best Supporting Actor performances.  Bruno Delbonnel's Cinematography gives a strong feeling of place and time.  Add Dario Marianelli's score, the film's Production Design, Costume Design, and Makeup/Hairstyling, and the senses rush to 1940 London to a most vivid darkest hour.

9.0 out of 10 on an Entertainment Scale
8.5 out of 10 on an Awards Scale
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