Now that the Oscar nominees have been announced, here are a few thoughts on some contenders (as well as one that did not get as much love) still on display at your local bijou:
Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water (co-written by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor) is a strikingly lensed, beautifully structured fable akin to Amelie meets Creature from the Black Lagoon crossed with a bit of Starman. By now, most know the premise: In a government laboratory circa the early 60s, lonely, mute cleaner Sally Hawkins (her best friends are Richard Jenkins as a gay struggling artist Octavia Spencer as a sympathetic co-worker—all three are up for acting Oscars) discovers she is able to communicate with the lab’s latest acquisition: a Gill-Man reputed to be a god where he is originally from. Naturally the question comes up as to what to do with this creature: a relentless Michael Shannon wants to cut him up and study him, while scientist (with secrets) Michael Stuhlbarg very good--and in everything nowadays) wants to study the creature and perhaps put him to use (as in the Space Race). There is so much that works about The Shape of Water, from its lilting Alexandre Desplat score in keeping with the film’s sense of wonder, to the fine performances—Shannon didn’t get a nod but his vengeful, implacable official is a standout--to the finely crafted screenplay and direction, which provides some insight into the time period without bludgeoning you with the “significance.”. The film falters a little near the end, as it makes some choices that perhaps are a little too facile. Otherwise, The Shape of Water is a fairly captivating concoction and a worthy Oscar nominee. (Is it worthy of thirteen nominations? I’ll leave that to you.)
Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird is getting all kinds of critical love for her screenplay and direction, as well as the sterling performances of its cast. Saorise Ronan is a senior in a Catholic high school in Sacramento, circa 2002, and she faces most of the situations one might expect a senior would encounter: college pressures; friends, loyal and otherwise; budding romances; betrayals big and small; shifting family dynamics, particularly her contentious relationship with her mother (the superb Laurie Metcalf). Lady Bird is fairly observant and amusing, with some genuinely poignant moments, courtesy of Metcalf, Ronan, and Tracy Letts (as ‘Lady Bird’s’ supportive but troubled father). However, in terms of high school angst, last year’s superior The Edge of Seventeen covered much of the same emotional terrain (though it was sadly neglected come nomination time) with a tad more humor and heart (if anyone happens to be curious about checking it out).
The Greatest Showman and The Commuter
In terms of pure entertainment (without the Oscars benediction), it would be hard to go wrong with either The Greatest Showman or The Commuter. Both showcase fine performers (Hugh Jackman and Liam Neeson, respectively) doing what they do best (at least currently): Hugh Jackman’s P.T. Barnum in The Greatest Showman is given plenty of opportunity to display his irrepressible energy, as well as his singing and acting chops; in short, he’s a dynamo playing a dynamic impresario (with the occasional moment for regret and rumination) in this romanticized version (by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon) of Barnum’s emergence as a showman extraordinaire. Jackman is given plenty of support by an infectious, tuneful score and an engaging cast led by Zac Efron as his younger partner, Zendaya as the object of Efron’s affections, a luminous Michele Williams as Barnum’s patient, supportive wife, and the members of Barnum’s troupe, especially Keala Settle as one tough bearded lady. While this won’t win awards (except maybe Best Song), The Greatest Showman is satisfying, rousing entertainment. And this is also true of The Commuter, starring Liam Neeson as a newly unemployed family man who encounters all sorts of challenges and possible conspiracies on his commute from Manhattan to Cold Spring, courtesy of a personable, enigmatic (and seemingly omnipresent) Vera Farmiga. The set-up is intriguing, the action fairly believable (given Neeson’s age—which he constantly refers to), and it all builds to a (literally) smashing finish. Like The Greatest Showman, accuracy is not its strong suit, but The Commuter is gripping entertainment all the same.