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Toronto Film Review Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water

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Toronto Film Review: Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Toronto Film Review: Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water

Guillermo del Toro is an ingenious crafter of dioramas, of which The Shape of Water, a Cold War-era drama tinged with elements of the paranormal, is no exception. Yet where Crimson Peak’s clutter of dilapidated, rotting luxury felt like the jumping-off point for the Mexican filmmaker’s imagination to run amok, here del Toro appears restrained by the concrete and steel of an underground research facility. The setting yields an inherent coldness that the film must work to overcome, and for the first time in his career, del Toro visibly struggles to reconcile his premise with its execution.

The film’s protagonist, Eliza (Sally Hawkins), is a mute woman who works as a cleaner in a classified government laboratory. Del Toro establishes her loneliness via montages of her daily routine that show her boiling eggs, swabbing floors, and, in the most obvious giveaway of her emotional state, vigorously masturbating each morning inside a bathtub. Limited in communication to signing with her co-worker, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), Eliza largely keeps to herself, rarely making eye contact with superiors and expressing herself only in private.

Oscar 2017 Winner Predictions Supporting Actress

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Oscar 2017 Winner Predictions: Supporting Actress

Paramount Pictures

Oscar 2017 Winner Predictions: Supporting Actress

If for no other reason than managing to make blood, sweat, and tears no match for snot, the conspicuously overdue Viola Davis has this award locked down, and would in just about any year, even one when #AllLivesMatter emerged as the most virulent “alternative fact.” So we could easily cut this prognosticating short and give this race the Heath Ledger treatment and call it a day, which would be apropos given that Davis also emerged with her dignity intact playing opposite Ledger’s spiritual opposite in David Ayer’s Suicide Squad. (Then again, anyone who had to endure the gift of a dead piglet from Jared Leto would’ve come out smelling like roses, at least in the good old days when chief executives didn’t regularly and metaphorically douse significant portions of their electorate in pig’s blood.)

Oscar Prospects Fruitvale Station, A Contender on an Uncertain Track

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Oscar Prospects: Fruitvale Station, A Contender on an Uncertain Track
Oscar Prospects: Fruitvale Station, A Contender on an Uncertain Track

This is the first film year in a long while that’s made me want to applaud Harvey Weinstein. The mega-producer has suddenly become a powerful force in the dissemination of popular, feather-ruffling, discussion-prompting black cinema. The Weinstein Company gave us Fruitvale Station and Lee Daniels’ The Butler, and still to come is Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom with Idris Elba. These are just three titles in a year that’s uncommonly packed with major black-themed movies, and thanks to Weinstein’s backing, they’re that much more likely to be seen. That said, Weinstein is still the hungriest and savviest awards monger in the biz, and part of his motive for pushing these movies is, without doubt, their clear Oscar potential. At the risk of suggesting that Weinstein is an outright, opportunistic monster, it was admittedly hard—as a film-obsessed person, at least—to think of anyone else who was more pleased with George Zimmerman’s acquittal (apart from Zimmerman himself, that is). Having already serendipitously clinched priceless topicality with Fruitvale’s Trayvon Martin parallels, Weinstein suddenly had skyrocketing cultural rage in his corner, rage that a little film about the similarly, tragically slain Oscar Grant might alleviate. The modest Sundance sensation Weinstein acquired was now inextricably linked to one of the year’s biggest stories, a story that won’t be forgotten come Oscar-nomination time.

Oscar Prospects: Les Misérables

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Oscar Prospects: Les Misérables
Oscar Prospects: Les Misérables

With its Oscar clout and inevitable crowd-pleasing matched by widespread critical ire, Les Misérables is easily the year’s most divisive awards contender. The film does have its champions, like the oft-snarky New York Post critic Kyle Smith, who gave it the top spot on his 2012 top 10 list, but by and large, Les Mis has endured ample lashings from reviewers, as diverse as David Edelstein, Richard Corliss, and our own Calum Marsh. The divide between journos and tearful devotees has become one of the season’s buzziest narratives, most recently prompting helmer Tom Hooper to “respond to his critics,” whose qualms, as expected, couldn’t stop the musical from squashing the box-office competition on Christmas Day (the movie raked in $18.2 million, history’s second-largest holiday opening). What does it all mean for the movie’s Oscar fate? To be honest, probably not much. It seems unfathomable that Les Misérables won’t end up on the Best Picture shortlist, an outcome that was in the cards before a frame of footage was seen (or, arguably, before a frame of footage was shot).

The Conversations: Bamboozled

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The Conversations: Bamboozled
The Conversations: Bamboozled

Ed Howard: Towards the end of Spike Lee’s viciously funny media parody Bamboozled, there’s a shootout between the police and a militant rap group in which all the black members of the group are quickly killed, leaving behind the one white guy (played by MC Serch of real-life hip-hop outfit 3rd Bass). As the cops put him in cuffs, this one survivor repeatedly cries out to them, “Why didn’t you shoot me?” It’s such a poignant moment because he seems to be pleading with them, begging them to treat him the way they’d treated the black members of the group, demanding that he not be spared because of the color of his skin. He’s so upset, not only because his friends are all dead, but because he’s realized an essential truth that Lee is getting at in this movie: no matter how well he’d fit in with his black peers, no matter how fully he’d been accepted by them and participated in their work, he was still separated from them, cut off from their experience of the world at a very basic level over which he could have no control.

Throughout the film, Lee has multiple characters try to take on the attributes of a race other than the one indicated by the color of their skin: black people trying to sound white, white people trying to sound black, and of course many people of various races donning blackface as a TV-inspired fad. For the most part, Lee has nothing but contempt for these characters; MC Serch’s character is the one arguable exception, and in the end he can no more escape the color of his skin and what it means than anyone else in the film. I’m starting at the end, to some degree, because this sequence is so suggestive of the film’s themes, and also because we should probably admit up front that we’re two white guys about to discuss a film that has a very provocative and challenging view of race and racism. It’s a film that’s at least in part about how it’s all but impossible for one race to understand the experience of another—especially whites thinking they understand what it means to be black.

Bamboozled follows the black TV executive Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) as he develops a blackface minstrel show that he thinks will expose the racist attitudes of the media but only winds up feeding into and inflaming that racism. I didn’t entirely know what to make of this movie when it came out in 2000, but I’ve come to believe that it’s one of Lee’s best, right up there with Do the Right Thing. A bold satire that doesn’t pull any punches, Bamboozled is a deeply discomfiting film that’s purposefully exaggerated and outlandish and yet is packed with real-world references that ground its satire—even that shootout with the white survivor is based on real events. Lee is exploring the history of racist entertainment in the US, and as the closing montage makes clear, he’s suggesting that the same forces that made Birth of a Nation and the vaudeville caricatures of comics like Mantan Moreland so popular are still very much present, in a more covert way, in the modern American entertainment industry. As a result, Bamboozled does what great satire always does: it takes a scenario that should seem ridiculous—it’s hard to imagine an actual blackface variety show being aired on American TV today—and uses it to explore the submerged but very real racial attitudes that underpin all sorts of entertainment that only seems less racist than Delacroix’s Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show.

Oscar Winner Predictions 2012: Supporting Actress

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Oscar Winner Predictions 2012: Supporting Actress
Oscar Winner Predictions 2012: Supporting Actress

It’s more than just a little politically chancy but still unavoidable to look at Octavia Spencer’s sunny Oscar odds though the filter of co-star Viola Davis’s ascendance in the Best Actress category. But if voters are capable of feeling all right with themselves for rewarding Jessica Chastain’s miracle year with what most cognizant viewers recognize as one of the least distinguished of her six or seven roles last year, then we don’t feel quite as bad regarding Spencer and Davis as a mutually beneficial tag team, a thematic (ahem) salt-and-pepper-shaker duo that makes audiences feel mighty proud about honoring both. If anything, it’s Spencer’s role as The Help’s secret ingredient-wielding Minny Jackson (the maid who knows her value and thus must remind herself “no sass” even when walking up to Chastain’s absurdly understanding heiress) that strikes the most direct hit upon the movie’s target audience. Davis’s Aibileen absorbs an unjust world’s every last dribble of shit, but Minny literally excretes it and serves it up with a smirk. In the end, both women get to dress down Bryce Dallas Howard’s microcosmic representation of Southern evil, but only one of them has the satisfaction of sending her gagging out of the room.

Oscar 2012 Nomination Predictions: Supporting Actress

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Oscar 2012 Nomination Predictions: Supporting Actress
Oscar 2012 Nomination Predictions: Supporting Actress

Which performance will land Jessica Chastain her first Oscar nomination? Heading into awards season, that was the biggest question surrounding the Supporting Actress race, and with The Help having certainly surged ahead of films like The Tree of Life and Take Shelter, the question seems all but answered. Still, one could justifiably go to bat for each of the six supporting turns Chastain delivered last year. For instance, the otherwise mediocre spy thriller The Debt, an ensemble piece, unwittingly became a Chastain showcase, as the red-headed natural towered above everything around her while proving her wide range.

Oscar Prospects: The Help

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Oscar Prospects: The Help
Oscar Prospects: The Help

The Help represents a pitiful lack of progress, and that’s hardly an indictment of the ways its characters and events are depicted on screen. This is an affable, predominantly inoffensive bit of goes-down-easy middlebrow fare, whose crimes are mainly those of uninspired screenwriting technique (underwritten roles, conveniently sidestepped conflicts). Yet, the film’s inherent iconography incited a storm of knee-jerk disgust from cynics and ax-grinders, who took to Twitter with a litany of rants about Mammies, magical negroes and fried chicken. A counterattack of support for the film soon followed. The subject of race in the movies will always get people talking, but that this minimally provocative mainstream fluff was met with such exhaustive, tempestuous discourse feels culturally puerile, like tamed dogs fending off wolves on the hunt for the next Birth of a Nation. Now, the discussion of a movie that might have just as well come and gone with the rest of August’s releases has spilled over into the Oscar race, an arena in which there is, in fact, discussion to be had.

If people are looking for something to complain about, a better target would be the preposterously thriving Oscar whiteout, which last year led to the favoring of grotesque turns from Christian Bale and Melissa Leo over every incredible performance in For Colored Girls. This year, the only two black performers poised to be honored with nominations are those who play maids, a fact that’s far more contemptible than anything Tate Taylor presents in The Help. And the meager nomination tally won’t merely be a fault of the Academy, either, as there certainly wasn’t a wealth of baity work available for people of color this year, a year in which the only high-profile part that recent Oscar nominee Gabourey Sidibe can boast is, yes, a maid—in a Brett Ratner movie.