The Shape of Water (2017) – A Review

shapecover.0Guillermo del Toro may know better than any living filmmaker how to create a fantasy with intelligence and maturity. The Shape of Water begins with a dreamscape that would be awkward in lesser hands but feels visionary under del Toro’s touch. The camera glides through a teal green water world, past wavering chairs, lamps and tables, all swirling in the interior of a flooded apartment like a school of fish. Floating amid them, also underwater, is a woman comfortably slumbering on the living room sofa.

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As the water slowly drains away, we hear the melancholy voice of the male narrator. “If I told you about her, the Princess Without Voice, what would I say?” Soul-satisfying shots, a lulling introduction to a sleeping beauty; what better way to set the scene for a journey into make-believe?

Like his other films, The Shape of Water never lacks artistry. This dreamlike story is about love and loneliness, and how most of us are probably unfulfilled until we find that special someone who really gets us. All the main characters are shunned by the community in different ways––Elisa (Sally Hawkins) can’t speak, her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) is old and has been unable to live as a gay man, her colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer) is African American, and her new best friend is a childlike, often wild ocean creature who may have been a deity and was apparently worshipped by people in the Amazon.

Jenkins shines as Giles, bringing humor and warmth to the film, while Hawkins blows the character out of the water in a galvanizing performance that balances both strength and vulnerability. She is a mute woman living a tidy, orderly, and sheltered life in early 1960s Baltimore. She lives alone but enjoys close relationships with a handful of friends.

Guillermo del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor use the character of Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon) to demonstrate whose opinion counted the most during that period–the straight, white male. At one point, Strickland, who is the villain, even tells Zelda that God probably looked like him rather than her during a conversation in his office.

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The writers have carved quite an exquisite little gem. Of course, del Toro being del Toro, his tale also contains clusters of eroticism and violence. Elisa and her handsome aquatic friend not only make impassioned love, they are an effective team and communicate better than the speaking characters do. The orgasmic moments are charming, not lewd, and the moments of gore are precisely crafted to advance the story, not provide shock value (though they do).

Ultimately, del Toro wants us to know that we don’t need words to express how we feel and love can conquer everything. The story is helped by the world that is created by del Toro through the visuals, costumes, and location. The vibrant greens and deep reds help bring the story to life. The film also uses practical effects rather than CGI with the creature played by Doug Jones.

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The Shape of Water builds to a buoyant liquid finale that echoes the weightless opening. Fitting for a film that sends you away with your feet off the ground. It’s an unforgettably romantic, utterly sublime, dazzling phantasmagoria.

 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – A Review

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In Bruges (2008) director Martin McDonagh has nailed what could be a contender for Best Picture at the 90th Academy Awards ceremony with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and while there’s still plenty of time for someone else to clench Oscar, that doesn’t stop the Englishman’s latest script from being just about everything you could ask for in a screenplay.

It’s not as out-and-out a comedy as the director’s last two features, but Three Billboards still has all of McDonagh’s unforgettable wit. And as the title suggests, you should be sure to expect something a little idiosyncratic or different. In fact, at first, it almost seems as if McDonagh has put together a rather moody drama.

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“My daughter was murdered 7 months ago, it seems tome the police department is too busy torturing black folk to solve actual crimes.”

The first thing we see in this movie is the androgynous-looking Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) chugging along a forgotten road in thick, split pea soup fog. At the foot of a green valley, she pulls up in her station wagon and stares long and hard at three giant billboards in a row along the road. Country music plays softly in the background, and the camera follows her gaze to what looks like a cemetery of old-school style advertising.

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“What’s the law on what ya can say on a billboard?”

The scene is filled with a sense of longing and a wonderful momentary contemplation of a world that is being blotted out by more recent digital substitutes, and also a part of middle America that has been cut out by larger, more modern highways that suck people away from them. While this is deep and all, McDonagh doesn’t indulge in the retrospection contemplation for long.

Seconds after this scene, Mildred swaggers into the local advertising company. In a badass slow-mo she saunters in, while music that suggests something not unlike a spaghetti western shoot out is about to go down plays in the background. Except this time, only verbal bullets are fired, and soon Mildred is barking at the company manager in a series of brilliant one-liners. The put-downs in this film are really exceptional, and when two sparring characters come up against each other, there are few places you’d rather be than watching this film.

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“I know I’m a midget who sells used cars and has a drinking problem, I know that.”

The story achieves an incredible mix between significant social critique, moving drama, and perfect comedy. This may sound like those things could in no way be linked, but this movie pulls it off in a way that feels like a darkly themed novel. There’s a deep-seated sadness about the wrongs of the world, but at the same time there’s this defiant, almost shrill squeal of laughter against the darkness and despair of McDonagh’s fictional world. There is humor in the thoughts, actions and lives of Mildred and Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), as they slowly go to war over the case of Mildred’s brutally murdered daughter.

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Frances: “I was in Fargo.” Woody: “Well, I was in the television show based on the movie.”

The best thing about Three Billboards is that it never does what you think it’s going to do. Ever. With genuinely impressive creativity and uneasiness, it’s constantly coming at you from left field with immensely funny quips and unexpected character actions that you could never see coming. McDonagh arms every scene with surprises and shapes all the shocks into something that is totally perfectly formed and watchable. Three Billboards is a shining example for screenwriters everywhere and it has the lowest body county for a McDonagh film (2).

American Made (2017) – A Review

 

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Apparently, Tom consumed the entire bottle of Drink Me potion and is now bigger than a mother fucking plane.

In the late 1970s, TWA pilot Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) leaves his mundane job after being recruited by the CIA to fly recon missions over South American countries. Eventually, he’s also hired by the Cartel so he basically stockpiles guns and drugs, launders money and makes exhilarating aerial escapes in American Made (2017).

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Barry Seal serving his country.

Director Doug Liman reunites with Cruse after Edge of Tomorrow (2014) for a groovy adaptation of a based-on-true-events story about a pilot who smuggled drugs for the Colombians and arms to Nicaragua for the Reagan administration. Seal becomes a comically productive employee, and Cruise is, of course, the right person for the task. Lightweight, but fun, with amusing period details and a George W. Bush “cameo.”

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They misunderestimated me.

American Made is one of the highest-rated mainstream releases this year and I can see why. Tom Cruise’s charismatic performance and good ol’ boy sensibility wins the audience over. Big time. Cruise propels himself to be a high-octane fireball of energy and he’s more than committed–he’s downright capable. It’s a performance of complete exhaustion and any other actor couldn’t have handled it with the same laudable poise and vigor.

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Show me the money. And the coke. But mostly the money.

Tom’s latest work belongs to the same genre as The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and War Dogs (2016). All three stories are set during turbulent times in American politics, celebrating excess and highlighting rampant corruption through cynical humor. If you enjoy a tale with an anti-hero at its core and plentiful observations about the unethical political landscape, this one’s for you.

Cinematographer Cesar Charlone (City of God) delivers American Made with an old school visual palette. The film resembles the high fidelity quality of a VHS tape, starting with the Universal logo all the way to the grainy credits. The mise-en-scène bears the kind of underwhelming and awkward primary colors you’d find opening a 70s porn flick when you should be asleep.

Doug Liman choreographs the stunts and handles the aviation scenes with clarity and precision with snappy editing and infectious energy. American Made is a well-made romp with Cruise in solid form.

Logan Lucky

 

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After a four-year hiatus from Hollywood, director Steven Soderbergh is back in action with another crafty heist caper. Logan Lucky (2017) shares the same chemistry as the Oceans trilogy except the director replaces the snappy suits with daisy dukes and classic rock t-shirts. He exchanges the chaos of the casino floor with the roar of NASCAR engines. The result is basically the director’s version of a highly stylized Southern hot mess like Dukes of Hazzard or Smokey and the Bandit. Logan is one hella good time.

john_schneider_general_leeThe plan involves exploiting the Charlotte Motor Speedway’s pneumatic air tube system, used to quickly transport cash from the concession stands into an underground repository. Thanks to his time on a construction job, the main character (Jimmy) played by Channing Tatum, knows where things converge, but to score the booty he’ll need someone with a background in demolition — namely, Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), a certified vault virtuoso currently doing time for a string of elaborate bank robberies. With five months remaining on his sentence, Joe isn’t exactly available on the heist date. Jimmy’s wild scheme not only includes springing his accomplice from the clink, but returning him before anyone realizes he’s gone missing.

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Logan Lucky is filled with delightfully ridiculous ideas and despite the incompetent nature of the team, the caper is an unexpectedly intricate affair. The limited resources and intellect of folks at the helm requires a certain suspension of disbelief and Danny Ocean would have found the whole thing difficult to conceive, much less accomplish, but it’s so damn fun that the audience seldom minds the various implausibilities that explode on the screen.

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Craig plays wildly against type and obviously has an absolute blast pulling it off. The fact that a character named Joe Bang would be such an endearing character is just one of the many surprises tucked up Soderbergh’s sleeve.

It’s difficult to find much fault in Logan (except for the title) when it’s so undeniably fun to experience. Yes, experience. Soderbergh takes the piss outta Southern culture without coming across as mean-spirited. He successfully blends his heist film know-how with the world of dirty pick-ups and sweet John Denver songs, resulting in one of the funniest and most purely enjoyable films of 2017.

Movie Review: Split

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Plot twist! The biggest surprise is that M. (Manoj) Night Shyamalan finally gets his Hitchcockian groove back. Split (2016), Shyamalan’s deviously playful horror thriller, is completely bonkers and satisfies as a companion piece to his earlier, more successful works.

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Of course, I have a cameo. I’m billed as ‘Jai, Hooters Lover’

James McAvoy is both frightening and magnetic in his split personality role. He demonstrates his crazy-good acting skills as the devious kidnapper who imprisons three girls in an underground bunker. He tells them they are being kept as “sacred food.”

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I face my greatest challenge yet: being directed by M. Night Shyamalan (oh, and playing a dozen distinct personalities…but mainly the first thing).

To make matters worse, he suffers from dissociative identity disorder (DID), meaning his victims (one being the resourcefully enigmatic Anya Taylor-Joy from The Witch (2015)) are never sure which of his 23 tortured souls will steal the limelight next.

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Wouldst thou like the taste of butter…and a pretty dress? Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?

A radical psychiatrist played by charismatic Betty Buckley (Abby from Eight is Enough) believes DID patients can access supernatural abilities.

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24 personalities? I thought eight was enough.

It’s this convincing concept that grips the audience through every suspenseful turn. I was tickled by this film even though it transcends the boundaries of common sense and good taste.

 

 

Hidden Figures – A Review

Astronaut John Glenn died last month, a man who not only spent decades in the US Senate, but was also the first American to orbit the Earth in a space capsule. President Barack Obama noted that Glenn’s life “reminded us that with courage and a spirit of discovery there’s no limit to the heights we can reach together.” Hidden Figures (2016) is a reminder of the earthly obstacles that needed to be removed before those lofty heights could be attained.

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This overlooked history lesson about three unheralded black women who deserved their due for analytical geometry is a significant one but also entertaining and marvelously acted. These mathematical geniuses were known as ‘human computers’ for their computational abilities.

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Based on the novel by Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures shines a light on the unsung pioneering heroes behind the scenes at NASA in 1961, as the Russians were ahead of the game in the space race.

The efforts of the three main characters would lead to John Glenn’s eventual orbit around Earth, relying upon exact calculations, and thus would mark an important turning point in civil rights and gender equality.

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This film is driven by bright performances. These strong, smart, proud women are far from just sassy; they are fierce and excel at their jobs. In bringing life to Katherine G. Johnson (who’s alive and kicking at age 97), Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and acting newcomer Janelle Monae are spitfires. They’re full of sympathy, likability and strong-willed determination.

Henson plays the lead character, and she’s very good, but the lesser-known Monae is also enormously charismatic and confident on the silver screen. Mahershala Ali plays Colonel Jim Johnson, a Hallmark-grade military suitor who woos Katherine. In this film, getting a man is just a part of the package deal; not the entire package. Kevin Costner solidly underplays it as NASA director Al Harrison, who’s tough but begins to trust Katherine and let her voice be heard.

“Civil rights isn’t always civil,” Mary’s huband Levi (Aldis Hodge) tells her, and that’s the unfortunate truth. This is just one example of historical progress, and we still have a long way to go. Warmly felt and necessary about the female experience,

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Hidden Figures could have easily been a mess of sentimental mush, but the honest performances keep it on track. Robustly satisfying and entertaining, the stars of this film keep the storm brewing beneath the surface, suffering quietly until the audience practically begs for a rational hand to set all the nonsense straight.

Ironically, the release of Hidden Figures takes place just before the ushering in of a presidential regime with a less-than-lovely reputation toward minorities (women included). But as uncertain as things may look right now, this film reminds us of our capacity to overcome obstacles. If for no other reason than that, it’s the triumphant crowd-pleaser we need right now.

Elle Yes

Paul Verhoeven, the demented, clever, and inventive Dutch filmmaker who directed Robocop (1987), Total Recall (1990), Basic Instinct (1992), and Black Book (2006) is back in action with a controversial home invasion thriller which deals with rape, psychological trauma, and how one woman copes with her issues. Isabelle Huppert stars as Elle, a businessperson who actively seeks out her attacker on her own without notifying law enforcement, and deals with him in her own tweaky way (yeah, it’s a Paul Verhoeven film).

The character’s name is Michele Leblanc, the head of a major video game company. A woman who, through her tenacity and strength, has made a success for herself. There’s something off about the femme. Something in her past makes her the woman she is now, and this very issue leads her to dealing with her rapist in a most unconventional way. Written by David Birke, Elle (2016) is absolutely brilliant. Verhoeven pulls no stops in the intense rape scenes and other violence that occurs in the film.

Huppert delivers an astounding performance. At the beginning of the film, the audience should feel sympathy for what she’s been through, but as the film slowly reveals what kind of person she can be in her day-to-day life, the audience may not know how to feel. Verhoeven and Huppert do excellent work in developing the character as a complicated and realistic person. Her levels of good, bad, and ugly are all over the place. It’s a  character study that will probably get analyzed by film scholars, and maybe even psychology professionals in the future.

Elle is a bold film that challenges conventions and boundaries. Verhoeven is courageous for telling the story, because it’s a story that could have easily taken place in real life. The film’s content and themes may be jarring to the senses, but Verhoeven’s presentation, Birke’s writing, and Huppert’s performance make it one of the most interesting films of the year.

What to Watch Before You Watch Rogue One

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I am one with the force, and the force is with me.

And so it begins. Like it or not, when Disney decided to spend copious amounts of coin to bring George Lucas’ space mythology over to the mouse house, the plan was to branch off and explore as much of the Star Wars universe as possible. Rogue One (2016) represents the first in what the studio promises will be a series of anthology films, using the narrative created since 1977 to tell tales.

In R1, the main character is a young girl who teams up with a rebel officer and his droid and travels to an off-planet. There, she’s reunited with an old mentor and while plotting their next steps, the Empire shows up. The mission they develop requires a lot of help, including the efforts of former ally, Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen). The force is strongest with this milky-eyed master because of his spot-on likeness to Zatoichi, a fictional character featured in one of Japan’s longest running series of films set during the 1830s and 1840s. Zatoichi is a kindly blind masseur and skilled blademaster who was created by Japanese novelist Kan Shimozawa in 1948.

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I am one with the force and the force is with me.

A total of 26 films were made based on the Zatoichi character from 1962 to 1989. Spin-off number 17 is Blind Fury (1989) and made in the United States. The action flick stars Rutger Hauer. The most recent Zatoichi was released in 2003 and directed by Takeshi Kitano who also stars in the Japanese subtitled blood fest. Better than good, it was awarded the Venice Film Festival’s Silver Lion for Best Direction.

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Even with my eyes wide open, I can’t see a thing.

The character of Zatoichi has impressed audiences through the ages and Disney knows it. Chirrup (Donnie Yen) is one with the force and introduces more than a few storm troopers to death. In true blind swordsman style, the sightless warrior guy’s powerful hearing spatial-location-awareness and personal insights propel him to help save the galaxy (arigato).

Blind Fury and Zatoichi are available on Netflix and DVD.

 

Hell or High Water: Hell of a Good Time

Go for the writing. Stay for the acting…and the soundtrack. Taylor Sheridan (Sicario, 2015) nailed the screenplay for Hell or High Water (2016) which happens to be my favourite film of the year so far. Sheridan and director David Mackenzie have made a terrific flick. It not only has solid writing and direction, but noteworthy cast performances. The picture is an unforgiving modern western that has memorable characters, smart and clever dialogue and a highly relevant plot.

Sheridan’s story makes a strong commentary on the banking system and the economic troubles faced by today’s ranchers. The film’s setting is harsh and dusty with incredible cinematography by Giles Nuttgens (Dom Hemmingway, 2013).

The film also features an outstanding score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. It’s epic and expansive with sad violins, but not grandiose so it doesn’t feel manipulative. The soundtrack is a sumptuous but simple mix of Americana and traditional-sounding pieces. It features several works by Cave and Ellis, who have previously scored The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) and The Proposition (2005) together. The soundtrack features songs by Waylon Jennings, Townes Van Zandt, Chris Stapleton, and others.

Why Tommy Lee Jones wasn’t cast as the leading man in this film, I’ll never know, but Jeff Bridges smokes up the screen and delivers an impressive performance as Texas Ranger, Marcus Hamilton who is eager to close one last case. He has some of the more memorable lines of dialogue in the film and contributes to the hilariously dry comedy. Gil Birmingham portrays Hamilton’s partner, Alberto Parker who is equally impressive. He is an amusingly stoic foil to the unfiltered Hamilton.

Hell or High Water has a patient pace and may not move fast enough for all general audiences. This film is a far cry from summer’s brain-dead and plotless sequels. Completely engaging, it’s a beautifully textured film that presents a tremendous sense of scale to the lives of the characters and builds a west Texas environment with lots of know-how and attitude. Now playing in select theaters. Go!

The Twelve Flicks of Christmas (More Naughty and Less Nice)

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It’s official. We’re deep in the heart of ho-ho-holiday season—which means wholesomely sweet moralistic themed films are about to dominate television networks everywhere. Traditional gems like A Christmas Carol, Miracle on 34th Street, Charlie Brown Christmas, and It’s A Wonderful Life make me want to spit tinsel. A little seasonal sparkle goes a long, long way.

For example, Christmas makes only cameo appearances in non-secular classics like Lethal Weapon (1987) and Die Hard (1988). These movies take advantage of the Christmas setting and touch on general, more ubiquitous themes. If you don’t give a cuss when an angel gets its wings here are 12 more twisted flicks that aren’t the reason for the season.

12. Full Metal Jacket (1987) Written and directed by Stanley Kubrick (A Clockwork Orange (1971), The Shining (1980)). Any time’s a good time to watch a Vietnam war movie. The only hint of holiday is when Sgt. Hartman leads his Marine boot camp recruits in a chorus of “Happy Birthday to Jesus” on Christmas Day. Remember our troops, maggots.

11. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005) Written and directed by Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, The Last Boyscout (1991), The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)). A Los Angeles crime caper set during Christmas. The film opens with thief Robert Downey Jr. robbing a toy store, both for the dough and for the plaything atop his child’s Christmas wish list.

10. The Godfather (1972) Written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now! (1979)). Christmastime in 1945 forms the backdrop for several murders and two attempts on Don Corleone’s life. “Leave the Gun. Take the Canolli.”

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9. American Psycho (2000). A successful New York investment banking executive hides his alternate psychopathic ego from his co-workers and friends as he falls deeper into his illogical, gratuitous fantasies. The Christmas party features a Vietnamese potbellied pig.

8. The Apartment (1960) Written and directed by Billy Wilder (Some Like it Hot (1959), Sunset Boulevard (1950)). A young executive ascends the corporate ladder by loaning out his apartment to bosses for their extramarital trysts. The bulk of the film takes place between Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

7. 28 Days Later (2002) Directed by Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire (2008), Train Spotting (1996)). Jim and Selena travel together for several days before noticing a flat in a council building with Christmas lights on. A story of survival, and ultimately heroics, with nice subtext about mankind’s savage nature.

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6. In Bruges (2008) A British-American neo-noir black comedy crime film written and directed by Martin McDonagh. Two Irish hit-men are directed to take refuge in Belgium during the holiday season.

5. Iron Man 3 (2013) Written and Directed by Shane Black. Out of the seven screenplays that Black has written, four of them are set during Christmastime.

4. Trading Places (1983) Written by Herschel Weingrod (Kindergarten Cop (1990), Twins (1988)). A rich man and a poor man class swap as part of a social experiment through the holiday season.

3. 2046 (2004) Written and directed by Wong Kar Wai (In the Mood for Love (2000), Grandmaster (2013)). A Hong Kong sci-fi writer engages in various sexual encounters through successive Christmas Eves while searching for true love.

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2. Go! (1999) Written by John August (Big Fish (2003)). The story takes place in Los Angeles and involves three different people who all work together in the same supermarket during the holiday season. Delicious dialogue.

1. The Proposition (2005) Written by Nick Cave. In 1880s Australia, a captured outlaw is given until Christmas Day to find and kill his murderous older brother. A highly violent romp through the outback. There are no obvious good guys and bad guys, all the characters possess both positive and negative attributes.