The Shape of Water – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Describing Guillermo del Toro’s latest fantasy-horror-romance as Creature from the Black Lagoon meets Splash provides a good idea of the types of characters involved and where the story may be headed, but this genre-defying film contains too much beauty, poetry, and depth to be confined to an elevator pitch.

Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones (as the creature) in The Shape of Water. Photo copyright 2017 Fox Searchlight Pictures.

The other-worldly tale is set in Baltimore in 1962 where a top-secret government facility hides a large aquatic creature known as “The Asset” (Doug Jones) taken from the Amazon, where it was worshipped as a god. Here in the USA, however, it’s considered a monster and subject to verbal taunts and brutal assaults by its captor, Strickland (Michael Shannon), a sadistic misogynist who views the creature as an affront to God.

A Personal Vendetta

Strickland’s personal vendetta (renewed with vigor after the creature tears off two of his fingers in retaliation for one such assault) plays out on a semi-public stage when after condemning the aqua man to death, it mysteriously disappears from the facility. Strickland’s career – and very life – depend on finding the creature that he thinks may have been stolen by Russian spies or some competing Government team.

As Stickland nervously chomps on pain pills and nurses his gangrenous reattached fingers, the creature (who is definitely male) is now happily living in the bathtub of Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute janitor employed at the facility who fell in love with him while cleaning the room in which he was imprisoned. Aided by her chatty co-worker (Octavia Spencer), lonely gay neighbor (Richard Jenkins), and a laboratory scientist (Michael Stuhlbarg), Elisa masterminded the escape for her interspecies love interest.

Two Silent Interspecies Outcasts

As creepy as it may sound, the onscreen romantic element between these two silent outcasts seems natural and inevitable. Watching beautiful blue lights streak across the creature’s body as he responds sexually to Elisa makes an elegant contrast to Strickland’s ugly animalistic efforts in bed. In fact, comparisons and contrasts abound in this film – part of what adds to its poetry. There are multiple depictions of how various people eat food, mend wounds, initiate romance, display anger, and use water. And, of course, there’s the question of what constitutes a god and a monster.

Although it’s primarily Elisa’s story of finally finding her “voice” and becoming complete, it’s also Strickland’s story of losing his control and acknowledging failure for the first time. Her growth and development make an interesting juxtaposition to his deterioration and regression. Beautiful cinematography (including an underwater dream sequence and retro-fantasy scene) combine with eccentric storytelling and masterful performances by Hawkins, Shannon, and Jenkins. It’s the kind of film you can watch over and over again, and see something new each time.

The Shape of Water. Photo copyright 2017 Fox Searchlight Pictures.

The Shape of Water

  • Set in the 1960s, a mute janitor working in a high-security laboratory forms a relationship with an aquatic creature being studied in a classified experiment.
  • Stars: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Doug Jones
  • Director: Guillermo del Toro
  • Screenwriters: Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor
  • Genre: Romantic Fantasy
  • Run Time: 123 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence, and language)
  • Watch the trailer.

 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Sometimes a movie comes along with exceptional acting, intuitive directing, clever writing, and iconic scenes and phrases that create an exclusive cinematic world all its own. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is such a movie. Even so, it’s a world that’s not very enjoyable to visit, much less inhabit.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Photo copyright 2017 Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) has a right to be angry – furious even. Her 20-year-old daughter was raped and murdered seven months ago, but the local police department of her small town has made no arrests in the case, and doesn’t have any suspects or persons of interest to investigate. The case has gone cold, but Mildred’s fury remains red hot. She rents three billboards outside of town on a nearly deserted highway; each sign focuses on Police Chief William Willoughby’s (Woody Harrelson) ineptitude.

An Escalating Situation

Soon the townspeople of Ebbing take sides in the billboard fiasco, and although their hearts are with Mildred, they’re against her written attack of the much-admired police chief. Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), for instance, worships his boss, Willoughby, as a father figure and has previously demonstrated a streak of brutality toward anyone disrespecting the law. This sets up a dangerously escalating situation between Mildred and Dixon, both of whom have fuses easily ignited.

Mildred’s antagonizing billboards, venom-spewing outbursts, and increasingly violent behavior affect her son’s (Lucas Hedges) life as well. Already known as the boy whose sister was murdered, he’s further ostracized as the boy whose mother has gone ballistic. There’s also Mildred’s ex-husband (John Hawkes), a domestic abuser who recently found a 19-year-old girlfriend. Between her grief over her daughter, the disapproval of her son and ex-husband, and vengeance by many of the local citizens devoted to the police chief, Mildred is a woman with nothing left to lose.

Outstanding Performances

There’s a lot going on in this small town, and most of it is not kind, pleasant, or fun. But just when you think a character’s all bad, he or she makes an abrupt left turn. The same is true for the seemingly “good” characters. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri takes many left turns, with red herrings and plot twists that will surprise most movie goers. Game of Thrones star Peter Dinklage is randomly thrown into the mix as a local man sweet on Mildred despite her lack of style, grace, warmth, or friendliness.

Although the film has many strengths (especially the performances of McDormand, Rockwell, and Harrelson), it’s also strongly manipulative. Not every film needs to provide perfect closer, pat explanations, or a happy ending. But the constant pushing and pulling of viewer emotions and mind games make the visit to Ebbing deliberately unsettling and uncomfortable – a dark comedy heavy on darkness and light on comedy.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

  • A distraught mother commissions three billboards reprimanding the local chief of police for his inability to arrest her daughter’s killer.
  • Stars: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Caleb Landry Jones, Abbie Cornish, Lucas Hedges, Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes
  • Writer-Director: Martin McDonagh
  • Genre: Dark Crime Drama/Comedy
  • Run Time: 115 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for violence, language throughout, and some sexual references)

 

The Man Who Invented Christmas – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Based on the best-selling book of the same name by Les Standiford, The Man Who Invented Christmas looks at how Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) changed the way people think about the holiday based on Ebenezer Scrooge’s personal transformation in A Christmas Carol.

Dan Stevens stars in The Man Who Invented Christmas. Photo copyright 2017 Bleeker Street.

Painters, filmmakers, singers, dancers, and other visual and performing artists are far easier to depict in the movies than writers. Putting pen to paper or finger to keyboard just isn’t that interesting to watch. The Man Who Invented Christmas circumvents this problem by depicting the dreams, memories, and imagination of Charles Dickens, in addition to his everyday circumstances. The past, present, and future combine with the real and imagined in a film that compares the creator and his creation.

A Master Storyteller

The movie begins in 1842, when Britain and the United States herald Dickens as a master storyteller for Oliver Twist. Just one year later, however, he’s had two unsuccessful new books, an expanding family, expensive house renovations, and a disinterested publisher. Desperate to reclaim his former glory and secure his finances, Dickens decides to write a Christmas book, even though the holiday is soon approaching.

Encouraged by his friend, Forster (Justin Edwards), who acts as a literary agent of sorts, he enlists the aid of an artist to illustrate the story of a misery man (Christopher Plummer in a terrific casting choice as Scrooge) visited by three ghosts in one night.

A Looming Deadline

The next few weeks are spent observing everything in his atmosphere for inspiration – from the local cemetery to his children’s bedroom – so he can lock the pieces of his puzzling story into place. Sure enough, he finds all the characters and plot points he needs in his everyday life – except for the ending. Struggling with a looming deadline, he finally looks inward for his answer and finds it.

Director Bharat Nalluri and screenwriter Susan Coyne turn what could have been a depressing examination of family dysfunction and hurtful legacies into an uplifting story of self-discovery with the perfect blend of humor and seriousness for the subject matter and the PG rating. From the compelling acting to the extraordinary set design, this inspiring movie adds another dimension to the classic Christmas story about cleansing one’s soul and embracing others.

The Man Who Invented Christmas

  • This fantastical family film (based on a true story) examines how Charles Dickens created A Christmas Carol while writing under extreme financial limitations and a ridiculously tight deadline.
  • Stars: Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, Simon Callow, Miriam Margolyes, Morfydd Clark, Justin Edwards
  • Director: Bharat Nalluri
  • Writer: Susan Coyne
  • Genre: Biography Comedy/Drama
  • Run Time: 104 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG (for thematic elements and some mild language)
  • Additional Information: For another recently released film about a famous British author, read Goodbye Christopher Robin – Movie Review, the story of A. A. Milne’s creation of Winnie the Pooh and his friends.

 

Wonderstruck – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Wonderstruck is built on a promise. If you sit through nearly two hours watching the magical teasing together of two plotlines slowly converging, the final payoff will be worth the wait. Unfortunately, Wonderstuck does not fully deliver on its promise.

Julianne Moore and Oakes Fegley star in Wonderstruck. Photo copyright 2017 Amazon Studios.

Two Stories from Different Time Periods

The two stories concern a girl and boy from different time periods. A sweet deaf girl named Rose (Millicent Simmonds, who is actually deaf) lives alone with her disapproving father in New Jersey in 1927. She’s obsessed with a silent movie actress (Julianne Moore) and runs off to New York City to see her. Rose’s older brother also lives there and works at the nearby American Museum of Natural History where Rose enjoying wandering through the rooms.

Although she is advised to go back home to her father, she decides to stay in New York. Rose’s silent world makes a sharp contrast to the noisy action of Manhattan’s city streets. Oblivious to the potential dangers around her, she seeks family and a sense of belonging, and is willing to go wherever it takes to find it.

Seeking Family in New York City

In the parallel story about the boy, Ben (Oakes Fegley, an expressive young actor known for his role of Pete in the 2016 action adventure, Pete’s Dragon) lives in Minnesota in 1977. His mother recently died in a car accident, and he’s staying with his aunt and disagreeable cousin. He finds a romantic message to his mother inside an old book about cabinets of wonder – the earliest form of museum. The note is written on a bookmark indicating a used bookstore in New York.

As Ben calls the phone number listed for the store, a freak lightning strike goes through the telephone receiver and causes him to go deaf in both ears. This latest setback doesn’t deter 11-year-old Ben from jumping on a bus and traveling to New York City to find clues about the love note, presumably written by the mysteriously missing father he’s never known. Like Rose, he’s deaf, alone, and seeking family and a sense of belonging. He finds a new friend, Jamie (Jaden Michael), who helps him adjust to his deafness, and find the answer to the question about his father’s whereabouts.

A Disappointing Ending

The grand sweeping cinematography (Edward Lachmna), enchanting music (Carter Burwell), lush production design of two different eras (Mark Friedberg) and suspenseful direction (Todd Haynes, who also directed Julianne Moore in Far from Heaven) imply that these two stories will combine in an “aha” moment that will send chills down your spine. Intended as a family film, young children may experience this sense of wonder while piecing it all together. However, adults are far less likely to be wonderstruck by this ultimately disappointing film.

Wonderstruck

  • The lives of a young boy in the present and a young girl from the past connect in a mysterious way.
  • Stars: Oakes Fegley, Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams, Millicent Simmonds, Jaden Michael Smith, James Urbaniak
  • Director: Todd Haynes
  • Writer: Brian Selznick (based on his book, Wonderstruck)
  • Genre: Drama Mystery
  • Run Time: 116 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG (for thematic elements and smoking)

 

Goodbye Christopher Robin – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Remember those happy lyrics from the Winnie the Pooh song? “Deep in the Hundred Acre Wood, / Where Christopher Robin plays. / You’ll find the enchanted / neighborhood, / of Christopher’s childhood days.” Well, Goodbye Christopher Robin is a riveting biographical drama that casts a bit of gloom over the blissful existence of a little boy and his anthropomorphic stuffed animals.

Goodbye Christopher Robin. Photo copyright 2017 Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Inspired by the true story of A.A. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson), who created honey-loving Winnie the Pooh and his fuzzy friends, the film looks at how a world opens its heart to the lovable woodland creatures to escape recently experienced horrors of World War I. Milne returns home from the War debilitated by post-traumatic-stress disorder, and writes plays and books as a means of escapism.

Milne Wants to Make People See

He reaches the point where he needs to leave London for the country with Daphne (Margot Robbie, as a cold-hearted mother and wife) and their young son (angelic little Will Tilston) for some peace and quiet. It’s here that he plans to write an anti-war book that will change the way people attempt to solve their problems. Tired of making people laugh, Milne wants people to see and think.

Daphne wants no part of such a plan and heads back to London for more partying. Meanwhile the family’s beloved nanny (Kelly Macdonald) leaves for a few weeks to take care of her dying mother, which means father and son are left alone for the first time. During this extended period, Milne finally bonds with Christopher Robin (who is nicknamed Billy Moon), making up stories about the stuffed animals and having adventures in the woods. Although his son asks Milne to write a story for him about the animals, he writes a book about his son and the animals that captures the world’s imagination.

Enormous Wealth for the Family

The sudden success of these books brings Daphne back home, earns enormous wealth for the family, and casts a lonely little boy in the international spotlight. Billy Moon insists the boy in the stories is not him, and recoils from the interviews and media attention. His star-struck parents, however, exploit the boy for fame and fortune at the expense of his happiness. Only the nanny observes this sad state of affairs and gets fired for speaking her mind.

At times lighthearted and joyful, other times dark and disturbing, Goodbye Christopher Robin tells the sad story behind one of the most beloved literary creations of all time. Gleeson comes across as a well-meaning, but clueless father, so lost in his PTSD and imagination that he’s rarely accessible to his son. Robbie’s portrayal of Daphne is downright frigid; beautiful and fun-loving, she’s selfish and insensitive most of the time. Little Will Tilston, who plays eight-year-old Christopher, has an androgynous appearance with enormous dimples and large, newly acquired permanent teeth. He’s quite good at throwing a major tantrum or displaying a subtle nuance of disappointment.

Cinematography is lush and beautiful with close-ups of beautiful faces and clothes, and gorgeous longshots of the woods near the family’s home. Apart from a manipulative scene toward the end and an extremely unflattering portrayal of Daphne, this film mostly tells the story behind-the-story without telling us what to think.

Goodbye Christopher Robin

  • This true story looks at how author A.A. Milne’s literary success with the Winnie the Pooh stories takes a devastating toll on his family.
  • Stars: Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Kelly Macdonald, Will Tilston, Alex Lawther, Stephen Campbell Moore
  • Director: Simon Curtis
  • Writers: Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan
  • Genre: Biography Drama
  • Run Time: 101 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG (for thematic elements, some bullying, war images, and brief language)
  • Watch a trailer for this movie