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.


Documentary Selections From 2016 Florida Film Festival

By Leslie C. Halpern

Each April when the Florida Film Festival celebrates independent film, I try to attend a little bit of everything. Maybe a party here, a film forum there. But I always make sure to see as many documentaries as possible. Whether entered in the American Independent Competition or screening with another program, such as food films or the music sidebar, I love to learn about the true lives of unusual people around the world and hear their fascinating stories.

This year, the 25th Annual Florida Film Festival, produced by Enzian Theater and held throughout Central Florida, offers more than 180 feature and short films, in addition to celebrity guests, special events, film forums, and parties. The Festival includes competing films in narrative features and documentary programs, plus special screenings of food films, international films, midnight movies, family programming, and Florida films. A sampling of documentary films appears below.

The Babushkas of Chernobyl. Photo courtesy of Florida Film Festival.

The Babushkas of Chernobyl. Photo courtesy of Florida Film Festival.

The Babushkas of Chernobyl

(Screens Sunday, April 10, 7:15 p.m. – 8:40 p.m. at Regal Winter Park Village and Friday, April 15, 1:30 p.m. – 3:20 p.m. at Enzian.)

Directed by Holly Morris and Anne Bogart, this moving documentary explores aged women forced from their homes after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, who have illegally returned to their former residences. They grow their own food in the radioactive soil using contaminated water and air for nourishment. Despite the danger of living in the forbidden exclusion zone, these babushkas would rather die in their homes of radiation poisoning than live safely away from their homeland. Amid the women’s friendly village potlucks, an intriguing subplot involves risk-taking young video gamers who routinely sneak over barbed wire fences to re-enact scenes from the game “Stalker.” These two diverse groups have opposite motives for breaking the law, and provide a fascinating look at real life after a nuclear disaster. Run Time: 72 Minutes. Additional Note: In Ukrainian with English subtitles. 5/5 Stars.

The House is Innocent. A fun-loving couple buys, restores, and remodels a historic house in which several murders were committed. Directed by Nicholas Coles. 12 minutes. Screens with The Babushkas of Chernobyl. 4/5

Romeo Is Bleeding. Photo courtesy of Florida Film Festival.

Romeo Is Bleeding

(Screens Sunday, April 10, 12:00 p.m. – 1:45 p.m. and Thursday, April 14, 3:45 p.m. – 5:45 p.m., both at Regal Winter Park Village.)

This documentary explores how slam poetry, Romeo and Juliet, and an after-school program help bring an impoverished community together to help stop the violence in Richmond, California. Run by teacher Molly Raynor and her former student, Donte Clark, RAW Talent is a slam poetry workshop that aims to heal the Richmond area, which is plagued with gang violence, drugs, teenage pregnancies, and school dropouts. They rework William Shakespeare’s play to directly address the local violence and recruit dozens of students to support their cause. Police reports and gunfire contrast sharply with the laughter and lyricism in this inspiring underdog story. Director: Jason Zeldes. Run Time: 93 minutes. 4/5

We Live This. Four poor black teens dance as subway performers in New York City. Directed by James Burns. 10 minutes. Southeast premiere. Screens with Romeo is Bleeding. 2/5

Man vs. Snake: The Long and Twisted Tale of Nibbler. Photo courtesy of Florida Film Festival.

Man vs. Snake: The Long and Twisted Tale of Nibbler. Photo courtesy of Florida Film Festival.

Man vs. Snake: The Long and Twisted Tale of Nibbler

(Screens Monday, April 11, 9:15 p.m. – 11:05 p.m. at Enzian and Thursday, April 14, 9:30 p.m. – 11:35 p.m. at Regal Winter Park Village.)

This fun documentary combines animation, archival footage, news clippings, and new interviews to tell the story of a likable small-town gamer named Tim McVey, who achieved a billion-point score on the video game Nibbler, back in 1984. In 2008, he learned that someone else claimed to have beaten his record. Dismayed at the possibility of losing his status as the Nibbler champion, he wants to reclaim the title with a new competition, but finds his age and out-of-shape body can’t take the endurance as well as the teenaged version of himself could. Directed by Tim Kinzy and Andrew Seklir, this film has unexpected twists that make viewers care about a man they’ve never met and a little-known game they’ve never heard of. Run Time: 92 Minutes. 4/5 Stars.

Live Fast, Draw Yung. A seven-year-old boy uses rap music to inspire his artwork as his father devotes more and more time to developing a controversial career for his young son. Directed by Anthony Mathile and Stacey Lee. 16 minutes. Florida premiere. Screens with Man vs. Snake: The Long and Twisted Tale of Nibbler. 3/5

Syl Johnson: Any Way the Wind Blows. Photo courtesy of Florida Film Festival.

Syl Johnson: Any Way the Wind Blows. Photo courtesy of Florida Film Festival.

Syl Johnson: Any Way the Wind Blows

(Screens Saturday, April 16, 4:15 p.m. – 5:55 p.m. and Sunday, April 17, 12:30 pm. – 2:10 p.m., both at Regal Winter Park Village.)

Chicago R&B singer and guitarist Syl Johnson was a sensation in the 1960s with his hits “Come On Sock It to Me,” “Different Strokes,” and “Is It Because I’m Black.” Yet, despite undeniable talent, record deals, lively stage presence, and a full schedule of touring, Johnson faded to obscurity. Leaving the music business to explore other options for supporting his family, Johnson made an unexpected comeback in recent years through hundreds of rap and hip hop artists sampling his music and being forced (with the threat of lawsuits) to give him the proper credit and compensation. Director Rob Hatch-Miller calls upon RZA, Prince Paul, Peanut Butter Wolf, Jazzy Jay, Jonathan Lethem, Otis Clay, and Syleena Johnson to help share Syl’s true story. Run Time: 84 Minutes. 3/5 Stars.

For a complete list of documentary films or to learn more about the Florida Film Festival, visit the official website.


Chi-Raq – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Like the violent rap culture of South Side, Chicago that’s at the center of this anti-gun film, there’s nothing subtle about the style or content of director Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq (a title that combines two war zones, Chicago and Iraq). His in-your-face filmmaking style assaults the senses with sounds and sights meant to capture the attention of those directly or indirectly involved with gang violence.

By also artistically tweaking Aristophanes’s ancient Greek play, Lysistrata with a modern-day setting and rap-style rhymed verse, Lee broadens the appeal somewhat to literate film-goers seeking creative adaptations of classic literature. Even so, the modern story focuses on gun worship, misogyny, gang warfare, ignorance, and hatred. And be prepared: This new poetic verse is often coarse, crude, and offensive in its word usage and intention.

Copyright 2015 Roadside Attractions.

Teyonah Parris in Chi-Raq.

Based on Ancient Greek Literature

As in the original play, when a child dies in the crossfire of warring gangs the Spartans and the Trojans, local women gather together and instigate a sex strike, the only way to get men’s full attention. In the film, wives, girlfriends, prostitutes, and exotic dancers led by Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) unite in their efforts to deny sexual favors to all men – even those not involved in gangs. Soon their message “this is an emergency” and their efforts to “save the babies” results in a worldwide sex strike promoting “No Peace. No Piece.”

Narrated by Dolmedes, a pimped-out one-man Greek chorus (Samuel L. Jackson), the story concerns two tough gang leaders, Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon) and Cyclops (Wesley Snipes), and their loyal followers, many of whom have been seriously injured in gun battles and have lost loved ones due to ongoing violence. Promoting peace and harmony throughout the story is Father Mike Corridan (John Cusack), a respected priest and the only white man in the community who works toward equal justice and opportunity.

Three Months of Abstinence

The story begins on sure footing, but loses ground when 75 unarmed women of color take over an armory building filled with horny white guys (cringe-worthy rather than amusing), whom they easily blindfold and bind in leather for their purposes. They plan to control the building until their demands for peace are met. Yet, after only three months of abstinence, the men and women of Chicago can’t take it anymore and are ready to negotiate. The final third lacks believability and loses its way sometimes, although the film eventually finds itself again and the conclusion produces the desired effect.

Other than Cusack’s sincere performance (Father Corridan’s raspy, but heartfelt, speech at the murdered child’s funeral) and Angela Bassett’s lovely portrayal of a local peace activist and grieving mother, the cast mostly perpetuates ethnic stereotypes. Chi-Raq is a mixed-race, mixed-genre, mixed-bag of filmmaker’s tricks that sometimes work and sometimes don’t, but bravely addresses the subject of gun violence, which is indeed an emergency.


Chicago’s gang violence results in the death of an innocent child hit by a stray bullet, which prompts a sex strike among women to end the violence in this modern-day adaptation of the ancient Greek play “Lysistrata” by Aristophanes.

  • Stars: Nick Cannon, Teyonah Parris, Wesley Snipes, Angela Bassett, Samuel L. Jackson, John Cusack, Jennifer Hudson, David Patrick Kelly
  • Director: Spike Lee
  • Genre: Drama
  • Run Time: 127 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for strong sexual content including dialogue, nudity, language, some violence, and drug use)

Guest Bloggers: Barbara Pyles Barker and Chris Bodor

Seen It, Done It, Reviewed It: The Blog is participating in the Indie Lights Book Parade throughout the month of February. A parade of talented authors will share excerpts from their stories, provide writing and marketing tips, and answer questions about their work. Today’s guest bloggers are novelist Barbara Pyles Barker, reviewing A.C. PAPA Literary Journal, and its editor-in-chief, Chris Bodor, describing the submission process for A.C. PAPA.

A.C. PAPA Literary Journal, Issue #1, 8 ½” by 11” Perfect Bound, 145 pages

Reviewed by Barbara Pyles Barker

Reading this inaugural issue of A.C. PAPA was a special treat for me, because the many wonderful poems and stories evoke a world from my own memories. Like Robin McClary who wrote the foreword, I grew up in the Sunshine State and know many of the same things: palmettoes; TVs you actually had to cross the room to change; three local (and only) channels; locks not used, because they were not needed. On Vilano Beach, where I was raised, the sand dunes were tall, the ocean gave up the most perfect shells after tropical storms, and August meteor showers were brilliant because there was no competition for the light.

My sister and I walked together between our street and Boating Club Road to visit our grandparents practically daily—no worries about what lay between those two homes. We knew the neighbors, and there weren’t a great many. The beach community is filled now. The world is so connected, and I suppose we’re safer now in a way because of it, but there’s also more we need to be safe from. Something has been lost, and that makes it all the more important to remember these details of our childhoods and family histories here in St. Augustine.

The poems in A.C. PAPA capture Florida in works that celebrate cities such as Saint Augustine and Saint Petersburg, as well as the state’s varied landscape. They share the authors’ own memories, as well as what they love of our state and town in contemporary times. Salt-river views, beach glass, Egrets, sea turtles are all here in verse. “Florida’s Environmental Heritage” speaks of those things that have been lost from Nature, but of our attempts to recapture. Haikus capture slivers of Florida.



My state has always provided inspiration to artists. In this collection Larry Baker recalls his inspirations for The Flamingo Rising, how the A1A coastline provided shape and grounding for the acclaimed novel. Another essay, authored by Susan Bennett Lopez, takes us back to her journey to find Jack Kerouac in Florida. She recounts her search for Jack, her attempt to get to “the core of Kerouac’s psyche.”

Another theme in this volume is the inspiration we writers find in Nature’s most dangerous and awesome forces. There is something about storms that draws us, and lights our imagination. “Fakahatchee Bay Crossing”, by Jim Draper, is a gripping account of a struggle to survive, and the character’s transformation in the stormy bay along a coast of mangrove trees, buoyed above the hazard of razor sharp oyster shells.

In a special section called Coast Lines, three of the poems relate the power of hurricanes; Mother Nature’s signature Florida force. Ann Browning Masters gives us a glimpse into the Oldest City’s history with these storms. “Hurricane Winds”, by Gigi Mischele Miller and Tovah Janovsky’s “Impressions of Arthur” relate beautiful imagery of how we natives dealt with Mother Nature at Her most fearsome and awe inspiring. These poets give all due respect where it is deserved to this stunning and destructive power.

The talented artists in this volume capture the beauty, mystique, and history of this special place, in verse and prose and photos. It is a jewel of a collection.

Author Bio: Barbara Pyles Barker is a writer living in her hometown of Saint Augustine, Florida. Her published work includes stories in Thema Literary Journal and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, and essays in two collections from Greenwood Press that explore themes in detective fiction. A former English professor, she is now an Instructional Designer in the Defense industry. She has written a mystery novel featuring what she hopes will become a series character, set in a small, fictional Florida town.

Call For Work – A.C. PAPA ISSUE #2

By Chris Bodor, A.C. PAPA Editor-in-Chief

Chris Bodor spreads poetry and spoken word.

Chris Bodor spreads poetry and spoken word.

The next reading period for Ancient City Poets, Authors, Photographers & Artists (A.C. PAPA) will be April 1 to June 30, 2015. The focus of this Saint Augustine, Florida, based journal is to spotlight Florida artists and art that references the Sunshine State. We will accept submissions of poetry, fiction, fine art and photography. A.C. PAPA is looking for writing and artwork that speaks of Florida, from all angles and all perspectives. We would like to hear from locals, tourists, travelers and residents. Special sections in issue #2 will include: “Saint Augustine History—the first 450 Years” and a number of articles on Florida writers such as Harry Crews.

The next issue of A.C. PAPA will appear in November, and will feature the best work from Florida artists as well as national and international writers who have something to say about Florida. Poet Plant Press is best known for its 2014 title Florida Speaks, an anthology featuring more than thirty writers musing on the Sunshine State. Please email your submissions as a RTF Microsoft Word file as an attachment to For more info and guidelines please go to the Poet Plant Press website at or purchase a copy of issue #1 on Amazon by searching for the title of the publication.

Learn more about A.C. PAPA:

The inaugural issue of Ancient City Poets, Authors, Photographers and Artists (A.C. PAPA) is available on Amazon by search the title or going to this link:

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