7 Reviews @hammertonail: “Big Sonia,” “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story,” “Creep 2,” “Island Soldier,” “Kedi,” “Love Means Zero” and “Quest”

Last week, Hammer to Nail published seven reviews of mine: Big Sonia, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, Creep 2 (the only fiction film among this batch), Island Soldier (seen at DOC NYC), Kedi (also seen at DOC NYC), Love Means Zero (also seen at DOC NYC) and Quest. Here are links to all 7 pieces:


“Ferdinand” Charms and Irritates in Equal Measure

Ferdinand (Carlos Saldanha, 2017)

If you are a parent with young children, you could do a lot worse than take them to see Ferdinand, the new animated feature from Blue Sky Studios, the same company that gave us the Ice Age franchise. Like that series, this movie charms in many places, even while irritating in others. For every poignant moment, there is another pointless montage set to a contemporary pop song, or a dance-off, or some other silliness. Perhaps those are meant to keep the adults entertained, but they had the opposite effect on this viewer.

Based on the lovely 1936 children’s book The Story of Ferdinand, by Munro Leaf, the film tells the story of a young Spanish bull – destined to die fighting a matador in the ring – who only wants to smell flowers, instead. Scrawny and timid as a calf, he eventually grows into a mighty gentle giant, which of course means that he will, indeed, attract the very attention he wishes to avoid. When a bee sting drives him temporarily mad, sending him crashing through a small town’s central plaza, his fate is sealed: the bullfighting ring it will be.

It’s hard to argue against the powerful message of tolerance and anti-violence preached by the authors of both the original tale and this movie. And though Blue Sky is no Pixar (Coco is still playing in theaters, if you want to see what real animation looks like), director Carlos Saldanha (with the studio since Ice Age) and his team do a credible job presenting the big emotional beats of the narrative. Unfortunately, their attempts at humor – involving German-accented horses (Warum? Ich weiss nicht!), among other things – often feel clumsily shoehorned into the plot for the sake of a stupid joke. Nevertheless, I shed a tear or two, so they’re doing something right. Either that, or the source material is just so magnificent that its brilliance shines through even the lamest of adaptations. You decide.

With the voice talents of John Cena (The Wall), Kate McKinnon (Ghostbusters), Anthony Anderson (the father on ABC’s Black-ish), Bobby Cannavale (Adult Beginners) and David Tennant (Kilgrave on Netflix’s Jessica Jones), among others, Ferdinand has no shortage of star power. Does it matter? I have never understood the insistence of casting famous actors in animation, unless they have a particular skill at vocal performances. Everyone here is adequate, but the only actor who really stands out is McKinnon as a scrappy goat training Ferdinand (Cena) for his big fight. Hers is the kind of off-beat humor that is perfect as a counterpoint to the very real tragedy of bullfighting. But German horses? Nein!

Beautifully Designed, “The Shape of Water” Is a Magical Romance Weighed Down by Leaden Villain

The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro, 2017)

There is so much to recommend in Guillermo del Toro’s latest cinematic fantasy that it seems a shame not to like it all. With its magical story of an interspecies romance and meticulous, stunning production design. the film, for much of its running time, is a thrilling delight. Unfortunately, too many supporting scenes disappoint, almost all of them involving the villain, played by an over-the-top Michael Shannon (with whom I have had problems before) saddled with leaden dialogue that does not help his one-note performance. So, if one can ignore that character (difficult, since he pursues our heroes), the movie works.

Set in early 1960s Baltimore, The Shape of Water stars Sally Hawkins (Maudie) as Elisa, a mute (but not deaf) woman who works in a mysterious government laboratory as a cleaner, along with Zelda (Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures), who seems to be her only friend outside of neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins, The Visitor). He’s a disgraced, gay, alcoholic illustrator with whom she wiles away her free time watching classic Hollywood musicals on TV. But then, one day, a new arrival at the lab catches her eye, mostly because he is accompanied by heavy security. And so begins a new chapter in her life.

According to del Toro (among whose films I particularly love The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy), he was inspired by the 1954 film Creature from the Black Lagoon. Given  that his amphibian man in The Shape of Water looks a lot like Abe Sapien, from the 2004 Hellboy, he has clearly been thinking about this creature for a long time.  Regardless of origin, a half-man/half-fish biped shows up, in the company of his jailor (Shannon, Elvis & Nixon) and a nervous scientist (Michael Stuhlbarg, A Serious Man). Whenever she can, Elisa pays him a visit, and something more than a friendship blossoms.

Del Toro has always been obsessed with outsiders and victims of bullying. Here, he once more assembles a team of such outcasts, with Elisa, Zelda, Giles and the creature forming a motley crew against the forces of so-called civilization and order. There is real beauty in the quiet moments between Elisa and her new friend. Hawkins, who makes shyness a powerfully expressive emotion in almost every performance, is riveting, and Doug Jones – who also performed Abe Sapien, as well as the faun and the pale man in Pan’s Labyrinth – is marvelous as the creature. Together, they have genuine chemistry, even making charming dance partners in a splashy dream sequence.

But those pesky villains get in the way of perfection. Whether it’s their dreary exposition or the fact that del Toro is just more interested in the central romance, they drag the movie down. Still, I’ll take a half-successful del Toro confection any day over much of what makes it to the multiplex.

@BaltimoreSun’s @RoughlySpeaking Podcast on Sexual Harassment in Hollywood (and Beyond), Oscar Buzz, Current Films, Claude Rains and Ennio Morricone

On Friday, December 8, 2017,  Linda DeLibero – Director, Film and Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University – and Christopher Llewellyn Reed (that’s me) – Chair and Professor, Department of Film & Moving Image, Stevenson University – joined Dan Rodricks on his Baltimore Sun podcast, “Roughly Speaking,” to discuss the following topicsL the ongoing revelations of sexual predation and harassment in both Hollywood and the political realm; what’s currently getting Oscar buzz; what is currently out in cinemas that we recommend (including Coco, The Disaster Artist, Lady Bird and the upcoming The Shape of Water); and  highlights from the careers of actor Claude Rains (1889-1976) and film composer Ennio Morricone (1928 – ), both of whose birthdays are on November 10, when we originally planned to celebrate them (a podcast we had to cancel for various reasons). Here is the link to the show. Enjoy!

3 Reviews @filmfesttoday: “Coco,” “The Divine Order” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

Just before Thanksgiving, Film Festival Today published two reviews of mine, and then it published another one this past Friday. The three reviews are: CocoThe Divine Order and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Here are links to all 3 pieces: