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.

Photojournalist Amy Davis’s Shines Brilliant Light on Baltimore’s “Flickering Treasures”

Yesterday, BmoreArt published my review of Baltimore photojournalist Amy Davis’s beautiful portrait of our city’s lost cinematic treasures – movie theaters of a bygone era – entitled Flickering Treasuresand its accompanying “Home Movies: Portraits of Baltimore’s Neighborhood Movie Houses” exhibit at  Gallery CA (first floor of City Arts Apartments, 400 E. Oliver St.). Here is the link to the article. Enjoy!

@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 topics: 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:

Enjoy!

6 Reviews @hammertonail: “Baltimore Rising,” “David Bowie: The Last Five Years,” “Lady Bird,” “Naila and the Uprising,” “This Is Congo” and Criterion’s “Woman of the Year” Blu-ray

In the past 2 weeks, Hammer to Nail has published the following reviews of mine: Baltimore Rising (seen at DOC NYC), David Bowie: The Last Five Years (also seen at DOC NYC), Lady Bird,  Naila and the Uprising (also seen at DOC NYC), This Is Congo (also seen at DOC NYC) and Criterion’s new Blu-ray of Woman of the Year. Here are links to all 6 pieces:

Enjoy!

1 Film Festival Report + 4 Reviews @filmfesttoday: DOC NYC + “Justice League,” “Last Flag Flying,” “Murder on the Orient Express” & “The Square”

In the past 2 weeks, Film Festival Today published the following five articles of mine: a recap of the recent DOC NYC film festival and reviews of Justice LeagueLast Flag Flying, Murder on the Orient Express and The Square. Here are links to all 5 pieces:

Enjoy!

“Reel Talk” – with Chris Reed and Tim Gordon – on “Thor: Ragnarok,” “Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri” and “Lady Bird”

Christopher Llewellyn Reed, “Reel Talk” host, w/ Tim Gordon, President of WAFCA and Film Critic at the FilmGordon Website

Welcome to the first episode of the 2017-2018 season of Dragon Digital Media‘s Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed. We had to skip our usual September episode because our glorious director was on maternity leave. My guest this time was Tim Gordon, President of the Washington Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), film critic at the FilmGordon website, and creator of the new Lakefront Film Festival, which will launch in July of 2018, in Howard County, MD. We reviewed three new films: Thor: RagnarokThree Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, and Lady Bird.

In Howard County, Maryland, you can watch the show on Channel 41 (if you’re a Verizon customer) or Channel 96 (if you’re a Comcast customer), and you can watch it online from anywhere. You can also still catch all six episodes from last year (firstsecondthirdfourthfifth and sixth), plus all six from the previous year (firstsecondthirdfourthfifth and sixth), as well as the six episodes from my first season with Reel Talk (Episode 1Episode 2Episode 3Episode 4Episode 5Episode 6). Enjoy!

The fantastic Dragon Digital Media team did their usual superlative job putting this together, especially producer Karen Vadnais and director Danielle Maloney, as well as floor manager Anthony Hoos. We’ll be back in mid-January with another episode, so stay tuned. Until then, have fun at the movies!

3 Reviews + 1 Film Festival Report: “The Departure” and “The Florida Project” @hammertonail + “Thor: Ragnarok” and Middleburg Film Festival @filmfesttoday

In the past 10 days, the following pieces of mine have posted: at Hammer to Nail, reviews of The Departure and The Florida Project; at Film Festival Today, a review of Thor: Ragnarok and a report on the 2017 Middleburg Film Festival. Here are links to all 7 pieces:

Enjoy!

“Wonderstruck” Underwhelms

Wonderstruck (Todd Haynes, 2017)*

How I wish I did not dislike this movie so much. Its intentions are good, and it features a strong performance from young newcomer Millicent Simmonds, a deaf actress cast in a deaf role (something we don’t see very often), but such things do not a good film make, on their own, alas. Based on Brian Selznick’s 2011 half-text/half-graphic novel of the same title, Wonderstruck follows two parallel stories, the one in 1927, the other in 1977, each with a child at its center. In the book, the earlier story is the one told in pictures, while the more modern tale is related in text, a device which allows Selznick to interrupt the one with the other in dramatic fashion.

Unfortunately, director Todd Haynes (Carol), usually a reliable filmmaker, especially in the arena of production design, does nothing more interesting in the older scenes than film them in black & white, with sets that evoke no period mood at all, though Simmonds is quite fine on her own. The rest of the cast is uneven, and even the great Julianne Moore (Still Alice) barely rises above the trite emotions of the script … until the last act, when the movie suddenly comes alive – inspired by New York’s famed city diorama, in Queens – rising to magical heights of creative design. Where, one asks, was this inspiration, before? It almost makes up for the insipid mess of the earlier scenes, but not quite. I have admired Haynes’ work until now, and hope to again in the future, but I cannot endorse this one.

*[this review was previously published as part of coverage of the recent Middleburg Film Festival that I wrote for Film Festival Today.]

Is “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” Worth the Sacrifice? You Be the Judge, Jury and …

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2017)

For the record, I loved The Lobster, director Yorgos Lanthimos’ previous effort. Building on the tradition he had established in films like Alps and Dogtooth, he there brought his obsession with societies built on arcane systems of governance to glorious fruition in a mesmerizing tale anchored by a deliriously deadpan performance from Colin Farrell (Seven Psychopaths). Both Lanthimos and Farrell are back together again in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, a movie that starts in a similar vein as its predecessor, the actor delivering lines in the same monotone as before, the camera tracking him in off-beat steadicam shots laden with cinematic meaning. Or not. As before, Lanthimos keeps us guessing, toying with our expectations of set-up and payoff. One thing is sure, however: the experience of watching The Killing of a Sacred Deer is deeply unpleasant. The question is: do we gain from it? Over a week after seeing the film, I’m still working on the answer.

This time around, Farrell plays Dr. Steven Murphy, a cardiologist married to a fellow doctor, Anna Murphy, played by the incomparable Nicole Kidman (The Beguiled). They have two kids, a boy and girl, and appear happily married, though quickly we are made to question their life together with the arrival of a mysterious teen boy, Martin, played by a very odd Barry Keoghan (’71). At first we think he is Steven’s son – perhaps from an affair – but when the riddle is solved the truth is even more disturbing. Steven has a score to settle, and the why and the how of his revenge is what eventually drives the plot. This being a Lanthimos film, there are rules to follow; ignore them and you die, though the reasons for everything are vague. Ultimately, the story boils down to this: what would you be prepared to do to save your family? What, or whom, would you sacrifice?

That’s a meaningful question. Put into practice, however, Steven’s response is difficult to stomach. I like that Lanthimos consistently pushes our buttons in a valiant attempt to provoke an emotional reaction, but I cannot say I enjoyed the experience of that reaction. The onscreen anguish of the characters may serve a narrative purpose, but it is something I can do without. Though brilliantly shot and cast, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, much like Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, released earlier this year, traffics in a kind of torture porn that risks losing itself in the act of self-flagellation. There is no denying its raw power, however. I may have been horrified, but I was not unmoved. Let’s leave it there, and you can judge whether the experience is worth it for you.