The Shape of Water

A-

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence and language
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Intense and graphic violence, peril, torture, murder
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 9, 2017
Copyright 2017 Fox Searchlight

There is some reassuring symmetry in the cinematic bookends that gave us “Beauty and the Beast” in January (the highest-grossing film of the year), a “Beauty is the beast” film with the mid-year’s “Colossal,” and now, in December, another variation with Guillermo del Toro’s enthralling R-rated fairy tale, “The Shape of Water.”

Sally Hawkins is luminous as Elisa Esposito, a custodian in a secret government lab during the cold war era. Her closest friends are her chatty, unhappily married colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), an anxious, cat-loving, old-movie-watching, out-of-work illustrator. They are the only two people who can communicate with Elisa. She can hear but is mute due to a childhood injury, and uses via American Sign Language.

The film is as gorgeous as any enchanted tale could wish, with a green-blue color palette that evokes the sea and old-school, analog equipment in cavernous rooms and huge, clanking equipment harking back to early horror classics like “Frankenstein” and “Creature from the Black Lagoon” (the later of which del Toro acknowledges as inspiration), with a nod to princess in the castle stories as well.

Elisa discovers one of the lab’s biggest secrets. Strickland (Michael Shannon) a harsh, brutal, “collector,” has captured and brought back to the lab a creature he discovered in the Amazon, a gilled, scaley human-shaped reptilian (played by del Toro regular Doug Jones) who has two separate breathing systems, one for air, one for water. He has some other unusual qualities, which Strickland is not learning much about because he mostly zaps the creature with a cattle prod to “tame” him. Elisa shares her hard-boiled eggs with the creature, and then some music, and then some words, as he begins to learn her language. As we will see, there are parallels between them that make them seem almost like star-crossed lovers kept apart only because they are of different species. Elisa is an orphan who was found not on a doorstep but in the water. The scars on her throat from the abuse that cost her her voice look like gills. Most important, she believes the creature is the only one who sees her as whole, complete, not missing anything.

There is a scientist at the lab named Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who has a secret of his own. There are other people who want to steal the creature and people who just want to kill him because it is more important to keep him away from the enemy than to learn more about who he is and what he can tell us about who we are. Of course, the way we treat him tells us a lot about who we are.

The story capaciously encompases a fairy tale romance with spies, the Cold War, the Civil Rights movement, a heist, and a musical number without, well, losing a step, thanks to del Toro’s ability to create cinematic magic. Hawkins is, as she was in “Maudie” earlier this year, exquisitely able to create a character of fierce intelligence and the kind of gentleness that is grounded in moral courage. Instead of subtitles in white at the bottom of the screen, her words are depicted in yellow letters floating around her, her face communicating as clearly as her hands. The movie is bracketed with images of Elisa floating. By the end, the audience will feel we are floating as well.

Parents should know that this movie includes some elements of horror with graphic and disturbing images, peril, and violence, including torture, sexual references and situations, strong language, smoking and drinking.

Family discussion: How are Elisa and the creature alike? How are Hoffstetler and Strickland different? Why does Giles change his mind?

If you like this, try: “Colossal” and “Pan’s Labyrinth”

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mother!

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MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong disturbing violent content, some sexuality, nudity and language
Profanity: Some very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, drunkenness, cigarettes
Violence/ Scariness: Extremely intense, brutal, and graphic violence including murders of adults and a newborn, cannibalism, fire, many grisly and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 15, 2017
Date Released to DVD: December 18, 2017
Copyright 2017 Paramount

Over the next few weeks, maybe over the next few years, you will see some thoughtful analyses and interpretations of “mother!” (lowercase m at the beginning, exclamation point at the end), examining the Biblical references and exploring the metaphors.  I look forward to these discussions and hope I will be persuaded.  But I was unable to find anything more in the film than pretentious, self-indulgent images with, for a movie about in some sense creativity, very little to say.

It’s a warning sign of precarious pretension when a film’s characters are not named and listed in the credits only as archetypes: mother, man, woman, him, younger brother, oldest son, good Samaritan, fool, wanderer, idler.  It’s not that it can’t be done; it’s just that it’s a high bar to clear.  What might work as a horror story about a young, pure-hearted bride in a gigantic, isolated house who is confronted with various dread-inspiring elements both natural and supernatural in this case fails because it keeps telling us it wants to be more.  There’s some flashy cinematic flourish but very low octane.

Jennifer Lawrence is game and endlessly watchable as always, which is a good thing because most of the time the camera is close on her increasingly panicked face. She plays the title character, who is created out of dust as the house comes together from a wreck of ashes.  “Baby?” she asks tentatively and searchingly as she gets out of bed to look for her husband/partner, played by Javier Bardem.  He is a poet, acclaimed but currently blocked.  She is his endlessly devoted helpmeet, always working to restore the house or present him with wholesome meals or just encourage him.  

Their peaceful life is disrupted when a doctor with a bad cough (Ed Harris) arrives, later joined by his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer, mesmerizing and terrifying), a couple who have some very serious boundary issues, to the point of being predatory.  Basically, they are the world’s worst and most annoying houseguests.  mother wants them to leave and cannot understand why poet would not check with her first. He seems unable to recognize how destructive they are.  He seems flattered by having them there.

Then the bad stuff begins to happen.  And then the really bad stuff begins to happen and keeps happening.  Writer/director Darren Aronofksy, who has explored themes of creativity and the line between passion and obsession in films like “Requiem for a Dream,” “The Fighter,” and “Black Swan” may be trying to reach for overarching Biblical concepts here (he also made “Noah”).  But with the arrestingly staged but horribly violent last act and it’s not-to-be-revealed ending, it communicates something more like a defensive argument in favor of the right of creators to abuse those around them.  Not true, whether it’s family members or people in the audience.

Parents should know that this film includes peril and violence, with murders of adults and a newborn infant, guns, fire, explosions, abuse, cannibalism, grisly and disturbing images, nudity, childbirth, brief very crude language, sexual references and explicit situations.

Family discussion: What does the ending signify?  Who do the couple represent?  What does the house represent?

If you like this, try: “Noah” from the same writer/director, “North Fork”

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DVD/Blu-Ray Fantasy Horror movie review

Dave Made a Maze

B +

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Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Fantasy peril and violence, characters injured and killed, monster
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: August 18, 2017

Copyright 2017 Gravitas Ventures
For generations, there have been children who have had more fun playing with the box than with the toy that came inside. The reason is easy to understand: a blank box puts no limits on imagination. It can be a clubhouse, a rocket ship, or a submarine, or all at once. It needs no batteries and there is no technology to break down. There’s no disappointing discovery that what looks cool on the commercial does not actually work. Cardboard can be anything and imagination can take you everywhere.

That is the theme of “Dave Made a Maze,” both the story on the screen and the story of the movie itself. Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) comes home from a short trip out of town to find her boyfriend Dave (Nick Thune) has taken over their living room with a cardboard maze, or, rather, a labyrinth so intricate that he is literally lost inside it. Like the TARDIS, Dave’s construction is bigger on the inside. Annie grabs some friends and a box cutter and goes inside. A film crew led by their friend Harry (James Urbaniak) comes along to document (and sometimes shape) the adventure.

Co-writer/director Bill Watterson (not the Calvin and Hobbes cartoonist) has created a slacker/artisanal “Cat and the Canary” or “Ghost and Mr. Chicken,” a comedy/horror film with real stakes and deadpan delivery, all the funnier for being so understated.

The star of the film is unquestionably the maze/labyrinth itself. Production designers Trisha Gum and John Sumner, clearly having the time of their lives, worked with the genius artists of the Cardboard Institute of Technology to create an endlessly inventive world, enchanting, spooky, hilarious, and, when you don’t expect it, pretty scary. Just because the blood is made of yarn and paper, we learn, does not mean it is not real. On the other hand, one labyrinthian portal somehow turns the characters into paper bag puppets, a transformation which thankfully turns out to be temporary. Dave’s maze, a manifestation of his frustration at not having a job that fulfills him, turns out to have a malevolent sentience he and his friends have to battle. Having different artists work on different rooms and corridors adds to the continuous surprise and disconnect, with one section looking like a mock-up from “2001,” another sporting origami birds, and others playing with perspective and space. I was especially taken by the intricate cardboard mechanics underneath one space, with several others hinting at an even more expansive and complex cardboard world.

Part of the film’s charm is the way Annie and Dave’s friends immediately accept the premise and just go for it. But what makes this one of the most imaginative films of the year is the way it makes a virtue of its micro budget. Like Dave himself, the filmmakers have found what the cheapest materials can do better than the most sophisticated animation equipment. They’ve created a tactile environment that puts no limits on their imagination or ours.

Parents should know that this film has very strong language, fantasy peril and violence, a monster, and characters who are injured and killed.

Family discussion: Which was your favorite room in the maze? Why did the maze get out of control?

If you like this, try: “Safety Not Guaranteed” and “Coherence”

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Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

B +

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Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action, suggestive material and brief language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended sci-fi/action violence, guns, chases, characters injured and killed including genocide
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: July 21, 2017
Date Released to DVD: November 21, 2017

Copyright 2017 STX Films
Yes, the visuals and special effects in Luc Besson’s “Valerian and the City of the Thousand Planets” are next-level, dazzling, stunning, and themselves worth the price of a ticket (3D please). But let’s be honest. The best special effect in the movie is the lovely real face of Rihanna as Bubble, a shape-shifting alien our hero meets in an inter-galactic strip club.

That hero would be Valerian (Dane DeHaan), who has gone to the strip club in search of the disguise he needs to infiltrate an alien compound and rescue the woman he loves, his space partner Laureline (Cara Delevingne). She was captured as the two of them were on a mission to…oh, who cares what the mission was? It’s your basic save the universe stuff. You know and I know and they know you are not there for the subtleties of the space city that incorporates, “Zootopia”-style, every possible creature and culture, a veritable Pepperland of comity and the exchange of learning. In the opening scenes, we see the history of the place, as human astronauts welcome aboard an increasing variety of visitors with a warm handshake, first from other countries, and then from other planets and galaxies, still with something as close to a handshake as possible.

This is the movie Luc Besson has wanted to make since he was a teenager, base on a French comic book series from the 1960’s with a visionary aesthetic that inspired Besson’s own “5th Element” and George Lucas’ “Star Wars.” He had to wait decades until the technology made it possible to do the ravishing visuals justice. That is the good news and the bad news. The good news is that the visuals are indeed ravishing, worth a couple of viewings on the biggest screen you can find and then a couple more when you can watch it at home and hit “pause” to see every detail. The bad news is that the storyline has not held up as well over the years as the settings, in part because much of it has also been appropriated, too, over the years, partly because times have changed, and partly because it wasn’t that great to begin with. Valerian and Laureline banter back and forth about whether he can make a commitment to her as they try to save the world. It is supposed to be part of the fun of the story that they are cool and casual. Valerian even wears a Hawaiian shirt at one point instead of his spiffy spacesuit (they are undercover as tourists). But their characters are so bland, especially by contrast with the wildly imaginative world they are racing through, that it drags on the storyline. That’s disappointing because it distracts from some promising flickers of substance.

Parents should know that this film includes extensive sci-fi peril, action, and violence with many guns and blasters, characters injured and killed, sad deaths, references to genocide, corruption, brief strong language, provocative dance and references to prostitution.

Family discussion: Why do Valerian and Laureline disagree about the converter? How do you know when to break the rules?

If you like this, try: “Avatar” and “The Fifth Element”

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Cars 3

B

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Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: G
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and some violence including fiery car crashes, references to sad death
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: June 17, 2017
Date Released to DVD: November 6, 2017
Copyright Disney/Pixar 2017

It’s better than “Cars 2,” but not as good as the first “Cars,” so it continues the saga of the second tier of Pixar movies.  Second-tier Pixar is pretty good. But this time the storyline is unlikely to be of much interest to children.  They’ll enjoy the race scenes (except for the ones that are too scary) and the silly humor.  But the theme of this film is the existential dilemma of an aging athlete.  While “Inside Out” and “Toy Story 3” addressed issues of growing older/up with infinite tenderness and sensitivity, “Cars 3,” with the help of generous samples of Paul Newman’s Doc Hudson character from the first film, has appropriated the plots of many of the “Rocky” movies, with now-champion Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) confronted with his own mortality.  I know; they’re machines, but apparently they have parents and childhoods and lifespans.

Lightning is beaten by a super-slick competitor dashingly named Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), who looks like he is visiting from another Disney movie, “Tron.”  And there’s another blow.  Lightning has loved being sponsored by his friends at Rust-Eze, but the company has been sold and his new sponsor is the smooth, corporate Sinclair (Nathan Fillion), who tells him that if he does not win his next race, he has to stop racing all together.

But racing is all Lightning knows or cares about.  If he can’t race, who is he?

Sinclair has a very high-tech training facility that’s all about cybermetrics. Lighting is assigned a new trainer, Cruz (Cristela Alonzo), who is essentially a stopwatch on wheels.  Everything is about readouts and algorithms.  Lightning takes her out on the beach to show her what real racing is.  And he decides that his mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi, I mean Doc Hudson, may be gone, but perhaps he can find Doc’s mentor, and gain some wisdom.

Lighting and Cruz end up competing in what they think is a race but what turns out to be a demolition derby (pretty scary for G).  They squabble and make up and Cruz confides that she once dreamed of racing.  They do find Doc’s old friends, led by Smokey (Chris Cooper) and his adorable sidekicks.

It has talking cars, and kids will like that. And it doesn’t have the bombast and over-complexity of “Cars 2.”  But it also does not have the heart we have come to rely on from Pixar, and if we feel disappointed, it is only because they have set the bar so high.

Parents should know that despite the G rating, this film has characters in peril including scary 3D car crashes and fire, many references to a sad death and to the challenges of aging, and a reference to unsupportive parents.

Family discussion: Why did Lou take other children’s toys? Who is your mentor and who can you help as Doc Hudson helped Lightning?

If you like this, try: the other “Cars” movies and “A Bug’s Life”

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