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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Breathe

B

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Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material including some bloody medical images
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Severe illness, medical situations with some graphic images, issue of assisted death
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 20, 2017
Copyright 2017 Bleeker Street

“Plucky or pitiful?” a man asks his wife as they drive toward a grand British estate to beg for funding to provide wheelchairs for the severely disabled. They meet with a crusty old aristocrat (Diana Rigg, always a treasure) who says that normally she has no trouble turning people down but she feels she must say yes to them. And, because they are so dashed plucky, so do we.

Robin Cavendish called himself a “responaut,” a jaunty, adventurous term for a man who was completely paralyzed by polio in his 20’s. And this jaunty, adventurous, paralyzed man’s story is told, perhaps a little too lovingly, by his filmmaker son in “Breathe,” about Cavendish, who revolutionized the mobility and accessibility of the severely disabled in mid-century Britain.

But this film is less about his activism than it is about his love story. Robin (Andrew Garfield) married Diana (“The Crown”), and their unswerving devotion and determined spirits are the heart of the film.

Like “The Theory of Everything,” which it resembles, the movie opens with our hero doing something active. He races along in a car and then swings a cricket bat, trying to catch the attention of the bored beauty sitting by the tea table. Soon they are married and off to Kenya, where he is a tea broker and she goes along with him for the fun of it. They are blissfully happy until, just after she tells him she is pregnant, he becomes very ill with polio, paralyzed from the neck down, and given just three months to live.

She manages to get him back to England, where he is put in a ward with other paralyzed men. He cannot speak. He cannot move. He cannot think of any reason to see Diana or the baby or to try to live. When a priest comes by with platitudes, he manages to spit at him.

But Diana’s devotion and his restored ability to speak inspire him to insist on going home. Nothing like that has ever been tried before and the doctor in charge forbids it. Another patient bets him a fiver that he won’t last. But he does. And he works with a friend to invent a wheelchair with a respirator that gives him mobility.

First-time director Andy Serkis (the motion capture actor from “Planet of the Apes” and “Lord of the Rings”) has a disarmingly light touch. The escape from the hospital is accompanied by the kind of musical score we might expect in a heist film with more humor than tension. Plus, if there’s anything better than one Tom Hollander in a movie, it is two Tom Hollanders, utterly charming playing Diana’s affectionate but eccentric twin brothers. Most of the dialog is delivered with an understated smile, the kind of “Hullo, darling,” we used to get in movies of the 1930’s. I found that endearing. This is very much a love story, not just between Diana and Robin but between a son and his parents.

Parents should know that this film includes severe illness and paralysis, some graphic and disturbing images, some sexual references and situation, and the issue of assisted death.

Family discussion: What made Robin different from the other patients? Do you agree with his decision about when to die?

If you like this, try: “The Theory of Everything” and “The Intouchables”

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The Mountain Between Us

C

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Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for a scene of sexuality, peril, injury images, and brief strong language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril, plane crash, animal attack, characters injured and killed, disturbing scenes
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: October 6, 2017

Copyright 2017 20th Century Fox
A surgeon named Ben (Idris Elba) and a photojournalist named Alex (Kate Winslet) have to find their way home after a charter plane crashes in the Colorado Rockies. Both of them were stuck at the airport after their flight to Denver was cancelled and both had an urgent need to get to their destinations as quickly as possible. He was scheduled to perform a critical brain operation on a child. She was on her way to her wedding after completing an assignment taking pictures of gang members. So Alex introduces herself to Ben and finds a pilot (Beau Bridges) who agrees to take them. When he tells them he didn’t have to file a flight plan because they were only going to be in the air during daylight, they might have shown some concern. But they were in a hurry. In fact, they were in so much of a hurry that neither one of them told anyone what they were doing either.

So when the pilot has a stroke and the plane crashes at the top of a mountain, no one knows where they are. They have almost no equipment and even less food. They do have the pilot’s dog. Kate is wounded, but Ben handily applies first aid, including a custom made splint fashioned from airplane shrapnel. As she is sleeping, he buries the pilot and assesses their situation.

The location footage is gorgeous and beautifully filmed. But the script, based on the book by Charles Martin, is so soapy you could wash a week’s laundry in it, with much more focus on the artificial differences (despite her injury, she wants to take action while he thinks it is safest to stay where they are) and under-imagined peril. What we want to see is the brave and clever ways they solve the problem of survival. What we get is bickering, hurt feelings, a non-surprising revelation, and a romantic encounter, with a coda that turns the whole adventure into a meet cute. Elba and Winslet don’t have much chemistry, in part because her character is immature and reckless, not nearly as charming as the movie thinks she is. Their conversations are not especially revealing or illuminating for them or for us. What should be an inspiring story becomes a weary slog.

Parents should know that this film includes constant peril, with a scary plane crash in the mountains, animals, ice, deprivation, a bear trap, characters injured and killed, some disturbing images, sexual references and situation, brief strong language

Family discussion: How did Ben and Alex rely on their professional skills in evaluating their options? What were their biggest differences?

If you like this, try: “Touching the Void,” “127 Hours,” and “K2”

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Our Souls at Night

B +

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Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, drunknenness
Violence/ Scariness: Sad death, family troubles
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 29, 2017

Copyright 2017 Netflix
Our Souls at Night was the last novel written by best-selling author Kent Haruf, published after his death, and it has an elegiac quality. The film, the fourth pairing of Robert Redford and Jane Fonda and the first in 38 years, has a rare quality in film, quiet grace. Movies love to tell us the story of young love, impetuous, volatile, and thrilling. But there is something even more moving about last love, the love that happens when you are old enough to understand how precious it is and old enough to know how foolish it would be to waste any more time.

Addie (Fonda) and Louis (Redford) are longtime neighbors. They know each other a little in the way people in small communities do. He was her daughter’s teacher. Both widowed, they have been living alone. And then, one night, she knocks on his door to ask him a question: would he like to come over to her house and sleep with her? Not sex, she assures him quickly. It’s just lonely in bed, and it would be nice to have someone to talk to at the end of the day.

He asks for time to think about it, and then says yes, coming over to her house with his pajamas in a paper bag and going to the back door to keep the neighbors from gossiping. They get to know one another, in simple, spare, but profoundly honest conversations about their most painful experiences, told without rancor and told with a simple generosity of spirit.

When Addie’s young grandson comes for an unexpected visit, she and Louis become even closer as they give the boy a chance to open up. They have an idyllic moment, almost as though it is a second chance for them to correct the mistakes they made in their first families, and learning more about each other through him. Then other ties and complications return.

It is a joy to see these two marvelous actors with their chemistry undimmed, performers with a deep understanding of craft and a deep trust in each other, take on these roles. Like the characters they are playing, they are beyond pretense, with the sureness of experience and the joy of cherishing each moment that only comes with age.

Parents should know that the film has references to sad and difficult family situations including the death of a child. Characters drink and one drinks too much. There are sexual references and a non-explicit sexual situation and characters use some mild language.

Family discussion: Why does Addie pick Louis? Why does Louis say yes?

If you like this, try: “On Golden Pond” and “Barefoot in the Park”

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Home Again

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MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some thematic and sexual material
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness, marijuana, discussion of antidepressant medication
Violence/ Scariness: Tense family confrontations, scuffle
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 9, 2017
Date Released to DVD: December 11, 2017
Copyright 2017 Open Road

Producer/director/writer Nancy Meyers has the formula on lockdown: Take one Oscar-winning performer, preferably of a certain age (Diane Keaton, Anne Hathaway, Robert de Niro, Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet). Create a setting of lush, heavenly comfort with soft pillows, gleaming surfaces, white wine, and luscious food. Add a generic title (“The Intern,” “The Holiday”). Put some overly familiar pop songs on the soundtrack and use them to hide the lack of dialogue in scenes when we should be allowed to hear what the characters are saying that is making them think differently about each other. Settle back for a story where the female character is ADORED by everyone and also very capable and pretty much right about everything.

Whether her daughter absorbed all of this by osmosis or is merely a fully-owned subsidiary of the Meyers operation, we may never know. But “Home Again,” the first film from writer/director Hallie Meyers-Shyer is produced by her mother and follows exactly the same formula. It is, to say the least, highly unusual for a first-time writer/director to helm such a high budget, high-profile project, starring, yes, an Oscar-winner, Reese Witherspoon, as yes, a women of a certain age who lives in a spectacularly gorgeous home (Fountain in front! Guest house in back!). But Meyers is a reliable commodity, and as generous with her daughter as her ever-beneficent heroines are in the films. Remember Streep bringing out all those pies for her friends?

If there are no surprises here, one of the non-surprises is that the movie is an easy watch, combining, as Meyers films do, pleasant fantasy with aspirational settings. I know I’ll watch it again when it comes on cable, or if I have the flu or need to fold laundry.

Witherspoon is Alice, as in Wonderland, a mother of two who has moved into her late father’s house in Los Angeles because she and her music industry producer who wears leather bracelets husband Austen (Michael Sheen) have separated. Her father was a much-married, Oscar-winning screenwriter and director because apparently that is pretty much the only world she knows or the only one we can dream of.

Alice goes out with friends on her birthday and gets tipsy with three young men who have just arrived in Los Angeles after success with a short, black and white film they are hoping to turn into a feature. She and Harry (Pico Alexander) end up in bed together, though too drunk to do anything. The next morning, Alice’s mother (Candace Bergen) arrives, befriends the three young men, and invites them to stay in Alice’s guest house.

Alice is against this at first, but comes to enjoy it, as the guys help her with the house and her girls and she and Harry end up doing what they were unable to do that first night. The ultimate seduction move is, of course, fixing the hinge on her cabinet, and I don’t say that metaphorically. They all of course ADORE her and are themselves adorable. Enter Austen, wanting to assert his alpha male status and win back Alice because of course he ADORES her, too.

So, basically a high-end Hallmark movie, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

NOTE: This is the second movie in a row for Meyers with an inappropriate and borderline offensive “joke” about children who take antidepressants. What’s up with that?

Parents should know that this movie includes sexual references and situations, drinking and drunkenness, as well as family conflicts and divorce, a child dealing with stress, and a scuffle.

Family discussion: Were you surprised by Alice’s decision? How did Harry help her understand what she needed?

If you like this, try: “The Holiday” and “It’s Complicated” — and you can glimpse writer/director Hallie Meyers-Shyer in her parents remake of “The Parent Trap”

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