Thoroughbreds

(USA 2017)

Newcomer Cory Finley’s nihilistic dark comedy Thoroughbreds tells the story, as one of its promotional posters puts it, of good breeding gone bad. Two suburban Connecticut high school girls, misfit Amanda (Olivia Cooke) and go getter Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy), reconnect under the guise of tutoring. They were friends in grade school until Lily’s father died; now Amanda’s mother (Kaili Vernoff) is paying Lily to hang out with her daughter, who has a mystery mental disorder that renders her incapable of feeling emotion.

Amanda meets Lily’s stepfather, Mark (Paul Sparks), a rich, domineering, and caustic control freak. Lily hates him but gets upset at Amanda’s suggestion that maybe he should die. She has a change of heart when Mark convinces Lily’s mother (Francie Swift) to send her away to a boarding school for “problem” girls. The two teens devise a plan to kill him. Enter slacker drug dealer Tim (Anton Yelchin) to execute the plan.

Thoroughbreds has all the elements of a winner. Finley’s script tells a good, dark story. Cooke channels Cristina Ricci, playing Amanda with all the macabre emptiness of Wednesday Addams. Ultimately, though, this is no Heathers. I found Thoroughbreds a bit rambling. It’s an okay film, but just okay — it’s probably not something I’m going to view again. Aaron enjoyed it more than I did.

With Svetlana Orlova, Alyssa Fishenden, Jackson Damon, James Haddad, Nolan Ball, Celeste Oliva

Production: June Pictures, B Story, Big Indie Pictures

Distribution: Focus Features (USA), Universal Pictures International (UPI) (international)

92 minutes
Rated R

(Landmark Century) C+

http://focusfeatures.com/thoroughbreds

Loveless [Nelyubov]

(Russia 2017)

With his 2014 film Leviathan [Leviafan] [Левиафан] (https://moviebloke.com/2015/01/18/leviathan-leviafan/), director Andrey Zvyagintsev presented a glum picture of a city in decline. He continues on that trajectory with Loveless [Nelyubov] [Нелюбовь], a glum picture of a family falling apart.

Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin) are in the midst of a nasty divorce. Still winding down their marriage, both have moved on: Zhenya spends nights with her boyfriend (Andris Keišs) and Boris is expecting a baby with his girlfriend (Marina Vasilyeva). The problem of their introverted and sad 12-year-old son, Alexey (Matvey Novikov), their only child, prevents them from turning the page. Neither wants custody, and they bicker over it. Constantly. He hears it all.

One morning when she gets home, Zhenya gets a call from Alexey’s teacher: he hasn’t been to school in two days. No one has seen him. He seems to have vanished. The police aren’t helpful, dismissing the matter as a case of a runaway who will be back in a few days. Frankly, Zhenya and Boris have been absobed by their own affairs and haven’t noticed Alexey much lately. They hire a group of volunteers to trace his steps and find him.

Loveless is an improvement over Leviathan, which was also a good film. Partnering again with Oleg Negin on the screenplay, the pace here is better and the story is a lot more engaging. No love is to be found here, and the adults are why. Shallow and selfish, they’re incapable or maybe just uninterested in seeing how their own toxicity adds to a bad situation. I have the impression that nothing changes at the end of the ordeal.

Spivak’s coldheartedness is chilling, and it’s hard to listen to her admit in one scene that having Alexey was a mistake and she should’ve had an abortion. Her mother (Natalya Potapova) — Alexey’s grandmother — is even worse. Novikov is another standout, bawling quietly behind a bathroom door or letting a tear stream down his cheek as he doesn’t eat his breakfast. Cinematograpger Mikhail Krichman, who gave Leviathan its crisp gloomy grey, does the same here, but somehow makes the whole thing look even bleaker.

With Aleksey Fateev, Sergey Dvoinikov, Artyom Zhigulin, Evgeniya Dmitrieva, Natalia Vinokurova, Djan Badmaev, Yanina Hope, Maksim Stoyanov, Denis Tkachev, Yuriy Mirontsev, Oleg Grisevich, Aleksandr Sergeev, Varvara Shmykova

Production: Non-Stop Productions, Why Not Productions, Fetisoff Illusion, Senator Film Produktion, Les Films du Fleuve, Arte France Cinéma, Eurimages, ARTE France, Canal+, Cine+, Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR), Wild Bunch

Distribution: Sony Pictures Classics (USA), Altitude Film Entertainment (UK), Pyramide Distribution (France), Academy Two (Italy), Golem Distribución (Spain), Alpenrepublik Filmverleih (Germany), Wild Bunch (Germany), Cinemien (Netherlands), Seven Films (Greece), Against Gravity (Poland), Albatros Film (Japan), The Klockworx (Japan), Star Channel Movies (Japan)

127 minutes
Rated R

(Music Box) B

http://sonyclassics.com/loveless/

Mudbound

(USA 2017)

Netflix surprised me last year with a pair of impressive original films, Okja (https://moviebloke.com/2017/06/22/okja/) and The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (https://moviebloke.com/2017/07/09/the-death-and-life-of-marsha-p-johnson/). The streak of merit continues with Mudbound, director Dee Reese’s film adaptaion of Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel.

A Southern Gothic soap opera with a bit of social commentary, Mudbound is an interesting story. Written by Reese and Virgil Williams, the screenplay, told in flashback, follows two families, the white McAllans and the black Jacksons, from the Depression until just after World War II.

Fate and circumstance bring them together on a farm in the Mississippi Delta. The McAllans have the upper hand — they own the land — but they rely on the Jacksons, who work as sharecroppers, for more than farming. Mother Florence Jackson (Mary J. Blige) bears the brunt of it through sickness, injury, death, and disrespect.

The plot elements are familiar — poverty, church, white only areas, the KKK — but the whole thing is fresh. Maybe its Reese’s objective approach. Her pace is deliberate and slow; frankly, it almost lost me. I’m glad I stuck it out, though, because the momentum picks up after one boy from each family — Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell) — goes off to war. A romance that develops between Ronsel and a German woman enlightens him; it serves as a marked contrast to life at home.

Jamie and Ronsel both face challenges assimilating back into Southern civilian life when they return. They become friends, much to the dismay of Pap McAllan (Jonathan Banks) and, like, the whole town. When Jamie refuses to stop associating with Ronsel, things get brutal. While not on the epic scale of something like Roots, Mudbound got to me nonetheless.

With Carey Mulligan, Rob Morgan, Jason Clarke, Kerry Cahill, Dylan Arnold, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Lucy Faust, Geraldine Singer, Floyd Anthony Johns Jr., Samantha Hoefer, Henry Frost, Kennedy Derosin, Frankie Smith, Jason Kirkpatrick, Elizabeth Windley, Piper Blair, Joshua J. Williams, Claudio Laniado, Charley Vance

Production: Armory Films, ArtImage Entertainment, Black Bear Pictures, Elevated Films, MACRO, MMC Joule Films, Zeal Media

Distribution: Netflix (USA), Diamond Films (Mexico / Argentina), TOBIS Film (Germany), Feelgood Entertainment (Greece)

134 minutes
Rated R

(Netflix) B

https://www.facebook.com/MudBound/

The Insult [L’insulte]

(Lebanon / Belgium / Cyprus / France / USA 2017)

“We live in the Middle East. The word ‘offense’ was born here.”

— Wajdi Wehbe

The plot of The Insult [L’insulte] [قضيةرقم٢٣‎] recalls the old saying, “a stitch in time saves nine.” Perhaps someone should have told Tony Hanna (Adel Karam), a hothead Beirut mechanic in his forties (born about three weeks after me), and Yasser Salameh (Kamel El Basha), the sixtyish foreman of a construction crew.

While tending to plants on his balcony one afternoon, Tony accidentally spills water on the guys in the crew working below him on the street. Yasser spots the problem: a sawed-off pipe is coming out of the balcony. He offers to fix it, but Tony declines. Rudely. Yasser directs the guys to fix it anyway. Just as they finish, Tony sees the new pipe — and he busts it up into pieces. Watching it happen, Yasser calls Tony a “fucking prick.”

This is where it all starts to snowball. Tony is a Lebanese Christian, a devotee of Bachir Gemayel. Yasser is a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon. Tony demands an apology. Yasser refuses. His boss (Talal El Jurdi), overwrought by the combustibility of the situation, persuades him to do so after he learns what happened.

When the two men approach Tony at his garage, he makes a vicious ethnic remark to Yasser, who punches him in the gut and cracks two ribs. Tony sues Yasser — involving the police in a small criminal investigation doesn’t quench his thirst for “justice,” which to Tony is more about putting Yasser in his place. Initially, both men represent themselves before a lower court. The judge (Carlos Chahine) dismisses the case in a huff, annoyed that neither man can articulate his position.

Infamous attorney Wajdi Wehbe (Camille Salameh), who fancies himself a defender of the Christian perspective, takes a political interest in Tony’s case. He convinces Tony to appeal the dismissal. Nadine (Diamand Bou Abboud), an attorney from legal aid, offers to represent Yasser for her own political reasons.

Soon, the media gets wind of the case. Before the watchful eyes of reporters, the two attorneys, who have a relationship, drag personal and political wounds into the light of the courtroom. The trial ignites tensions and threatens to spark national unrest. Even the President is concerned.

The Insult is not perfect — I could’ve done with less time in the courtroom and none of Éric Neveux’s flimsy techno soundtrack. Still, director Ziad Doueiri, who wrote the screenplay with Joelle Touma, hits the right notes here, diving right into the religious-cultural-political differences that do more than divide — they affront. The conflict is specific to Lebanon, but the outrage — consuming and exhausting everyone it its path — is the same that you see all over today, from Europe to South America to the United States.

With Rita Hayek, Christine Choueiri, Julia Kassar, Rifaat Torbey, Georges Daoud, Christina Farah, Elie Njeim

Production: Ezekiel Films, Tessalit Productions, Rouge International, Scope Pictures, Douri Films, Cohen Media Group, Canal+, Ciné+, L’Aide aux Cinémas du Monde, Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC), Ministère des Affaires étrangères et du Développement International

Distribution: Cinéart (Netherlands), Diaphana Films (France), Cohen Media Group (USA), Distribution Company (Argentina), Filmarti (Turkey)

112 minutes
Rated R

(Landmark Century) B

http://www.3b-productions.com/tessalit/linsulte/

http://cohenmedia.net/films/theinsult

Darkest Hour

(USA / UK 2017)

I’m coming clean on a few things. First, I had little to no interest in Darkest Hour; had it not been nominated for Best Picture, I wouldn’t be writing about it. Second, Dunkirk (https://moviebloke.com/2017/07/20/dunkirk/) already satisfied the WWII epic category earlier this year. Third, if I hear one more accolade for Gary Oldman transforming himself for this role, I’m going to pull out five or six DVDs of his earlier films and literally throw them at the person who says that. Like Meryl Streep, he’s made a career out of transforming himself. It’s what he does.

Okay, that’s off my chest.

Darkest Hour is a textbook historical war drama, this one about Winston Churchill (Oldman) and the obstacles he encountered early in his term as Prime Minister. His biggest though certainly not his only problem was mounting pressure from Conservatives and Parliament to negotiate a peace deal with Adolph Hitler as Europe fell to the Nazis in 1940. Churchill flatly refused because he didn’t trust Hitler. The predicament of British soldiers trapped at Dunkirk and Calais didn’t help his cause, at least not in the eyes of his peers.

Joe Wright’s directing and Anthony McCarten’s screenplay are both highly competent, buoyed nicely by Bruno Delbonnel’s luscious cinematography. I like that no bones are made about Franklin Roosevelt’s (David Strathairn) initial refusal to get involved. A later scene on the London Underground is amusing. The acting is exactly what you’d expect in a big budget historical drama like Darkest Hour, right down to the rousing eleventh hour do-or-die speech. Oldham is great, but frankly I’ve seen him do better, or at least more interesting roles.

I don’t mean to rip into this film. The finished product is fine for what it is. Darkest Hour just didn’t wow me. It’s conventional and predictable, working from the same template as other films of its ilk. The subject is overdone. I counted at least three recent movies made about events referenced here — the aforementioned Dunkirk, The King’s Speech, and W.E. Enough said. Speaking of Dunkirk, it moved me more than this did.

With Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn, Lily James, Ronald Pickup, Stephen Dillane, Nicholas Jones, Samuel West, David Schofield, Richard Lumsden, Malcolm Storry, Hilton McRae, Benjamin Whitrow, Joe Armstrong, Adrian Rawlins, David Bamber, Paul Leonard, Eric MacLennan, Philip Martin Brown, Demetri Goritsas, Jordan Waller, Alex Clatworthy, Mary Antony, Bethany Muir, Anna Burnett, Jeremy Child, Hannah Steele, Nia Gwynne, Ade Haastrup, James Eeles, Flora Nicholson, Imogen King

Production: Perfect World Pictures, Working Title Films

Distribution: Focus Features

125 minutes
Rated PG-13

(Landmark Century) C+

http://focusfeatures.com/darkesthour

Witness

(USA 1985)

“I’m learning a lot about manure. Very interesting.”

— John Book

More drama than thriller, Peter Weir’s Witness is laced with action, sexual tension, and for good measure (or for good use of star Harrison Ford) a bit of comedy.

Ford is John Book, a jaded smartass Philadelphia detective. While investigating the murder of an undercover cop at a train station, he meets six-year-old Samuel Lapp (Lukas Haas), an Amish boy who witnessed the killing from a stall in the men’s room, and the boy’s recently widowed mother, Rachel (Kelly McGillis). She doesn’t quite trust Book or the world he comes from, but has to set aside her misgivings because he’s their protector for the time being.

Book stumbles upon a plot inside the Police Department and is forced into hiding after an ambush that nearly takes his life. At Rachel’s insistence, he retreats to her community in rural Lancaster County — “Amish country.” Book clumsily and reluctantly adapts to the lifestyle, and he shows he’s got a heart of gold beating underneath all that urbane crustiness. His “English” presence, though, threatens the peace of the Old Order and jeopardizes Rachel’s standing.

A sort of Blade Runner (https://moviebloke.com/2017/03/26/blade-runner-the-final-cut/) set in Amish Pennsylvania, Witness gets into morality, corruption, and culture clash. Its comparison/contrast of the Amish with the modern world is platitudinous and heavy-handed, so much that I found myself rolling my eyes at points. The climax is totally predictable but the tension between Book and Rachel is actually pretty good — good enough to make their subplot romance more interesting than the rest of the film. McGillis bears her breasts in an uncomfortably erotic scene. Bonus: Patti LuPone and Viggo Mortensen both have small parts, which I did not know going into this.

Ford’s only Oscar nomination, perhaps surprisingly, was for his performance in Witness (http://www.tvguide.com/news/oscars-2017-actors-who-have-never-won-an-academy-award/). He lost to William Hurt for Kiss of the Spider Woman (https://www.oscars.org/oscars/ceremonies/1986). I can’t dispute the wisdom of that call. Still, Earl W. Wallace and William Kelley won for their screenplay.

With Danny Glover, Josef Sommer, Alexander Godunov, Brent Jennings, Jan Rubes, Angus MacInnes, Frederick Rolf, John Garson, Beverly May, Ed Crowley, Timothy Carhart, Marian Swan, Maria Bradley, Rozwill Young, Robert Earl Jones

Production: Paramount Pictures, Edward S. Feldman

Distribution: Paramount Pictures (USA), United International Pictures (UIP) (International), Cinema International Corporation (CIC) (France), Svenska Filminstitutet (SFI) (Sweden)

112 minutes
Rated R

(Facets) C+

Phantom Thread

(USA / UK 2017)

“When I was a boy, I started to hide things in the lining of the garments. Things only I knew were there. Secrets.”

— Reynolds Woodcock

“I want you flat on your back. Helpless, tender, open. With only me to help. And then I want you strong again.”

— Alma Elson

London dress designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) wouldn’t be at the center of 1950s British haute couture without the women in his life — and all he has around him are women. He clothes royalty (Lujza Richter), models, and many a grande dame, some of them (Harriet Sansom Harris) crazy, in exquisite opulence he creates in his exclusive House of Woodcock. His stony sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) runs the business end of things. Part of that involves maintaining every detail of his affairs, keeping his life exactly like his clothing: meticulously crafted and custom tailored, just how he likes it.

Reynolds is a genius, but he’s also an insufferable control freak. A diva. A dick. This explains why he’s an “incurable” bachelor.

Women have come and gone, but not one has inspired Reynolds quite like Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps), a rather willful young waitress he meets in a café. He asks her out to dinner, then brings her back to his studio and fits her in a dress. It’s kind of weird and domineering, but it doesn’t repel her.

Alma moves in. Soon, she becomes lover and muse to Reynolds, forced to contend with his bizarre and condescending idiosyncrasies. Cyril takes note. Alma’s presence throws him off, sometimes provoking him to retreat into silence while other times sending him into a fit of rage. Serendipity leads Alma to the anecdote for his noxiousness.

Phantom Thread takes some work to digest — an unintended pun, but apt nonetheless. Writer/director/cinematographer Paul Thomas Anderson’s screenplay is subtle, which I assume is the reason his pace is so painstakingly measured. The result is a sublime slowburning masterpiece that leaves you pondering long after you’ve taken it all in. I’d like to see it again.

Reynolds struggles against the power that women hold over him, and Day-Lewis adroitly handles the nuance that this role requires. He’s particularly magnificent in a scene involving a hallucination: Reynolds talks to his deceased mother (Emma Clandon), and his dialogue sums up his existence. I can’t imagine anyone else in this role, which showcases his formidable talent. Day-Lewis announced his retirement before Phantom Thread came out (http://variety.com/2017/film/columns/daniel-day-lewis-retiring-1202477843/). Whether he actually does remains to be seen, but it’s certainly a high note in a long, storied, and impressive career.

I would be remiss not to mention Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s haunting score, which is foreboding, minimalist, and eloquent. It’s a perfect fit for the psychological drama that unfolds here.

As a small aside, we had the pleasure of catching Phantom Thread on 70mm. This is how it should be seen. We even got a special program — and I love stuff like that!

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With Sue Clark, Joan Brown, Harriet Leitch, Dinah Nicholson, Julie Duck, Maryanne Frost, Elli Banks, Amy Cunningham, Amber Brabant, Geneva Corlett, Juliet Glaves, Camilla Rutherford, Gina McKee, Brian Gleeson, Julia Davis, Nicholas Mander, Philip Franks, Phyllis MacMahon, Silas Carson, Richard Graham, Martin Dew, Ian Harrod, Jane Perry, Leopoldine Hugo

Production: Annapurna Pictures, Focus Features, Ghoulardi Film Company, Perfect World Pictures

Distribution: Focus Features (USA), United International Pictures (UIP) (International), Universal Pictures International (UPI) (International), NOS Audiovisuais (Portugal), CinemArt (Czech Republic), Bitters End (Japan), Parco Co. Ltd. (Japan)

130 minutes
Rated R

(Music Box) B+

http://www.focusfeatures.com/phantom-thread/

The Post

(USA 2017)

Even with the healthy skepticism I have for all things Steven Spielberg, I was looking forward to The Post, His Schmaltziness’s latest historical drama. The subject and the impressive cast built expectations (for me, anyway) along the lines of All the President’s Men (https://moviebloke.com/2015/11/29/all-the-presidents-men/). Turns out that’s not quite what The Post is.

Set in 1971, The Post is a dramatization of newspaper heiress Katharine Graham’s (Meryl Streep) agonizing decision to publish excerpts of the classified Pentagon Papers in The Washington Post — on the eve of the paper’s public stock offering. It was a now-or-never moment with big consequences for her, the paper, and the nation. Editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) is determined to publish the rest of the story, president and shareholders be damned.

Recall that the Pentagon Papers detailed the shady origins and the federal government’s ongoing misleading of the American public about the efficacy of the Vietnam War. The New York Times broke the story using the same source, former government contractor Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), but was slapped with an injunction that halted its coverage.

The Post is a decent historical thriller, I’ll give it that. Liz Hannah and Josh Singer’s screenplay is accurate, at least as far as the events here. The narrative is timely, loaded with dramatic tension and suspence even if the ending is rushed. In typical fashion, though, Spielberg is heavyhanded and overly sentimental. That long shot of Graham walking through a crowd of women of all ages as she leaves the courthouse of the U.S. Supreme Court and her monologue to her daughter are fine examples of what I’m talking about. Gag.

As far as Streep’s performance, I didn’t consider this a standout for her. She’s always good, but I’m probably not going to remember her for this one.

I found The Post overrated. It plays to something obvious. I wasn’t bored, but I wasn’t impressed, either. Bridge of Spies (https://moviebloke.com/2016/02/25/bridge-of-spies/), which I didn’t love, was more interesting.

With Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts. Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Alison Brie, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemons, David Cross, Zach Woods, Pat Healy, John Rue, Rick Holmes, Philip Casnoff, Jessie Mueller, Stark Sands, Michael Cyril Creighton, Will Denton, Deirdre Lovejoy, Michael Devine, Kelly Miller, Jennifer Dundas, Austyn Johnson, Brent Langdon, Michael Stuhlbarg, Deborah Green, Gary Wilmes, Christopher Innvar, Luke Slattery, Justin Swain, Robert McKay, Sasha Spielberg

Production: DreamWorks Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Amblin Entertainment, Participant Media, Pascal Pictures, Star Thrower Entertainment, River Road Entertainment

Distribution: 20th Century Fox (USA / Canada), Universal Pictures International (UPI) (International), United International Pictures (UIP) (International), Entertainment One Benelux (Netherlands), Forum Film Slovakia (Slovakia), NOS Audiovisuais (Portugal), Vertical Entertainment (Czech Republic), eOne Films Spain (Spain), Odeon (Greece), Columbia Pictures (Philippines), Toho-Towa (Japan)

116 minutes
Rated PG-13

(AMC River East) C+

https://www.foxmovies.com/movies/the-post

My Friend Dahmer

(USA 2017)

“You don’t have to suffer to be a poet,” said writer John Ciardi. “Adolescence is enough suffering for anyone.” Even the most notorious evildoer was once just a kid, and infamous cannibal serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer is no exception. My Friend Dahmer portrays him as a gawky teenage reject struggling to find a place where he fits.

Bath, Ohio, in the mid-1970s: young Jeff (Ross Lynch) is a high school freshman who lives with his parents, chemist Lionel (Dallas Roberts) and Joyce (Anne Heche), and his little brother, Dave (Liam Koeth). It’s a normal middle class nuclear existence, except for his mother’s mental illness, his parents’ bickering, and his odd pastime of collecting roadkill and dissolving the carcasses in a vat of acid his father gave him. There’s also his obsession with a rather bearish jogger (Vincent Kartheiser) Jeff frequently sees running past his house.

Jeff’s not making it at school, where his classmates look past him, probably because he’s so fucking weird. Out of apparent fearful concern for his loner son, Lionel demands that Jeff make some friends after he discovers a collection of bones stashed away in Jeff’s hideout in the woods.

Jeff fakes an epileptic seizure in the cafeteria at school and attracts the attention of Derf Backderf (Alex Wolff) and his friends, Neil (Tommy Nelson) and Mike (Harrison Holzer), who get a kick out of him and his antics. They start hanging out with Jeff and form “The Jeffrey Dahmer Fan Club,” a front for pulling pranks because they can get Jeff to do anything — even finagling a meeting with Vice President Walter Mondale (Tom Luce) on a class trip to Washington, D.C.

Jeff seems to be connecting to others for the first time, but his disintegrating home life throws off his progress.

Adapted from Cleveland artist Derf Backderf’s graphic novel, screenwriter and director Marc Meyers eschews gore and focuses on psychology, examining what may have happened to send Dahmer where he ended up. His approach is surprisingly empathetic and understanding without making excuses. Backderf offers unique insight that Meyers uses wisely. The acting, particularly that of Lynch and Wolff, lends a sensitivity that initially might seem unwarranted if not unworthy of the subject. The story here is sad, really: no gore, no murders, just a weird kid whose home life is falling apart.

My Friend Dahmer is a mix of teen comedy and tragedy that ends immediately before his first murder. It’s much better than I anticipated.

With Adam Kroloff, Brady M.K. Dunn, Michael Ryan Boehm, Cameron McKendry, Jake Ingrassia, Ben Zgorecki, Kris Smith, Jack DeVillers, Gabriela Novogratz, Miles Robbins, Joey Vee, Susan Bennett, Maryanne Nagel, Andrew Gorell, Katie Stottlemire, Carmen Gangale, Sydney Jane Meyer, Dave Sorboro, Denny Sanders

Production: Ibid Filmworks, Aperture Entertainment, Attic Light Films

Distribution: FilmRise, Altitude Film Entertainment

107 minutes
Rated R

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B

http://www.myfrienddahmerthemovie.com/#1

The Shape of Water

(USA 2017)

“The natives in the Amazon worshipped it like a god. We need to take it apart. Learn how it works.”

— Strickland

I knew only two things walking into The Shape of Water: one, Guillermo del Toro directed it; and two, one of the characters is a sea creature. I expected a dark and fantastical fable with del Toro’s trademark look and feel all over it.

I was right about everything except this being dark; the world where the story is set may be sinister and the color palette may be Cold War drab, but The Shape of Water is an uncharacteristically sweet departure for del Toro, at least what I’ve seen from him.

Set in 1962 Baltimore — far dimmer than the one in the John Waters classic Hairspray — Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a mute single lady who quietly exists on the fringes. She rents a rundown apartment above a movie theater and works as a janitor in a high-security government laboratory tucked away in a complex somewhere outside town. Her only connections to the world are Giles (Richard Jenkins), her aging homosexual next door neighbor, and Zelda (Octavia Spencer), a coworker who acts as her interpreter.

Elisa is drawn to a scaly amphibian (Doug Jones) dragged from the Amazon and kept inside a water tank in the lab where she works. She can’t stand the way Strickland (Michael Shannon), a wreckless government agent, treats him. She forges a bond with the creature, feeding him hard boiled eggs on the sly. He grows to trust her, proving to be a gentle soul under all those scales.

Elisa gets wind of what Strickland has in store for the creature — over the objections of Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), a marine biologist who tries to dissuade him. Strickland insists. Elisa takes matters into her own hands to save the poor thing.

Written by del Toro with Vanessa Taylor, the screenplay isn’t as dark, intense, or innovative as, say, Pan’s Labyrinth. Nevertheless, it’s got its charm. The Shape of Water is sexually charged, which is interesting (and frankly pretty funny at one point). The story, a romance, is much sweeter than what I tend to go for. The plot elements are familiar: outcasts, forbidden love, a maniacal plan in the name of science, a dangerous rescue, a fish out of water (literally), even a bit of espionage. It all comes together in a magnificently magical if not exactly unexpected finale.

Del Toro’s execution is what makes this film soar. Visually, he recalls Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (The City of Lost Children and especially Delicatessen). His use of color is clever and often seductive, even with a lot of brown and grey. The amphibian’s costume is cool, straight out of Pan’s Labyrinth (those eyes).

I love the references to other films — Creature from the Black Lagoon, E.T., King Kong, Beauty and the Beast, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. An astute friend of mine posits that the real love story here involves movies, with all of us mute viewers who fall for the fantastic. I find his interpretation to be the best I’ve heard.

The Shape of Water seems to be a polarizing film, moreso than any other I can think of this year; some of those I’ve talked to loved it, others hated it — with a passion. I fall into the former category. I can see myself coming back to this one from time to time.

With David Hewlett, Nick Searcy, Stewart Arnott, Nigel Bennett, Lauren Lee Smith, Martin Roach, Allegra Fulton, John Kapelos, Morgan Kelly, Marvin Kaye, Dru Viergever, Wendy Lyon, Cody Ray Thompson, Madison Ferguson, Jayden Greig

Production: Bull Productions, Double Dare You (DDY), Fox Searchlight Pictures

Distribution: Fox Searchlight Pictures (USA), 20th Century Fox (International), Hispano Foxfilms S.A.E. (Spain), Big Picture 2 Films (Portugal), Centfox Film (Austria), Forum Hungary (Hungary), Odeon

123 minutes
Rated R

(ArcLight) B+

http://www.foxsearchlight.com/theshapeofwater/