Catholic News Service Movie Reviews



The Shape of Water

By Kurt Jensen

NEW YORK (CNS) — Can a lovelorn yet sensuous cleaning lady in 1962 Baltimore find true love with a blue and yellow and sometimes glowing fish-man from the Amazon?

“The Shape of Water” (Fox Searchlight), which evenly splits elements of romantic fantasy, classic horror and musical nostalgia, makes the case for girl meets gills.

The sexual content on display is, however, so strong and so pervasive as to make this unsuitable for the casual moviegoer, and to require a restrictive classification.

Nothing about this element of the film is intended to appear prurient or shocking. Rather, it’s a matter of sheer quantity.

Writer-director Guillermo del Toro likes to underline his points in this mix of “Beauty and the Beast” and “Creature from the Black Lagoon” — in the case of sexuality, with the cinematic equivalent of a bright, thick Magic Marker. In many other places, he makes gentler observations about the prevalence of prejudice in a variety of forms.

Sally Hawkins is Elisa, a cleaning lady at a secret government underground lair. She’s been mute since childhood as a result of having her vocal cords cut. She lives with a gay advertising illustrator, Giles (Richard Jenkins), who is fighting to stay employed and relevant. Octavia Spencer is her co-worker and friend Zelda, who translates Elisa’s sign language and is, unfortunately, the old stereotype of the sassy black friend.

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Elisa is very much alone, and she and Giles, although they live above a movie theatre showing wide-screen Technicolor fare, prefer to watch old musical pictures on a black-and-white TV — and practice dance steps.

Alice Faye, a screen siren of the 1940s, is their particular favourite, and as a result, she gets a lot of screen time here and is heard singing the melancholy “You’ll Never Know” (from 1943’s “Hello, Frisco, Hello”) quite a bit.

Suddenly, the way plots in these stories occur, the lab receives a tank containing the Amazonian amphibian (Doug Jones). The lab is a military facility, but is bossily ruled over by civilian Richard (Michael Shannon). He’s pugnacious, racist, in a stale marriage with a by-rote sex life, hates being stuck in Baltimore, and likes to torture the fish-man with an electric cattle prod.

Complicating matters further is the presence of a Russian spy, Robert (Michael Stuhlbarg), since the Russians also are interested in retrieving this “asset.”

Richard, though, would prefer that the lab take the amphibian with the soulful golden eyes, and cut him into pieces to see how he works, since he can breathe on both land and sea. Richard purports to know that the amphibian is an affront to God, since he’s not “made in his image.”

The tank is in an area Elisa and Zelda are assigned to clean. It gets messy in there when the amphibian attacks Richard and tears off two fingers. But Elisa retrieves the digits, although they soon turn gangrenous (It’s not one of del Toro’s subtler analogies).

She also bonds with her new equally mute fishy friend over lunches of hard-boiled eggs and big-band ballads played on a portable phonograph.

Just like in her beloved old musical pictures, she and the amphibian fall quickly into interspecies love, and she and Giles hatch a plan to spirit him out of the lab and to their apartment, where she installs him in the bathtub.

There’s also some improbable skinny-dipping when Elisa floods the bathroom. Subsequently, it turns out that her expressive sign language is a very convenient way to explain to Zelda how the sex works. This is earthy stuff, and may also constitute, for many, an instance of too much information.

Will the amphibian make it to the ocean? (Technically the Chesapeake Bay, but let’s not pick that nit.) Can his and Elisa’s love survive? And does he have godlike healing powers?

Take it away, Alice Faye: “If there is some other way to prove that I love you, I swear I don’t know how.”

All the glorious formulaic elements of a lush period romance mashed up with too many sexual references. Somehow, Alice’s warbling from beyond the grave manages to pull all of it together.

The film contains strong sexual content, including graphic marital lovemaking, bizarre activity and several glimpses of male and female nudity, fleeting gore and frequent rough language. The Catholic News Service classification is L — limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

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Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.



Peter Rabbit
By Joseph McAleer

NEW YORK (CNS) — That rustling sound you hear is famed children’s author Beatrix Potter spinning in her grave, distressed at what has been done to her beloved characters in “Peter Rabbit” (Columbia).

Potter (1866-1943) wrote gentle morality fables about anthropomorphic animals, which she illustrated herself. Her 23 pocket-sized books, starting with “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” (1902), have become one of the top-selling series of all time.

Now her most famous character, the mischievous Peter Rabbit, has been transformed into a fast-talking juvenile delinquent, a hipster dude rather too fond of rude jokes and possessing a nasty murderous streak.

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Director Will Gluck (“Annie”), who co-wrote the screenplay with Ron Lieber, mixes live-action with animation for this adventure comedy. While the interplay of human actors with CGI critters is remarkable, the film’s manic pace and reliance on cheap gags set a discordant tone at odds with Potter’s elegant style.

The film picks up where Potter’s first volume leaves off. Peter (voice of James Corden) is now the leader of his family, which includes his younger sisters, triplets Flopsy (voice of Margot Robbie), Mopsy (voice of Elizabeth Debicki), and Cottontail (voice of Daisy Ridley).

We know from Potter’s story how their father died. Deep in the verdant English countryside, he wandered into a fenced-in garden and was caught by the owner, Mr. McGregor, who turned him into a pie supper.

Let that be a lesson to you, Mother warns her brood. But Peter disobeys, and barely escapes with his life.

In the movie, their mother also has died, and Peter is obsessed with Mr. McGregor (Sam Neill), seeking revenge and his vegetables. He enlists his sisters and his cousin, Benjamin Bunny (voice of Colin Moody), on daily raids into the garden.

During one ambush, Mr. McGregor has a fatal heart attack, collapsing in front of Peter. The young bunny is elated, as are his family and friends. All are invited to overrun the garden and Mr. McGregor’s cottage, both of which are thoroughly trashed.

Fans of the Potter books will spot Pigling Bland (voice of Ewen Leslie), Jemima Puddle-Duck (voice of Rose Byrne), and Miss Tiggy-Winkle (voice of Sia), among other familiar characters.

The animals’ idyll is short-lived, as soon a new McGregor arrives, great-nephew Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson). He’s a city boy from London who hates the country (and all four-legged creatures) and plans to put the homestead up for sale.

Until, that is, he meets his comely neighbour, Bea (Rose Byrne). She’s a kind and sweet friend to Peter and his family, whom she paints in her spare time (for Bea read Beatrix, of course). She tries to soften Thomas’ strong feelings and eventually captures his heart.

Peter will have none of this, and plots Thomas’ murder as the bunnies declare war.

Thankfully, the film’s resolution does impart some of the lessons of Potter’s books, including the importance of family, honesty and forgiveness. But the filmmakers cannot resist the ill-mannered behaviour, low-brow jokes, and noisy eruptions that seem to be staples in children’s films today.

Suffice it to say, Potter would recoil at Peter’s attempt to thrust a carrot up Mr. McGregor’s bare buttocks, not to mention a comic remark about Benjamin Bunny’s nipples.

The film contains a vengeance theme, a glimpse of partial rear nudity, some rude humour and action sequences. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II — adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG — parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children. - — -
McAleer is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — There are many interesting things to know about the life of arms heiress Sarah Winchester (c. 1840-1922). For one, she was fabulously wealthy. For another, she believed she was cursed.

To stave off the effects of the latter condition, moreover, Sarah was apparently under the delusion that she must maintain constant construction on the San Jose, California, house in which she lived — something she proceeded to do for nearly four decades and only stopped doing because she died.

The architectural curiosity resulting from her mania, dubbed the Winchester Mystery House, has since become a popular tourist attraction. All very intriguing.

How, then, one wonders, can a horror movie riffing on these historical circumstances turn out to be such a bore — all the more so, given that the formidable Helen Mirren stars as Sarah? Yet such is the painful truth about “Winchester” (CBS Films), a dud if ever there was one.

Perhaps it’s the scattershot approach adopted by co-directors and brothers Michael and Peter Spierig. Seemingly in an effort to try a little bit of everything, they mash up the haunted house, angry ghost and possessed kid subgenres, all to no avail. There’s a lot going on but none of it works.

Witnessing all the mayhem is Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke), a man with a turbulent past of his own. Commissioned by the board of directors of the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. to assess their majority shareholder’s state of mental health, Eric has become one of Sarah’s rare houseguests.

Of course, his initial outlook on the situation is one of resolute scientific skepticism. But, by the time he finds himself barricaded in an attic trying to protect Sarah from the rampaging spectre of a Confederate soldier who has been dead for lo these 20 years, he seems to have changed his point of view.

Winchester still from movie

Sarah’s claim about that curse, which also takes in her family — here represented by her niece (Sarah Snook) and young grandnephew (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey) — now appears, to Eric at least, well-founded in eerie fact.

The script’s peaceable theme — the spirits bugging Sarah were all killed by Winchester guns, and she tries to calm them by communicating her sincere remorse — is certainly in keeping with Gospel values. Aspects of Eric’s lifestyle, by contrast, though only hinted at, are clearly contrary to Scriptural norms of behaviour.

A troubled widower, he has developed a laudanum addiction and enjoys consorting with ladies of the evening. Precisely what he gets up to with the streetwalkers we see hanging around his house in one scene — either individually or collectively — is, thankfully, kept decently obscure. Such potentially sordid details, however, together with some of the elements listed below, makes “Winchester” strictly grownup fare.

The film contains occult themes, gunplay and other stylized violence with little gore, drug use, implications of promiscuity and possible group sex involving prostitutes, a couple of profanities, a milder oath, and at least one crass term. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13. - — -
Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

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