Heavy Hitters. Films Reviewed: Wonder Wheel, Roman J Israel, Esq, The Shape of Water

Posted in African-Americans, Baltimore, Cold War, Drama, Fantasy, L.A., Movies, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 8, 2017

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

It’s December now, and that’s when the movie awards start to pile up. This week I’m looking at some of the hard-hitters — movies with famous directors or stars — that might be up for a prize. There’s a kitchen sink drama in Coney Island, a legal drama in LA, and a romantic drama in a secret Baltimore laboratory.

Wonder Wheel

Wri/Dir: Woody Allen

It’s the 1950s in Coney Island. Humpty and Ginny are a middle aged couple living in a rundown apartment overlooking the ferris wheel. Humpty (Jim Belushi) is an angry drunk, currently on the wagon, who manages the carousel. Ginny (Kate Winslet) is a former actress who is a waitress at the clam shack… or as she puts it, she’s playing the part of “Waitress” in an on-going drama. She has a little kid from her first marriage, Richie, who is a petty thief and an aspiring arsonist, lighting fires wherever he can. Life in this dysfunctional family is far from perfect but at least it’s stable. That is until two things turn their lives upside down.

First Humpty’s estranged daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) shows up out of nowhere. They haven’t spoken for five years, not since she married a racketeer. Now she’s on the lam, a marked woman since she turned canary and sang about the mob to the cops. She moves into their crowded home, working with Ginny at the Clam House. The second thing that happens is Ginny meets Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a lifeguard on the beach. He’s a grad student at NYU and loves the idea of dating a dramatic older woman. Soon they are secretly meeting under the boardwalk for afternoon delights. But then Mickey meets Carolina and everything starts to unravel.

After watching Wonder Wheel, I kept wondering: did I just see a great movie or a terrible one? It’s certainly very different from Woody Allen’s European comedies. It feels more like a stage play, with characters reciting the lines of a script, from Mickey the lifeguard who narrates by speaking directly to the camera, to Ginny who says things like: “I’m consumed with jealousy!” I think that’s intentional.  But I’m not so sure most of the characters wanted to speak exactly like Woody, down to his stammer and pauses. Still, the look of the movie – from the period costumes to the lurid colours of neon lights, and the unexpectedly jarring camerawork – is stunning and surprising. Does this mean Woody Allen is still experimenting?

So is Wonder Wheel a good movie or not? Hmmm… I guess so.

Roman J Israel, Esq.

Wri/Dir: Dan Gilroy

Roman (Denzel Washington) is a defense lawyer in present day LA. He’s a partner in a small law firm – he minds the office while his partner goes to court. He’s an old-fashioned guy. He wears big round glasses and ill-fitting clothes. He rides the bus to an office full of foolscap and post-it notes. He works under the watchful gaze of pictures of Angela Davis and Bayard Rustin. He sacrificed marriage, a social life and material possessions, in exchange for devoting his life to civil rights and equality under the law. That is until his law partner of 30 years has a heart attack. Suddenly Roman finds himself jobless, friendless and nearly homeless.

A slick corporate colleague of his boss named George (Colin Farrell) offers him a low-level job at his firm. He refuses. But when he can’t find paying work, is mocked at a meeting of young activists, and is attacked by a mugger on the way home, he is faced with a tough decision: stay true to his ideals or sell out and enjoy the profits? Only Maya (Carmen Ejogo) – a woman he meets at an NGO – still believes in him. He ends up making an ethically dubious decision, and has to deal with the consequences.

Roman J Israel, Esq. is billed as a thriller – and there are a few tense moments – but it’s basically a character study of a man forced to re-examine his values in a changing world. Denzel Washington is great as Roman – he really gets into the part, portraying him as an oddball but a sympathetic and believable one. The story is very simple, but it’s the details surrounding this fascinating character that keeps you interested.

The Shape of Water

Dir: Guillermo del Toro

It’s Baltimore in 1962. Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is an elegant cleaning woman at a top secret government lab. She loves hard boiled eggs and bathtubs and lives above a movie theatre. She is mute, but communicates with her two friends using sign language. There’s Zelda (Octavia Spence) a talkative woman who translates and covers for her at work; and Giles (Richard Jenkins) a lonely illustrator in his 60s who lives with his cats in the apartment next door.

Elisa lives a routine life, until something strange shows up in a glass tank! Like The Creature from the Black Lagoon, he’s part human, part fish. Elisa is scared but intrigued. She offers him hard boiled eggs which he scarfs down. Gradually she teaches him to communicate through sign language, and exposes him to music, art and human emotions. Could this be love? If only life were so simple. The creature arrived with Strickland (Michael Shannon) the agent in charge of the project. He’s a racist misogynist who takes sadistic pleasure in torturing the creature with a cattle prod. He plans to kill him and take him apart to study. And lurking in the shadows at the lab is a soviet spy who observes everything – including Elisa communicating with the creature. Can their love survive?

The Shape of Water is an amazing movie, modelled on classic Hollywood films. I’ve seen it twice now, and it didn’t drag for a moment. It’s funny, romantic, surprising, violent, and exciting. The music, the art direction, the singing and dancing, the dream sequences, the surreal sex scenes, the Cold War/cloak-and-dagger feel…. this movie has just about everything. Sally Hawkins is an unusual romantic lead, but she’s perfect as Elisa. Shannon is a hateable — but understandable — villain. Spence and Jenkins as, respectively, her comic and melancholy sidekick, are both spot on.

This is a wonderful movie: I recommend it.

Roman J. Israel, Esquire is now playing. Wonder Wheel and The Shape of Water open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: