Award-Nominated Movies: The Shape of Water & The Greatest Showman

Shape of WaterThe Shape of Water
The acting alone is a good reason to see writer-director Guillermo del Toro’s romantic fantasy (trailer), written with Vanessa Taylor, although the origins of the story are now in dispute. The film received 13 Academy Award nominations, the most for any 2017 movie, including best picture, writing, directing, best actress, best supporting actor and actress (Jenkins and Spencer), cinematography, and costumes.

Elisa Esposito (played by Sally Hawkins, who was terrific last year in Maudie) plays a mute young woman who, with her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer), is a cleaner at a sketchy 1960s military research facility. The researchers bring in a merman-like creature (the unrecognizable Doug Jones) found in the Amazon, whom they mistreat, believing him violent, but whom Elisa befriends. If you’ve seen the previews, you get the idea.

Playing the heavy is a furious Michael Shannon,  Elisa’s neighbor and friend is Richard Jenkins, and a scientist more interested in saving the “monster” than killing him is Michael Stuhlbarg. All three are super!

Even if you aren’t a fantasy fan, there’s lots of drama and a warm core to this film you may enjoy. I did. As “an enchanting reimagining of ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ it is an unforgettably romantic, utterly sublime, dazzling phantasmagoria,” said Colin Covert, reviewer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 92%; audiences, 78%.

Greatest Showman The Greatest Showman
By contrast, this movie musical of the P.T. Barnum story (trailer) directed by Michael Gracey disappointed, especially because the songs were by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (fellow U-Mich grads!) who wrote lyrics for La La Land and music and lyrics for the Tony-winning Broadway hit, Dear Evan Hansen.

Talented Hugh Jackman (as Barnum) sells it, but there’s little “it” there. He apparently wanted to do Barnum’s story for some time, but couldn’t get backing. Although the film received three Golden Globe nominations (best musical or comedy, best actor in a musical or comedy for Jackman) and won for best song (Pasek and Paul), Oscar took a pass.

You may enjoy the movie’s spectacle aspects, but it will require you to pause your brain. Plot holes make it hard to stay interested in the story, which is in part Barnum’s highly fictionalized career and in part the love story between him and his wife (nicely played by Michelle Williams).

OK, it’s a musical, so it’s the musical numbers that should shine. The pop-music songs were just bearable until Barnum met The Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson). She has an eye-roller of a pop number (lip-synced, by the way; the real singer is Loren Allred), so contrary to how an internationally famous singer in 1850 would have sounded that the artifice of the whole production collapses under its own absurdity. As San Francisco Chronicle reviewer Mick LaSalle wrote, “It’s an awful mess, but it’s flashy,” calling it “The perfect realization of a really bad idea.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 55%; audiences: 89%.

****Stasi Child

Berlin Wall

photo: Department of Defense

By David Young, narrated by Julia Barrie – In a sense every person in this novel is a candidate to be the “Stasi Child” of this book’s title, so pervasive is the influence, the spying, and the danger posed by the Stasi, the State Security Service of the former German Democratic Republic. This is Cold War fiction at its most chilling.

Not even Karin Müller, the book’s main protagonist, a detective in the murder squad of East Berlin’s Kripo, is exempt. (The Kripo is the nickname for the Kriminalpolizei.) In fact, she is very much in the Stasi’s sights for several reasons. Closest to home, her math teacher husband has been fraternizing with “fascist elements,” risking a spell in jail, or worse. Already he was sent for a time to teach at a remote youth detention center as a warning. One he hasn’t heeded.

Mysteriously, detective Müller has been called on to investigate the death of a teenage girl whose body was found in a cemetery at the foot of the Berlin Wall. Dead bodies near the wall were not uncommon in winter 1975, when the story is set, as would-be escapees were shot on sight, but it appears this girl was shot in the back while attempting to escape into East Germany, not out of it.

The case is a minefield of political elements, as well. Müller is told that Stasi agent Klaus Jäger will actually be in charge of the investigation, though Müller and her Unterleutnant Werner Tilsner will do the work. Moreover, their remit is confined to discovering the girl’s identity, not seeking to find out who murdered her.

Whether the Stasi knows they are violating the terms of their assignment, whether they know she and Tilsner have been indiscreet, whether her husband is in jeopardy—everything could become a threat. Author David Young is an expert at ramping up these tensions, with one or two too many twists and turns nearing the end.

Interwoven with the chapters about the investigation are first-person chapters, set seven months earlier, told from the point of view of Irma Behrendt, a fifteen-year-old inmate at the youth work camp where Müller’s husband was sent. She dreams of escape and wants to take her best friend with her. It would be dangerous, of course, but desperation breeds courage. Eventually, the two narratives converge. Irma’s tale has been, all along, vital backstory.

With a female protagonist and first-person narrator, Julia Barrie was chosen to narrate the audiobook. Perhaps to give the many male characters distinctive audio personalities in her lower registers, she pitched Karin’s and Irma’s voices rather high. That sort of works for Irma—she’s young, after all—but not for Karin. She sounds too light, too immature, not forceful enough to be heading a murder squad. A benefit of audio is that Barrie handled all those multisyllabic German words with admirable ease.


****Swing Time

Swing Time, children dancing

photo: cavalier 92, creative commons license

By Zadie Smith – Yes, I do read good books that are not crime fiction, and this is one of them! The term “frenemies” could have been coined to describe the long relationship between the book’s unnamed first-person narrator and Tracey, drawn together by being the only mixed-race children in a dance class. They meet, play, pirouette, and study in council housing in North London.Tracey is the talented one, accepted into a selective performing arts program, her future seemingly assured.

“Unnamed, unsure, neither black nor white, the narrator is fittingly indistinct in this brilliant novel about the illusions of identity,” said Annalisa Quinn in an NPR review. The story swings back and forth between present-day events and flashbacks about the girls’ childhood, their growing up, and their sporadic encounters over the years. Later the narrator sees her in minor roles in classic musicals—Guys and Dolls, Show Boat, ironically—before her career fades from view.

The dance theme is present throughout, a universal uniting characters through time and across cultures: “a great dancer has no time, no generation, he moves eternally through the world, so that any dancer in any age may recognize him. Picasso would be incomprehensible to Rembrandt, but Nijinsky would understand Michael Jackson.” Late in the book, dance even becomes a weapon.

The narrator, meanwhile, has landed what seems like a plum job: assistant to Australian pop star Aimee. Aimee and her team divide their time between London and New York. Aimee’s peripatetic lifestyle, kids and nannies in tow, means perpetual rootlessness for the narrator, a disconnect not just from her past—her childhood friend, her parents—but also from a future of her own.

Aimee gets the notion to establish a girls’ school in rural West Africa, and some of the novel’s most heartfelt passages involve the narrator’s yearning to connect with the Africans and the disconnect between the rich pop star and her entourage and the people she wants to help. Aimee’s motives are genuinely kindly, but implementing them on the ground is far more complicated than she imagines.

The narrator certainly is a perceptive observer, but will she grab hold of life and learn to dance to her own tune?

The Importance of Being Earnest

Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey, is putting on a silky-smooth version of Oscar Wilde’s classic satire, now through December 3. Although the witty dialog keeps coming and coming, you dare not do more than chuckle or you’ll miss the next line. The show’s directed by Michael Cumpsty, whom Princetonians may remember as Henry Higgins in McCarter Theatre’s excellent My Fair Lady a few years back.

Importance of Being Earnest

Sam Lilja & Liesel Allen Yeager, photo by T. Charles Erickson

And here are a few of those timeless lines:

  • The truth is rarely pure and never simple.
  • I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.
  • All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does, and that is his.
  • No woman should ever be quite accurate about her age. It looks so calculating.
  • The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.

Artistic Director John Dias’s program notes say this about Wilde’s brilliant dialog: “We feel both horror and delight when witnessing this expert employment of language—its flexibility and the kind of doubleness of meaning that both masks truth and somehow reveals it.”

If you haven’t seen this play recently—or if by some mishap you’ve never seen it—this is a sparkling version. The two leads, friends Algernon Moncrieff (played by Sam Lilja) and Jack Worthing (Federico Rodriguez) are especially strong, and Liesel Allen Yeager’s Cecily Cardew is a delightful flirt.

The men fall in love, and though the women are willing, circumstances are not. How they sort out the absurdity of  Jack’s dubious origins—as a baby, he was found in a handbag in Victoria Station (“The line is immaterial!”)—and the women’s outré determination to marry men named Earnest . . . well you’ll have to experience those pleasures for yourself.

Excellent scenery from Charlie Corcoran and costumes from Jess Goldstein.

In a before-the-show talk, cast member Henry Vick (perfect as Algie’s super-discreet butler) reminds audience members that only a few months after this play opened in London to great acclaim in 1895, Wilde was convicted of gross indecency with men and sentenced to two years’ hard labor. He never wrote another play.

Today, 117 years since Wilde’s death in Paris, a penniless man, we can reflect on how Victorian society, which he skewered so lightheartedly in Earnest, would seem to have had the last word, yet the fact that audiences still delight in his work and flock to see it  suggests a different outcome.

****The Place of Refuge


photo: Emilia, creative commons license

By Al Tucher – This 160-page novella takes great advantage of its setting on the Big Island of Hawai`i. For those who’ve visited the islands (or wanted to), this is a low-cost, no-jet-lag trip full of adventure.

For some time, Detective Errol Coutinho of the Hawai`i County Police and his partner, Detective Kim, have been on the trail of a serial killer of prostitutes. The murders stopped for a period of months, but now a Filipino hotel maid has discovered what appears to be the renewal of working-girl carnage. They need a decoy.

On the island of Oahu, undercover police officer Jessie Hokoana of the Honolulu Police Department is working to expose a major drug dealer, getting close to him and gaining his confidence using the oldest trick in the book. Jessie grew up on the Big Island, daughter of the owner of a small Korean barbeque place and Hosea Hokoana, an enormous Hawaiian man who feared nothing and no one, except perhaps Jessie’s mother. Hosea decamped from the family twenty years ago, when Jessie was young.

Jessie’s investigative target and boyfriend, Teddy Dias, is persuaded to go to Mexico to try to make a marijuana-supply deal with the leader of a Mexican cartel. Pakalolo—nicknamed Kona Gold or Puna Butter—could be supplied by Teddy and fed into the Mexicans’ distribution network. He takes Jessie with him. She agrees, mainly because she’s heard about a cage fighter there whom she believes may be her father.

In Hawai`i the police can give her only minimal protection, but in Mexico, none at all. And when the hoped-for drug deal goes south, only her father can save her. If he realizes who she is. If he wants to.  The story of Jessie’s family, especially of Hosea and his return to Hawaiian society and the consequences of that, ultimately involving Coutinho and Kim, predominate in the story.

This book provides a great flavor for the rich multi-cultural society in Hawai’i. Coutinho’s ancestors were Portuguese, while Kim is Korean; their boss, Tanaka, is Japanese. Jessie is half Hawaiian and half Anglo. In author Tucher’s hands, these characters are interesting and unique individuals, not bending to stereotype.

There’s also humor in the book, especially among the detectives. Tucher resolves the big plot questions, but not the human relationship questions, which is probably more realistic than an excessively tidy ending and holds the door open for further installments, which will be as welcome as a trip to the islands!


Paterson, Adam DriverOppressed (or freaked out) by the news? Here’s a calming and rewarding way to spend two hours in a movie theater cocoon. Writer/director Jim Jarmusch’s movie Paterson (trailer) doesn’t travel far, but it’s a pleasant journey. Adam Driver plays a New Jersey Transit bus driver (possibly he was cast based on his name alone) named Paterson, who drives a bus in—you knew it!—Paterson, New Jersey.

He lives there with his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) and their English bulldog, Marvin (Nellie). Though he follows the same routine and drives the same bus route every day, Paterson is not bored, because his creative imagination is fully engaged. A basement poet, he polishes his creations on the job, and they scroll gently across the screen as he makes his rounds or studies the Passaic River’s Great Falls.

He carries his books of poetry—especially that of William Carlos Williams—and listens to the small talk of his passengers, the rhythm of their language as much as the words. It’s “a movie that’s filled with poetry and that is a poem in itself. The movie’s very being is based in echoes and patterns,” said Richard Brody in The New Yorker.

Laura bursts forth with her own creative endeavors, the only common thread of which is their black-and-white color scheme. Black-and-white frosted cupcakes—a big hit at the farmer’s market—which she hopes will make them rich; a black and white harlequin guitar, which she hopes will launch her career as a country singer. She’s a charming dabbler and Paterson’s muse.

Every night when he returns home, it seems some other part of their house or Laura’s wardrobe has been reconceived in her favorite non-color combination. I couldn’t help believing that at some point she’ll recognize that her immense talent with fabric would be an awesome career direction. Meanwhile, her patterns fill Paterson with visual interest, “creating a vibrant visual punctuation to the otherwise relaxed storytelling,” said Manohla Dargis in the New York Times.

Paterson the driver, or perhaps I should say, Driver as Paterson, has one extracurricular activity, a visit to a neighborhood tavern every evening. Lots happens during that one nightly beer. Most of it hilarious. The décor of the tavern, replete with articles about Paterson greats—especially Lou Costello—further ties the man and the story to a circumscribed geography, the launchpad for his words.

Driver, Farahani, and Nellie play their roles winningly, with a memorable, if small, supporting cast.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 95%; audiences, 73%. (Not enough happens for some audience members would be my guess.)

When Stage Productions Fail

Rose, red

photo: Vineetha Nair, creative commons license

Ouch. When a stage production doesn’t really work for you, who’s at fault? Are you having a bad day? Is it the play itself? Is it the production? We’ve all found ourselves at stage events where we thought—what??? This is Supposed To Be Good?? Remind me, how much did I pay for these tickets?

The Tony-award-winning Book of Mormon, was incessantly advertised as the best musical of the 21st century, after only one decade of that century had elapsed, but I didn’t even bother to review it. I found it so offensively racist and, this is a technical theater term, moronic, why bother? The problem was not the fault of the hard-working cast, but the cupidity of the original writers and producers.

This last weekend we saw a local community college production of Federico Garcia Lorca’s 1932 classic tragedy, Blood Wedding, immensely popular in Spain, I’m told. The plot of the original is probably a bit simplistic and over-familiar for modern audiences. There’s a deadly feud between two families and the daughter of a third family is involved with young men on both sides. Nothing good results.

What drew me to it was the promise of dance—tango, Argentine tango, and flamenco—integrated into the production. Plus, I’d never seen the play. A bad case of too-high expectations.

My notes for the producers:

  • The dancing is interesting, both the ensemble numbers and the sexy tango between the bride and her lover – good job!
  • Don’t conceive of staging that is beyond the capacity of the technical staff to implement; the moving curtains were tricky and slow
  • Yes, the mother of the groom bears great grudges, but let her develop a broader palette of emotions. Constant kvetching doesn’t maintain audience interest.
  • Eliminate redundancy. Even Shakespeare is trimmed for modern audiences. The mother doesn’t need to describe her complaints more than twice. Respect your audience. We get it.
  • Pick up the pace. Show you value the audience’s time.

Of course, I don’t know what happened in Act II with this production, because we cut our losses and went home. (Would that we had done that with Book of Mormon.) We weren’t the only ones.

This isn’t a complaint about Garcia Lorca, who wrote in and of a particular culture and time, and I’ve appreciated his House of Bernarda Alba, with Blood Wedding, part of his unfinished rural trilogy. You’ll recall that Lorca was only 38 when he was assassinated at the start of the Spanish Civil War.

Nor is my complaint about the mostly student cast, who soldiered gamely on with material so foreign to modern life, language, and ways of thinking. A number of them did fine jobs. Rather, my disappointment is with the theater director and producers who needed to shape a production enabling the whole team—cast and crew—to be part of a big success.

Does a play or musical come to mind that seriously disappointed you? How did it let you down?

***The Art of Hearing Heartbeats

market, Myanmar

photo: Eustaqulo Santimano, creative commons license

By Jan-Philipp Sendker, translated from the German by Kevin Wiliarty – I guess this “international best seller” was just not to my taste. While the premise was intriguing, as was the exotic Burmese setting, the author never went deep enough to engage me.

One day Julia Win’s father leaves his wife and grown children and disappears out of his life as a prominent Manhattan attorney. The authorities lose his trail in Bangkok. A new lawyer herself, after a few years, Julia determines to find him and is drawn to a remote village in Burma named Kalaw, based on the only clue she has, an unmailed love-letter addressed to a villager named Mi Mi.

With more than a little trepidation, Julia travels there to find out who Mi Mi is and whether she can tell her where her father has gone.

Before even settling in, she’s approached by an “old man” who seems to know who she is and who her father is. “You must be asking yourself how on earth I know your name when we have never met before, and this is your first visit to our country.” It seems she’s followed the correct path, all right, but the man, whose name is U Ba, won’t reveal more about her father’s whereabouts until she listens to his story, which makes up most of the rest of the book.

That set-up strongly reminds me of the beginning of Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi. Just as Martel’s narrator meets an elderly man who says his story will “make you believe in God,” U Ba at the outset asks Julia, “Do you believe in love?” It’s clear that Sendker’s tale is intended to make sure that she—and the reader—do.

If you’re looking for a sweet read, one that skates across the surface of relationships and emotions, perhaps something for the beach this summer, you can order it through the affiliate link below.


Kedi, cat, IstanbulWorried about the increasingly autocratic government of Turkey? Erdogan’s round-up of dissidents? His relations with Syria? You can forget all that watching this documentary (trailer) by Turkish filmmaker Ceyda Torun and cinematographer Charlie Wuppermann, about Istanbul’s Big Romance with—cats! (What did you think “Kedi” means?)

At an hour twenty-minutes, the film is somewhat longer than it might be, but as a vacation from the news cycle, perhaps not long enough. The residents of Istanbul don’t “own” most of the cats that roam their streets and markets, that nest in quiet places and makeshift hideaways. But they more than tolerate them, they celebrate them. And the cats, meanwhile, act like “slumming royals,” says Joe Leydon in Variety. You can see the cast here.

A number of the featured felines rule the neighborhoods where they live, defending their turf against interlopers and providing benefits to the humans. “They absorb my negative energy,” one man says. A waterside restaurant owner who’d had a problem with “mice” (I fear this was a euphemism) celebrated the day “this lion took up residence.” She takes care of the “mice,” to the comfort of the diners, I’m sure. My particular favorite was the cat who lives at a deli. She never goes inside, but paws at the window—rather insistently, it should be noted—when she wants one of the countermen to make her a snack.

The filmmakers identified a number of the city’s human residents whose mission seems to be to keep these felines in food. One pair of women cooks twenty pounds of chicken a day for them. (!) “All of us have tabs with all the vets,” says a bakery owner, and we see a man take an injured kitten to the vet in a taxi..

In short, the film is charming. It talks about how cats are different than dogs. And it shows how caring for the cats has been helpful to people in many ways. Suitable for all ages, and especially for those who have—or wish they had—been to Istanbul and now are reluctant to go because of paragraph one above. As Leydon says, it’s “splendidly graceful and quietly magical.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 97%; audiences: 87%.

Related Reading

Istanbul isn’t the only city with wonderful cats. Felines of New York –featuring indoor cats, it must be said—gives them deadpan quotes: “I’m not entirely familiar with the Internet thing. Like, I’ve heard of it, but I’ve never watched it or smelled it or whatever you do to the Internet. I’ve heard it’s full of cats, though. Is that true?” LOL! (affiliate link below).

*****Say Nothing

By Brad Parks – After these powerful opening lines, you pretty much have to keep reading this new thriller:

Say Nothing, Brad Parks, cell phone

photo:, creative commons license

“Their first move against us was so small, such an infinitesimal blip against the blaring background noise of life, I didn’t register it as anything significant.
“It came in the form of a text from my wife, Alison, and it arrived on my phone at 3:28 one Wednesday afternoon:
“‘Hey sorry forgot to tell you kids have dr appt this pm. Picking them up soon'”

With these few words, the deep anxiety all parents feel for the safety of their children bubbles up. The reader anticipates the next shattering revelations, and from there, the plot follows multiple tracks: part legal thriller, part financial thriller, and a big part psychological thriller, as a family confronts its horrifying challenges.

Most of the book is told in first-person, from the point of view of Scott Sampson, a judge for the U.S. Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, sitting in Norfolk. He, his wife, and six-year-old twins Sam and Emma live on the York River in rural Gloucester County, Virginia, “many steps off the beaten path.”

The kidnappers’ goal, it first seems, is to blackmail Judge Sampson into convicting a clearly guilty drug-dealer and murderer. At the last minute, his instructions change: “Let him walk.” It’s not an exercise in thwarting justice; it’s to show how much power they hold over him. One order the kidnappers are consistent about is, of course, the source of the book’s title, “Say nothing.”

Soon you realize the criminals have their sights on a much bigger, more consequential case—a patent dispute involving a multibillion-dollar pharmaceutical product. To accede to their demands, Sampson must throw away his professional integrity and much else, which he does with an enormous sense of loss. Once he has unshackled himself from the basic tenets of the legal system, how far will he actually go?

Parks believably portrays the dynamic between the parents, showing all the anger and sadness and second-guessing and mutual doubts such a high-stress game would generate. Alison’s mother, two sisters, and their families live close by and it’s impossible to keep from them what happened to the children. The family wants to help. That could be risky. Yet, their support gives the couple one solid thing to hang onto as events sweep on.

Parks does an especially good job describing the courtroom action and the interactions in the judge’s chambers. Although you probably have a pretty good idea who is manipulating Judge Sampson’s strings—and why—there are surprises in store. There’s also an unnecessary plot twist at the end that muddies the mother’s motives. Those are minor quibbles for a book whose writing is, on the whole, deft and a pleasure to read.

Parks’s earlier books, like The Good Cop, demonstrate a wicked sense of humor, which he says he deliberately excised from Say Nothing. This book shows he also can grab hold of your heart and keep squeezing.