Tuesday, December 12, 2017

‘The Shape of Water’ floats new possibilities for consideration

“The Shape of Water” (2017). Cast: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, Michael Stuhlbarg, Doug Jones, Nick Searcy, Stewart Arnott, Nigel Bennett, Lauren Lee Smith, Martin Roach, Allegra Fulton, John Kapelos, Morgan Kelly, Marvin Kaye, Wendy Lyon. Web site. Trailer.

We all think we know what it means to fall in love, but do we really? Sometimes the reality differs markedly from what we expect, perhaps taking us in some highly unconventional directions. But, when we find that true love, no matter what form it takes, we’re generally willing to do whatever it takes to nurture and protect it, regardless of what we’re up against. Such is the case of an unlikely duo in the whimsical new fantasy/fairy tale, “The Shape of Water.”

As a custodial worker in a secret government marine laboratory in Baltimore in 1962, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) quietly goes about her job, performing her everyday chores and trading quips with her colorful, sassy co-worker, Zelda (Octavia Spencer). The banter tends to be somewhat one-sided, though, given that Elisa is mute, but she nonetheless never seems to have any trouble making her feelings known, especially when it comes to dealings with the facility’s intimidating new security chief, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon).

Despite the relative calm that has long prevailed at the lab, things change dramatically with the arrival of a mysterious new specimen, an amphibian being that looks like a cross between a man and a reptile (Doug Jones). Having been taken from its home in the Amazon, the creature has been brought to the facility for further study under the auspices of scientist Dr. Robert Hostetler (Michael Stuhlbarg). But the new arrival is more than just a scientific curiosity; it’s believed that the aquatic enigma may possess special abilities, some that might even be weaponized (hence the beefed-up security). These potentially significant, highly coveted qualities are much sought after by American military officials, especially now that the country is caught up in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, a threat that’s perceived as lurking everywhere – even in the lab.

When Elisa and Zelda are assigned to work in the area where the creature is housed, they get quite an astonishing eyeful. Not only do they catch a glimpse of the strange new being, but they also witness the unduly cruel treatment to which it’s summarily subjected, behavior that elicits a comparably brutal response from the creature. Elisa is appalled at what she sees and instantly takes pity on the wounded victim. So, when no one is around, she quietly sneaks into the lab to show the new visitor that there’s more to being human than inflicting harm on others. By exhibiting kindness and compassion, she conveys a very different impression of humanity, and the creature responds in kind. An unusual bond is forged, one that grows into an unconventional friendship – and more.

Intimidating security chief Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon, left) questions custodial workers Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins, center) and Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer, right) about their work routine in a secret government marine lab in director Guillermo del Toro’s new romantic fantasy, “The Shape of Water.” Photo courtesy by Kerry Hayes, of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

However, with various factions vying for control of “the asset,” as the creature is often called, its fate is soon up for grabs. And so, with such perilous uncertainty looming, Elisa decides to take action to protect her new friend. With the aid of her somewhat neurotic neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), and a few unexpected allies, Elisa undertakes a risky plan to shepherd the defenseless being out of harm’s way, an initiative that holds the promise to pay more dividends than she ever could have imagined. But will her efforts pan out?

The unusual relationship that develops between Elisa and her Amazonian companion may defy convention, but who’s to say that such an arrangement can’t work, that it’s inherently outside the realm of possibility? Those who push past traditional barriers and challenge the prevailing wisdom might find that the uncharted territory that such involvements occupy is richly rewarding, even if it’s something others would never consider. After all, when the heart is involved, there’s no telling what might arise, and the outcome may prove to be quite revelatory, both in terms of what works for us – and the lengths we’ll go to in protecting it.

Of course, such connections are possible only if properly supported by beliefs that make them happen, a cornerstone principle of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we manifest the reality we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents. And, in the case of Elisa and her unlikely consort, those metaphysical building blocks are obviously in place to make their bond possible.

In forging this relationship, however, the participants obviously must push past conventional limitations and beliefs that would otherwise hold them back. But they apparently understand this and are unconcerned about the potential influence of any impediments that might impinge upon their success. That’s one of conscious creation’s chief aims – one we’d be wise to aspire to – and Elisa and her beau set an inspiring example to follow.

However, if Ms. Esposito and her companion are so taken with the idea of making their association work, one might wonder why they’ve also created so much ancillary strife in their lives. Why burden themselves with such seemingly unnecessary complications?

When a defenseless laboratory creature is threatened, custodial worker Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins, right), along with her neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins, left), concocts a plan to protect it in the inventive new fantasy/fairy tale, “The Shape of Water.” Photo by Kerry Hayes, courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Despite the hardships posed by such challenges, conundrums like those they experience can also serve as a galvanizing force. By putting their bond to the test, the would-be lovers provide themselves an opportunity to determine the viability of their connection, to see if it can withstand the pressures put upon them that could tear them apart. Under circumstances like these, aspiring mates can evaluate just how committed they are to one another and to their proposed undertaking. Such an exercise can be quite revelatory, exposing weaknesses and spotlighting strengths that could potentially remain hidden but that might ultimately prove invaluable to the success of the venture.

These are principles that are transferable to virtually any type of conscious creation initiative, whether undertaken individually or in tandem. They’re equally applicable in creative pursuits, business ventures, vocational undertakings or conceivably any other course of conduct we consider engaging in. This, in turn, opens up an array of new possibilities, many of which may not otherwise garner any consideration or attention. But then that’s what the miracle of conscious creation makes possible. 

Though at times a little predictable, “The Shape of Water” delivers the goods on so many fronts. Director Guillermo del Toro’s fantasy romance serves up an utterly charming tale with superb special effects, gentle humor, heartwarming sincerity, and a host of excellent performances, especially by Hawkins, Spencer and Jenkins. Think “Beauty and the Beast” (1991, 2017)  meets “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982), and you’ve got a good idea what’s going on here. It’s truly satisfying to see a film that genuinely lives up to its pre-release hype.

“The Shape of Water” is also a celebration of the underdog. The most likable – and happiest – characters in the film are those who live their lives outside the mainstream, including characters who are disabled, gay, minorities and even alternate species, all of whom experience ridicule, criticism, harm and ostracism just for being different (and to a much harsher degree than they would typically experience today). This theme is also reflected through upbeat TV and movie clips featuring such famous nonconformists as Carmen Miranda, Mr. Bojangles, Maynard G. Krebs and Mr. Ed. These characters all relish their individuality – and very much in stark contrast to those in the mainstream majority, whose snarly attitudes toward those who are different reveal their inherent insecurities and how threatened they feel by those who aren’t afraid to shed conventional limitations and celebrate their uniqueness.

Intimidating security chief Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon, left) often finds himself at odds with marine scientist Dr. Robert Hofstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg, right) in “The Shape of Water.” Photo by Kerry Hayes, courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

The film is attracting considerable awards season buzz, having snagged 14 Critics Choice Award nominations, including best picture, actress (Hawkins), supporting actor (Jenkins), supporting actress (Spencer), director and screenplay, along with an array of technical awards. In addition, the picture earned seven Golden Globe Award nods, including best dramatic picture, dramatic actress (Hawkins), supporting actor (Jenkins), supporting actress (Spencer), director and screenplay. It was also named one of the American Film Institute’s Top 10 films of the year. With a response like this, other accolades are sure to follow.

Even when we believe we know what love is, we can’t really know until we find ourselves wrapped up in it, ensconced in the rapture of emotion that washes over and thoroughly envelops us. It’s an undeniable feeling, one that we never want to let go of, even when that seems destined to occur. But, when faced with such circumstances, something just might come along to sustain it, making it possible to truly live happily ever after.

Copyright © 2017, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

‘Christmas’ release tells a Dickens of a tale

“The Man Who Invented Christmas” (2017). Cast: Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, Simon Callow, Miriam Margolyes, Morfydd Clark, Justin Edwards, Miles Jupp, Donald Sumpter, Ely Sloan, Anna Murphy, Ian McNeice, Bill Paterson, Ger Ryan. Director: Bharat Nalluri. Screenplay: Susan Coyne. Book: Les Standiford, The Man Who Invented Christmas. Web site. Trailer.

It’s been said that helping others is the best way to help ourselves. We get back what we put out, and, if that turns out to be goodwill and generosity of spirit, then that’s what will return our way. So it was for a world-class author seeking to get his life and career back on track after a creative slump, as demonstrated in the heartwarming new holiday offering, “The Man Who Invented Christmas.”

Two years following the resounding success of his novel Oliver Twist, author Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) was experiencing a dry spell, having produced three literary failures in a row. With his personal financial situation growing increasingly perilous, he desperately needed to get his career back on track. However, that was easier said than done, given that he was also suffering from a severe case of writer’s block. And, with his publisher breathing down his neck, the situation was growing ever more dire. What to do?

Just when all began to seem lost, however, Dickens came up with an idea for a new work – a Christmas novel with an uplifting message, tinged with elements of spirituality and the supernatural. His publisher was skeptical, unsure about the market for a holiday themed book. What’s more, given that it was already October, the chances of getting the book written, illustrated, printed and marketed in time for the big day seemed highly unlikely. But Dickens was confident that he could pull it off, and, when his publisher raised ever more skepticism, the author decided to go it alone (and who said self-publishing was a recent phenomenon?).

In an attempt to overcome a severe case of writer’s block, author Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens, foreground) consults with an apparition of the protagonist of his emerging new work, Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer, background), in “The Man Who Invented Christmas.” Photo by Kerry Brown, courtesy of Bleecker Street Media.

Drawing upon an array of influences from his everyday life to memories from his past and, perhaps most importantly, his dreams and vivid imagination, Dickens gradually began to piece together his new work. The book would tell the story of a bitter, miserly old business man named Ebenezer Scrooge who would come to learn the meaning of Christmas by changing his ways and becoming eminently charitable when confronted by ghosts from his past, present and future. The writing particularly took off when Dickens began creatively interacting with an apparition of his book’s protagonist (Christopher Plummer), gaining insights into the character and how his story should play out. It was a collaboration that would eventually lead to the publication of one of Dickens’s most beloved and best-selling works, A Christmas Carol.

Dickens’s success in bringing his work to life – especially in such short order – and its remarkable sales performance – both at the time of the book’s release and ever since – shouldn’t come as any surprise, though, given that it was a reflection of the author and his beliefs. And those beliefs, as practitioners of the conscious creation process are well aware, provide the basis for manifesting the reality we experience, which was very much the case here.

To be sure, it’s highly unlikely that Dickens ever heard of conscious creation, yet his actions clearly reflect the philosophy’s principles, which are apparent in the resulting outcomes. For instance, Dickens strongly believed in philanthropy and magnanimity toward one’s fellow man, being charitable toward those less fortunate. This was an idea espoused in a number of his previous writings, drawing attention to the plight of the less fortunate at a time when such matters weren’t as easily publicized as they are today.

Paying attention to influences from his dreams helps author Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens, left) with inspiration for his latest work, especially when guided by an apparition of his book’s protagonist, Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer, right), in the new holiday release, “The Man Who Invented Christmas.” Photo by Kerry Brown, courtesy of Bleecker Street Media.

What’s more, Dickens personally acted upon these notions, readily providing financial support to those in need, such as his father, John (Jonathan Pryce), for whom Charles purchased a home in the country in which his fiscally irresponsible dad and mother (Ger Ryan) could live. He thus set a personal example for others to follow (especially those who had the most to offer but who also may have been the most reluctant to give of themselves), demonstrating the value of such charitable acts, gestures that ultimately benefitted both the recipients of such generosity as well as to those who bestowed it upon them.

Given these beliefs and the results that flowed from them, then, it’s easy to see how Dickens could write about them so easily and passionately, both in his previous books and, especially, in the work that’s the subject of this film. He thus used his writing and his actions to make the case for a lesson that everyone could learn from, a message that’s just as relevant now as it was in 19th Century England.

Watching the writing process unfold – both in terms of crafting the story and preparing the finished book for public sale – reveals Dickens’s impressive ability to draw upon all of his creative resources to bring his project to life, again, accomplishments attributable to his beliefs. Even in the wake of his literary failures, for example, Dickens knew he could get back on track, especially when faced with a short window to produce his proposed new work. His fervent belief in his ability to marshal all of the necessary resources made it happen, an excellent illustration of how we can bring forth our conceptions from the realm of the intangible into physical existence.

Surrounded by characters from his new work, particularly protagonist Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer, with top hat at center left), author Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens, center right) gazes upon a bookstore window announcing the title’s upcoming release in the new holiday offering, “The Man Who Invented Christmas.” Photo by Kerry Brown, courtesy of Bleecker Street Media.

Considering the sources of Dickens’s inspiration, it’s also apparent that he knew how to pay attention to synchronicities, those seemingly perfectly tailored “coincidences” that help to point the way toward our destiny. By drawing from the experiences of his youth and listening to the captivating ghost tales told to his children by a young Irish immigrant housekeeper (Anna Murphy), for instance, Dickens picked up on the significance of these elements and the role they would come to play in the narrative of A Christmas Carol. His awareness of these influences thus fueled and reinforced the beliefs that drove the creative process that brought his finished work into being.

Paying attention to synchronicities is important, because it helps bolster our intuitive abilities, one of the chief contributing factors in belief formation. This aspect of the belief formation is often woefully  underutilized, mainly because it’s seen as less trustworthy than our intellect, the other driver of the process, which is generally viewed as more rational and, consequently, more reliable. However, just because our intuition is considered less logical doesn’t mean that it’s any less useful; in fact, as Dickens’s example alone shows, it’s positively essential to achieving our sought-after success. Indeed, think of all those who would not have benefitted from the uplifting message of A Christmas Carol if Dickens had not drawn upon his intuition in bringing his work to life.

In presenting the back story of this holiday classic, “The Man Who Invented Christmas” offers viewers a modestly entertaining look at how this work came into being. The film features fine performances by Stevens and, especially, Plummer, with both bringing their characters to life with convincing credibility and a great deal of wit. However, given the enduring charm of the book on which this film is based, truthfully I was expecting something a bit more “magical” out of this release, which, regrettably, comes across as surprisingly flat, with only periodic smatterings of wonder. To its credit, the picture does an excellent job of showing how we can draw inspiration from our surroundings and experience to produce amazing works of creativity, and it effectively reinforces the message of benevolence of A Christmas Carol. But, overall, the film is somewhat more pedestrian than whimsically serendipitous, which I found a little disappointing. In short, as holiday movies go, this one isn’t bad; it’s just not great.

Surrounded by his parents (Jonathan Pryce, Ger Ryan, left and second from left) and wife (Morfydd Clark, right), author Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens, second from right) celebrates the release of his new work, A Christmas Carol, in “The Man Who Invented Christmas.” Photo by Kerry Brown, courtesy of Bleecker Street Media.

Nevertheless, despite the picture’s shortcomings, it still conveys the message of goodness that Dickens sought to express through his life and work. And, given the state of the world these days, that’s something all of us can probably never be reminded of enough.

Copyright © 2017, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Monday, December 11, 2017

This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of "The Shape of Water" and "Moving from Emptiness," as well as a holiday book excerpt, are all in the latest Movies with Meaning post on the web site of The Good Radio Network, available by clicking here.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Tune in for The Cinema Scribe

Tune in for the latest Cinema Scribe segment on Bring Me 2 Life Radio, Wednesday, December 6, at 12:45 pm ET, available by clicking here. And, if you don't hear it live, catch it later on the podcast!

Monday, December 4, 2017

This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" and "The Man Who Invented Christmas," as well as free book excerpts and social media news, are all in the latest Movies with Meaning post on the web site of The Good Radio Network, available by clicking here.

Join Me on Ello!

I’m pleased to announce that I’ve now launched a profile on the social media site Ello, the network for artists, creators and their fans. Look for my posts, and enjoy the material submitted by my fellow writers, artists and creatives. To visit my profile, click here.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

On the Radio Today!

Join host Frankie Picasso and me for the latest Movies with Meaning segment on Frankiesense & More radio today, November 30, at 1 pm ET. We’ll discuss a number of new movie releases and other film-related news. Tune in for some lively movie talk!