THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017)

December 8, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Recent release JUSTICE LEAGUE is filled with superheroes, but filmmaker-extraordinaire Guillermo del Toro finds his league of misfits and outcasts to be much more interesting – as do I. The numerous possible descriptions of this movie are all accurate, yet alone, each falls short: a fairy tale, fable, monster movie, unconventional romance, sci-fi, cold war saga, and commentary on societal misfits. What is also true is that it’s a gorgeous film with terrific performances, and it pays lovely tribute to the classics.

A government research facility in 1962 Baltimore is the setting, and “The Asset” being secured and studied is an amphibian man that was captured in South America by a sadistic Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) and his electric cattle prod. Now the military, and a 5-star General played by Nick Searcy, is in charge. The lead scientist played by Michael Stuhlbarg certainly has a different agenda than the military, whose focus seems to be more on preventing the Russians (closer than you think) from stealing the asset than in actually seizing the rare scientific opportunity for advancement.

While all the ominous and clandestine government operations are being conducted, a member of the nighttime cleaning crew – a mute woman named Elisa (Sally Hawkins) – makes a very personal connection with the fish man through nutritious snacks, Big Band music and sign language. This is the enchanting portion of the story and is admittedly (by del Toro) inspired by the 1954 classic CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (a personal favorite of mine). Elisa and the amphibian man experience a romantic courtship not unlike what we have seen in many other love stories … that is, if you overlook the amphibious being that makes up half of this couple. In fact, “going with” the story is crucial to one’s enjoyment. Sit back and let the magic and wonder and fantastical nature of del Toro’s imagination sweep you away – just as it has done for Elisa.

There are many elements of the film worth exploring, and it’s likely to take another viewing to capture many of them. The band of misfits is comprised of the fish man (Doug Jones), Elisa (Ms. Hawkins), Elisa’s wise and wise-cracking co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and Elisa’s neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a closeted gay graphics design artist. These are the nice folks/beings who make up the world that seems to be run by bullies and predators (sound familiar?). There is even a religious debate here as it’s mentioned that the creature was treated by a God in his natural environment, and a brief discussion is had over what might a God look like. All of the actors are superb, and Miss Hawkins delivers her second knockout performance of the year (the other being MAUDIE).

“The future” is a central theme of the story, though Elisa is most focused on now – how to find some happiness in a world that has been so challenging. Elisa realizes she and the creature are more similar than not, and she feels his pain each time the power-hungry Strickland (Shannon) pops him with the electric cattle prod. There is an ethereal beauty (and yes, sensuality) to the scenes with Elisa and the amphibian man, and it even leads to a terrific song (“You’ll Never Know” by Renee Fleming) and dance dream sequence. In addition, you’ll notice many nods and tributes to classics such as Mr. Ed, Dobie Gillis, Betty Grable, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Shirley Temple, and Carmen Miranda singing “Chica Chica Boom Chic”. It’s also no accident that the apartments of Elisa and Giles are located directly above a palatial old movie theatre that is struggling to make ends meet. All of these pieces are tied together as Mr. del Toro honors the art forms he so adores.

For those who enjoy such detail, it should be noted that the color green plays a huge role throughout the film … the water, the creature, the uniforms, the furniture, the walls – even the Jello, the pie and Strickland’s (teal) Cadillac. The use of color ties in the ever-present mythology, and the theme of meanness and power versus kindness and love.

Cinematographer Dan Laustsen adds to the magical feel with his camera work and lighting that perfectly complements the characters and tone. Oscar winning composer Alexandre Desplat delivers yet another spot on score that not only syncs with story, but also the numerous classic songs included. Guillermo del Toro is one of the most creative and inventive contemporary filmmakers, and though this one may fall a tick below his masterpiece PAN’S LABRYNTH, it is sure to dazzle and mesmerize those who give it a chance … and let’s hope there are many who do!

watch the trailer:

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78/52 (2017, doc)

October 12, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Does it make sense to create an entire movie about a single scene from another movie? Director Alexandre O. Philippe answers with a resounding “Yes” and proves it with thorough and varied analysis of the infamous and iconic shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s classic PSYCHO.

“The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.”

That quote from Edgar Allan Poe opens the film, and reminds us that the hullabaloo surrounding PSYCHO would never have been possible if Janet Leigh hadn’t been a beautiful movie star … and if Hitchcock hadn’t shocked us with the timing … and if so many other pieces hadn’t fallen into place. It’s those pieces that are the focus of Mr. Philippe’s expository on the immediate and lasting impact of the scene.

The film’s title comes from the 78 pieces of film and 52 cuts that make up the 3 minute sequence being adored, admired and argued here. The interviews and insight come fast and passionately from filmmakers, writers, educators, film historians, and actors. We meet the ultra-charming Marli Renfro, who was Janet Leigh’s body-double for the film – and also graced the September 1960 cover of Playboy. There is also Tere Carrubba, Mr. Hitchcock’s granddaughter and the daughter of Patricia Hitchcock, who has a minor role in PSYCHO. A few of the others who discuss the scene and film’s influence include directors Peter Bogdanovich, Guillermo del Toro, and Karyn Kusama (JENNIFER’S BODY); writers Leigh Whannell (SAW, INSIDIOUS) and Bret Easton Ellis (AMERICAN PSYCHO); and  Janet Leigh’s daughter, actress Jamie Lee Curtis.

True technical analysis and peek behind the mysterious filmmaking curtain kicks into high gear when Walter Murch speaks. Mr. Murch is a 3-time Oscar winner and 9-time nominee for such timeless films as APOCALYPSE NOW and THE CONVERSATION. He is an expert on sound and film editing, two vital components to the shower scene, and he literally guides us through the individual cuts. Most fans of the film know of the chocolate syrup, but the casaba melon and the painting on the wall might be new territory. The film ties together, like never before, the script of Joseph Stefano, the storyboard of Saul Bass, the editing of George Tomasini, and the scene score of Bernard Hermann … all giants of the industry.

Whether you are a film lover, Hitchcock fanatic, or film theorist, you are likely to find something new here. The film represents so many “firsts” and was truly a turning point in the film industry, while also being a cultural phenomenon. When Martin Scorcese talks about the PSYCHO influence on RAGING BULL, it’s the culmination of a blissful 90 minutes.

watch the trailer:

 


CRIMSON PEAK (2015)

October 19, 2015

crimson peak Greetings again from the darkness. “It’s not a ghost story. It’s a story with ghosts.” Leave it to writer/director Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, 2006) to make this distinction. The line is spoken by our lead character Edith, who is striving to write like her literary idol, Mary Shelley. She is explaining her most recent writing effort to a publisher, but the line also represents the movie we are watching … ghosts appear (some grisly ones at that), but they certainly aren’t the focus.

The story begins around the turn of the 20th century as young Edith has just experienced her first family tragedy, the passing of her mother. She grows into an independent young woman (played by Mia Wasikowska) being raised by her successful self-made-man father Curtis Cushing (played by Jim Beaver, “Justified”).  Tip of the cap to del Toro for his tip of the cap to the horror film great Peter Cushing.  Edith has remained steadfast in her independence despite the advances of her lifelong friend, the handsome Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam, “Sons of Anarchy”).  Things change when a mysterious stranger sweeps into town. Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) seeks investors for his “clay harvester”, a machine he designed to automate what now takes many men and much hard labor.  The elder Cushing senses something is “off” about Sharpe and his sister and travelling companion, Lady Lucille (Jessica Chastain), but the strong-minded Edith soon finds herself waltzing and blushing with Sir Thomas.

It would be pretty easy to recap the balance of the story, but that is actually the film’s weakness. It plays like a re-imagined script from one of those old 1940’s or 50’s movies that I watched on Friday nights as a kid. In other words, it’s not very frightening and the viewer’s enjoyment is totally based on the atmosphere. Fortunately, that’s where del Toro and his team excel. The set design (Tom Sanders) and costumes (Kate Hawley) are truly spectacular and among the best ever seen, especially for a horror movie. Dilapidated Allendale Manor features a hole in its roof allowing the elements to freely enter the colossal entry foyer. The furnishings and fixtures, as well as the layout of the house are perfection as a setting. The costumes for all characters are superb, but pay special attention to the fabrics and frills of Edith and Lucille. Camera work from Cinematographer Dan Lausten ties it all together for the eerie feel.

The film is so stunning and interesting to look at that it’s actually quite easy to forgive a story that has little to offer, and often … and I do mean often … relies on horror film clichés in what should be moments of difference-making. Having five such talented lead actors, who each go “all in” for their characters, help us overlook the script weakness, and it’s really the look and atmosphere of the film that make it worth watching … not words I have written many times over the years. For del Toro fans, you should know that Doug Jones does play the creepy ghost that inspires Edith’s first words (as narrator) … “Ghosts are real, that much I know”.

watch the trailer:

 


PACIFIC RIM (2013)

July 15, 2013

pacific rim1 Greetings again from the darkness. Plain and simple … this is not my kind of movie. I fully understand there exists many movie-goers who are thrilled that director Guillermo del Toro‘s latest has finally hit theatres, but I really struggled with this mash-up of Transformers, Battleship and Godzilla, as well as what I believe to be a new world record for noise level. That being said, I do have some positive comments to make.

The technological aspects of the movie are exceptional. It has a unique look with some of the best CGI ever seen. There is no shortage of action, which is typically good for an action movie … but here, it seemed that one monster vs robot fight led right into the next one, and the next. The cast is very talented and represent some of the most entertaining shows on TV: “Sons of Anarchy”, “True Blood”, “Homeland”, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and “Justified”. The downside is many of them don’t seem overly excited to be spouting some of the worst dialogue of the year.

pacific rim4 The basic story is a war between mankind and the Kaiju – monsters from another world. World leaders work together to develop the Jaeger program … fighting robots co-piloted by two people who are drift-compatible (a kind of mind meld that let’s them fight as one). After years of struggling against the Kaiju, the world leaders decide instead to build a security wall around the main cities. Clearly they had not seen World War Z or read any of the “fence” stories from the US/Mexico border. No surprise, but the robots have to be reactivated for the climactic battle scene.

pacific rim3 Iris Elba runs the Jaeger program and commands the pilots that include Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi, Max Martini, and Robert Kazinski. Hunnam is battling inner demons after the death of his brother (Diego Klattenhoff). For some reason, Hunnam plays his part with an overdose of bland. He seems to have been cast for his effectiveness in his shirtless scenes. Martini and Kazinski stand out here, probably because competition is so uninspired … oh and they have a dog. Ms. Kikuchi seems to be under the impression that her scenes were rehearsals as she can’t quite hash out a consistent approach (translated: she is painful to watch). The usually great Elba alternates between a mumbled whisper and a full-out yell … neither working too well. His “canceling the apocalypse” speech seems to be right out of Independence Day.

pacific rim2 The comedy relief is provided by the shared scenes of Charlie Day and del Toro favorite Ron Perlman. Day is at his screechiest and Perlman at his most flamboyant, but it’s not enough of the story to salvage much hope. Instead we get an endless number of hand-to-hand combat scenes  the Jaeger and Kaiju. And they mostly all look the same fight: waist deep in water while its dark and rainy. Unless they happen to be completely underwater, where it’s even darker.

For all the negatives tossed out here, it must be ended with the reminder that the movie is a technical marvel to look at. I much prefer del Toro in the Pan’s Labyrinth mode, and I would even prefer the old Japanese Godzilla monster-fests to this, but he has raised the bar for robotic and monster CGI. Maybe that’s enough for your eyes and ears.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are fan of CGI and prefer your movies BIG and LOUD!

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you don’t have ear protection

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ef6vQBGqLW8

 

 


MAMA (2013)

January 20, 2013

mama2 Greetings again from the darkness. Ever since The Blair Witch Project and the influence of “found footage”, which then transitioned into the endless sequels for Paranormal Activity, true creativity and ingenuity has been mostly lacking from the horror genre. One of those still devoted to creeping us out and generating seat jumping is Guillermo del Toro, who produced this film after seeing writer/director Andres Muschietti’s three minute short film (see below).

Since the real joy in experiencing a horror film comes from the surprises and twists, very few details will be revealed here. Worth noting is the lead role of Annabel played by the incredibly talented Jessica Chastain. Yes, the same one who is currently nominated for her role in Zero Dark Thirty. This time out, Ms. Chastain is a tatted up bass player in a (lousy) punkish band and sporting a Joan Jett hairdo. Annabel is living a bohemian lifestyle (translation: nearly starving with mama3no responsibilities) with her artist boyfriend Lucas, played by Nikolaj Coaster-Waldau, whom many will recognize from “Game of Thrones”, and who appeared in the superb Headhunters (one of my favorites of 2012).

Many horror film clichés are presented here including a cabin in the woods, a portal to the afterlife, buzzing bugs, unexplained lullaby singing through the air vents, an untimely “fall” down the stairs by a main character and ties to a long ago tragedy that holds the key to this current mess. Notable is the welcome absence of gross-out and gore-out special effects. Despite the clichés, Muschietti and his co-writing sister Barbara, and Neil Cross provide us with some new touches mama5(uncovering maternal instincts) and such a great looking movie that our attention is firmly held … especially for the first 80%. As happens so frequently, the final act is a bit disappointing, but not enough to ruin the experience.

Chastain is top notch here, though Coaster-Waldau is underutilized. The two young girls are effectively portrayed by Megan Charpentier (Victoria) and Isabelle Nelisse (Lily). In fact, Lily scampering about on all fours may be as frightening as the spooky Mama, played by 7 foot actor Javier Botet. It’s an unconventional horror film with an atypical ending … and one of the few movies to ever raise the question of whether one can survive for 5 years on a diet of cherries.  This one is certainly worth a look if you are a fan of the genre.

take a look at the 3 minute short film that inspired the movie – plus the intro from Guillermo del Toro:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WRqS6pBC42w&feature=youtu.be

Watch the feature trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R2nwknMmvdc


DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK (2010)

September 8, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. While I really enjoy a good horror movie, I have never been too fond of those that featured unexplained or other-worldly creatures. However, with Pan’s Labyrinth to his credit, Guillermo del Toro has earned my trust. Supposedly the 1973 British version of this film (Nigel McKeand teleplay) so frightened a young del Toro that it inspired him to become a filmmaker. Here he acts as producer and co-writer, while first timer Troy Nixey directs.

 What makes this one work is that it takes full advantage of setting and dark tones, rather than over-exposure of the freakish fairies that live in the ash pit. Blackwood Manor is one creepy, yet fantastic mansion that belonged to a famous artist who was killed in the basement. Also, the three leads are good in their roles. Guy Pearce plays the struggling businessman who gets his 10 year old daughter forced upon him by his ex-wife. Katie Holmes plays Pearce’s girlfriend and the interior designer in charge of the mansion re-do. The real gem of the film is Bailee Madison, whom you will remember from Bridge to Teribithia.

 Putting a cute kid in peril is one of the most over-used cliches in horror films, but here young Sally (Madison) is actually quite brave and rational … she is trying to solve this mystery without bothering the oh-so-busy adults. As is customary, the dad (Pearce) is clueless and the last to catch on, but there is a very interesting dynamic between Holmes and Madison. Those are the kind of details that make this one worth seeing for all you lovers of horror. Just remember the second rule of real estate: never buy a mansion named Blackwood.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you never miss a decent horror film OR you want to see Jack Thompson (so great in Breaker Morant) as the crusty old caretaker

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: little creatures in the basement is all you need to know to find something else to do

watch the trailer: