The Shape of Water (2017): Del Toro’s Return to Form (Review)

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Guillermo del Toro returns to form with The Shape of Water. This 2017 offering, co-written by del Toro with Vanessa Taylor, stars Sally Hawkins as the mute girl who befriends the creature. Michael Shannon is the villain, Richard Jenkins; the reluctant accomplice and Octavia Spencer the plucky sidekick. Doug Jones plays the South American amphibious creature/god.

The theme of this film is water, naturally, as both the environment for the underwater dweller worshipped by the locals as some sort of god and as the background for most of the events of the film. The creature bears more than a little resemblance to “monster” in  The Creature of the Black Lagoon but unlike good old Roscoe Browning’s creature, this one has no zipper running up its back.

Jones’ creature looks real and, even more importantly, plausible. Hawkins is the isolated cleaning woman trapped in a 1960’s world of racism, class structure and a world run by men for men. Women are second class citizens and one who has a speech impediment is on the very bottom of the totem pole.

Del Toro gives us a heroine that we fall immediately in love with. A woman whose existence is full of routine but who has the soul of a dancer, a singer and a romantic.  Although part of her daily preparations for work include industriously masturbating in a tub of water, deep down, Elisa Esposito has enough imagination to fill in many blanks in her life.

Jenkins is Giles, her next door neighbor. He is a closeted gay, at a time when homosexuality was still illegal, an artist and he is desperately trying to make ends meet and fall in love. Spencer is Zelda, the co-worker who looks out for her mute friend, and translates when required.

Michael Shannon is Strickland; the man who captured the creature and transported it to the scientific facility where it will be studied. Strickland is also, somewhat ironically, a very cold fish. He is humorless, vicious and utterly, it seems, without feeling.

Del Toro’s film asks what would have happened if the creature of the Black Lagoon had been captured at a time when the Russian’s were winning the space race and the Cold War was running full steam ahead. (Michael Stuhlbarg plays a crucial part as a scientist who is not all he seems.)

With The Shape if Water del Toro returns to his roots. The film has all the dark and terrible beauty of Pan’s Labyrinth and the whimsy of The Devil’s Backbone. We fall for the story and all its characters hook, line and sinker. The creature is not terrifying at all, we feel as much empathy as curiosity and Elisa’a inexplicable yearning and interest in the thing is not mystifying at all.

Doug Jones has given us a performance full of nuances, emotions and a certain depth that has never been seen before in a “creature feature.”

The film is classed as an adventure, fantasy, drama and it is indeed all three. It can also be seen as a romance as well as a heart pounding thriller. There are scenes that keep the viewer on the edge of their seat;  breath held as they silently urge the heroes on and others that fill the heart with warmth.

The Shape if Water has sets that are reminiscent of the underwater city in Bioshock and water does feature in practically every scene. Del Toro makes old films an important part of the story and the cast is perfect. Shannon gives us a man we love to hate and when the climax of the film arrives we are satisfied with his fate.

If there is any complaint at all about this marvelous feature it would be that the scars on Elisa’s neck are obvious from the first time we see them and we know that they will provide some sort of plot twist.

This is a full 5 star film that delivers across the board. The story, sets, costumes and performances all come together in a dark bit of art that touches the viewer’s heart. Catch this one when it comes out in the cinema (December 8) and get caught up in Guillermo del Toro’s return to form.

The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017): Having a Christmas Bawl

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Adopted from the Les Stanford book; the screenplay by Susan Coyne, The Man Who Invented Christmas is Bharat Nalluri’s seasonal offering. This “bio-comedy/drama” elicits chuckles and a lot of tears in this telling of how Charles Dickens creates one of the most popular Christmas tales ever. Only the most cold hearted “Scrooge” of a viewer will not “bawl” his or her eyes out at the film’s story.

Dan Stevens is Dickens, Christoper Plummer is Scrooge, Jonathan Pryce is the feckless father that Charles Dickens loves to hate and newcomer Anna Murphy is Tara; the Irish maid who becomes, to a degree, Dickens’ muse. The cast is full of splendid English character actors who are all familiar faces to those across the pond and each helps to bring this tale to brilliant life.

In The Man Who Invented Christmas the once celebrated author has had three flops in a row and he is suffering writer’s block. A chance incident provides inspiration and while his erstwhile agent and friend  (played by the brilliant John Edwards) supports the increasingly desperate writer.

There are elements of melodrama in this Christmas tale about the miser who changes his ways after being visited by three spirits on Christmas Eve. Nalluri gives us a Dickens with a bootblack background who interacts with the character’s of his books as he works toward a satisfactory ending.

The sets, the costumes and the actors all go toward recreating London in the early 1840s. Dickens is a tortured soul with more than enough “Scrooge” in his soul to upset everyone who loves him. His wife suffers his mood swings and foul temper as best she can and Charles’ father tries too hard to atone for his past sins.

Despite the drama, there are many amusing elements to the film and with the cream of English filmdom applying their trade almost effortlessly, there is no doubt that this new “take” on “A Christmas Carol” will also become a classic. All the performers work seamlessly  making  their characters fit together  perfectly.

Personal favorite Simon Callow  plays Leech, the illustrator with his usual flair and the delightful Miriam Margolyes, as well as Morfydd Clark and Ger Ryan, prove that the ladies in this cast are no shirkers in the acting department either.

The Man Who Invented Christmas contains enough glimpses, and nods and winks, to the tale that has been made into plays, films and television adaptations,  that fans of the story will be moved to tears repeatedly. This drama/comedy with its biographical overtones may be an imaginative and somewhat fanciful look at how Dickens created Scrooge and, indeed, all his characters but it works beautifully.

Having seen the late Albert Newly bring Scrooge to life in 1994 on a London stage and turn in a performance that was, in a word, brilliant, it was just as impressive to see what Plummer does with this famous character. The Canadian octogenarian makes the miser his own and bestows a sly wit upon this curmudgeonly workhouse fan.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is a tearful 5 star effort. If watched in the cinema, the viewer should brings copious amounts of tissues and prepare to be embarrassed by all the fluid streaming down their face.

This one is a winner.

Get Out (2017): Blackly Comic Horror (Review)

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Written and directed by Jordan Peele (this is his maiden voyage as the man in the “big” chair) Get Out was inspired by an Eddie Murphy gag and borrows, just a tad, from other films. It is, overall, a blackly comic horror film that feels like a splendidly dark and morbid punchline.  The movie can, and does, make one feel uncomfortable and amused – often in the same scene.

We follow Chris Washington (played brilliantly by Daniel Kaluuya) as he goes, reluctantly, to visit his girlfriend’s parents. Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) is college co-ed cute – all big eyes, perfect teeth with an odd combination of droll yet goofy wit – who has arranged for Chris to meet the fam. 

All is not what it seems, however, as once Chris arrives in upstate New York, he finds his future in-laws are a combination of “trying too hard” and slightly antagonistic. Rose’s mum is a hypnotherapist who promises to cure Chris of his nasty smoking habit. Dad, a bit of east coast “whitebread,” tries to go ghetto and brother Dean is a snot.

Even without the kidnapping that takes place at the very start of the film, we feel uncomfortable and Peele manages to put the audience firmly in Chris’s shoes. The sense of unease increases even before Chris sits down with “mum” for that first unwitting hypnotherapy session.

The “big weekend” amps things up nicely as all the guests ask Chris seemingly inane and overly personal questions. (Including one strange interlude that harkens back to Madeline Kahn and “Blazing Saddles.”) He also meets, along the way, the two servants who work for the Armitage family.

All the black people he meets act oddly.  There are jarring moments: The maid’s unexplained tears, the handyman’s running in the middle of the night, the old woman with the hat-wearing young black man and the emphasis of the “white” diction used by all the above. There is another tense and weird scene where the flash of a camera gives “hat man” a nose bleed.

(This scene also harkens back to the Eddie Murphy gag about “Get out!”)

Peele has taken a concept which, initially, looks to be all about racism and turns it into a mix of neuroscience and immortality. It can also be seen as a snapshot analysis of social satire, a’la the 1989 Billy Warlock film “Society.”

(One could arguably compare the plot line with the 2005 voodoo horror film “The Skeleton Key.” Get Out addresses the same issues of living forever without all the magical hugger mugger of the Kate Hudson film…)

Get Out manages to both creep the viewer out, elicit a fair amount of chuckles and  shock in all the right places. There are sharp scary moments, the gardener running at Chris for example, and the place Chris is sent to after his session with mother disturbs on a much deeper level.

It is the mismatch of stereotypes that provides much of the comedy:  Chris’s best friend with his, mostly, improvised dialogue and the septuagenarian diction and speech patterns emerging from the servants and hat man  who  interact all too briefly with our hero at the party mixes absurdity with blackly comic moments that delight and add the right amount of quirky fear to the formula.

Get Out is a full five star film. It is full of slyly hidden black comedy that reveals itself with repeated viewings. Peele gives us a low budget masterpiece that earns each and every one of its Oscar nominations. If you haven’t already, check this one out and be prepared to be massively entertained.

Longmire (Season 6): Episode 1 ‘The Eagle and the Osprey’ (Review)

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The last season of Longmire has, at long last, arrived. Watching the first episode, put off as long as possible, was a bittersweet experience. We have grown to love all these characters; their foibles as well as their strengths and follies. Episode one of season six takes up where the season five finale finished.

The opening is a tease. We see a man in a cowboy hat robbing a bank. Shots are interspersed of another man hiding money in jars and ziplock bags. The implication, for a split second, is that Walt Longmire has robbed the place and is burying the proceeds on his property.

Bank robberies aside, Henry’s life is still hanging in the balance as Darius’s thugs watch him slowly die of dehydration and Cady tries to make sense of her vision. Malachi is still in the wind and Officer Mathias, after discovering Henry’s truck, is hunting for his old Hector Lives partner.

Overall, this was a satisfying start to the final season of Longmire. Walt is “circling the wagons” for the upcoming attack (trial) and Vic is proving, yet again, that she would walk through fire for her boss. The Ferg jeopardizes his relationship with the nurse and Walt risks his life to save his old friend.

Jacob Nighthorse was missing in this opening salvo but it is apparent that Walt will be questioning him soon about Malachi. There is the ongoing mystery of Cowboy Bill and the Mayor shows his teeth, and his true colours.

Marilyn, the Crow Medicine Woman,  reappears and after shooting Henry’s captors refuses to save him. Instead she takes the only container with water, leaves some totems on the ground and tells Standing Bear that if he is a true warrior, the spirits will save him.

Later, somewhat touchingly, Walt gives the Medicine Woman the money from his closed bank account. She takes the money and then leads the lawman to his friend, only to disappear when Walt finds Henry. Longmire makes a travois out of his coat and some stakes but is bitten by a rattlesnake on the way back to the truck.

By the end of the episode we learn that Cowboy Bob most certainly did not rob the bank. Cady and Walt reunite and it seems that Henry and Walt have not shattered their friendship after all. (The Ferg also appears to have patched things up with his nurse…)

There are some things that jar. For example: Would Walt have gone up and disturbed an area where snakes tend to congregate? There is no mention of Vic’s “condition” and Cady still manages to irritate the hell out of this viewer with her attitude.

The urge to binge the final season of Longmire has been dampened by the thought that this will be our final journey with the Wyoming lawman. (And an overabundance of films that need attention prior to the Oscars voting coming up soon…)

Without jumping ahead to any of the available episodes, it is our guess that Malachi has robbed the bank since his massive revenue from those Irish Mob deals has dried up. Time, and the rest of the final episodes,  will tell.

Cast:

The Ballad of Lefty Brown (2017): Life of an “Also Ran” (Review)

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The Ballad of Lefty Brown is an interesting concept from start to finish. Part homage – it pays more than a little tribute to both The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and The Unforgiven – with a story about a western “also ran” who did not make the pages of the penny dreadfuls of the time. Written and directed by  Jared Moshe, the film is described as a “coming of age” film. 

Lefty Brown, played brilliantly by personal favorite Bill Pullman, is a “man-child.” His implied backstory is that at one time he and three other partners terrorized the southwest territory. One of these is going to be the new senator (Peter Fonda in a small but pivotal role) and after his death, two other old friends arrive to sort things out.

The film gives us a protagonist that, at times, is both simple and sly. One wonders just how much of Lefty Brown’s “slowness” is real. There are many instances where this character appears to be more than meets the eye.

We are privy to Lefty’s journey and Moshe gives us a story that pleases almost as much as it dismays. Pullman’s character goes through his paces with a doggedness that one assumes has been his main trait since birth.

It is his very pedantic, and simple,  approach to all things that has kept him from gracing the pages of the dime novel that the greenhorn Jeremiah (played very well by newcomer Diego Josef) carries with him in the film. Jim Caviezel and the splendid Scottish actor Tommy Flanagan are outstanding as the two old pals who were once part of the “gang.” 

Kathy Baker is spot on as the bitter and angry widow who fights for what is rightfully hers and the tale, while coming across as rather dire, is interesting enough to keep one glued to the seat for the climax. At just under two hours, The Ballad of Lefty Brown successfully manages to combine a character study with the western genre. 

This is Pullman’s film. From start to finish he commands the screen with his characterization of a man destined to be forgotten by all who knew him and it is Oscar-worthy. “Lefty Brown” combines music, sets and costumes effectively to make this oddly intimate film feel like a sweeping epic, along the lines of a John Ford (Cheyenne Autumn for example) western with just a touch of Spaghetti Western for good measure.

There is not an awful lot in the way of gun play, just one short gunfight in the middle, and the violence is not overly visceral in nature. This is more of a character study as we watch a man whose life has always been, it seems, outside the action.

However, there is the hint of a backstory that is slightly evocative of the Ford classic, “The Searchers” where the marshal’s wife was kidnapped by a Native American Tribe and one of the small group wishes for the good old days when “folks’ trembled before them.

This is an American West that resembles the AMC Robert Redford retelling of this countries history. It is all corrupt politics and bad men profiting from their past. Somethings, apparently, have not changed.

The Ballad of Lefty Brown is a solid 5 star film that delivers some solid performances from all the leads and gives Bill Pullman a real chance at garnering some awards.  Fans of the genre will love this homage to all things western.