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.

Attack on Titan: Part 1 & 2 (2015): Battle Royale Meets Giants (Review)

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It may sound a bit dismissive to label Attack on Titan (part one and two) as “Battle Royale” meets giants” but it is not intended to be a slur on the manga based film. Both films do deliver messages on a government determined to control its denizens at all costs (although the 1999 Kashun Takami novel was much more political than the Kinji Fukasaku film released in 2000) and each features young protagonists.

Certainly BR has heroes who are yet to finish puberty, but the youngsters who battle the Titan’s in these films are not too far removed from that time span themselves. The other thing both films have in common is the “childhood interrupted” theme. Each set of players are yanked from their everyday lives and placed in situations that require them to fight.

Having not seen, or indeed read, the manga, it was easy to just take the film on its face value. The story; a world where giant’s attack and eat the general population, is interesting and the breech in the outer wall, that starts the whole two film journey, is impressive and well done.

A “giant” Titan kicks a hole in the wall and a horde of smaller creatures enter. They destroy a small town and most of the surrounding areas in the outer districts. The inner wall, full of the rulers and elite class of the nation, has not been destroyed and the heroes of both films fight to keep the Titan’s out.

The action takes place behind walls and the attacks of the giant man-eating creatures veer between hilarity and good old fashioned “King Kong” type horror. (Or even Jurassic Park, where the solicitor/lawyer gets his head crunched off by a T-Rex…) Plot wise there is nothing all that new here. It is revealed, partway through the first film, that the Titan’s were “man-made” and that their lack of genitals is a mystery, even to the creators of the things.

Still, this curious lack of reproductive equipment apparently kept the Japanese censors happy and made the film a little less “difficult” to watch.  While the female Titans did have breast, there were no offending nipples anywhere to be seen, or other genitalia to deal with.

(One character voices her interest at just how these gigantic humanoid creatures manage to procreate – there are some incredibly ugly “baby” Titans running around – but that is the only time it is mentioned.)

There are some comic moments: An enlisted man throws a Titan over his head, a young heroine eats constantly (potatoes) and her stomach is incredibly noisy when empty.

Attack on Titan (Shingeki no kyojin) is entertaining, even if one is not familiar with the original manga material by Hajime Isayama. Director Shinji Higuchi capably directs this live action adaptation of a popular Manga series. There are a number of writers connected to these two films and, according to IMDb, a few characters have been dropped, merged or changed totally.

Overall, the feel of the film is not too far removed from fantasy and/or science fiction.  The soldiers have new weapons that resemble samurai swords, “on call” and gas jets that propel the fighters through the air while powering anchors to structures. These enable the soldiers to “fly” through the air in order to attack the seemingly un-defeatable creatures.

Jun Kunimura, who played mob boss Ikemoto in Outrage   (who dies an almost comic death) and featured in “Kill Bill” volume’s one and two and the iconic cult classic Audition along with another 163 credits to his name, is, for all intents and purposes, the big bad in the film. 

His mostly understated performance helps nudge the plot points along and Kunimura is the only real “grown up” in the film. He is also easily the most despicable although Capt. Shikishima (played by Hiroki Hasegawa) comes a close second in terms of dislikable characters. 

Attack on Titan features a newer cast of young actors. None of these performers are of the Battle Royale time period. They are, however, quite capable of filling out their limited characters and look pretty good in the fight sequences. The wire work, in the film, is top notch and the combination of obvious green screen backdrops and the practical wire stunts is stimulating and impressive.

These films are not made to be taken seriously and apparently, according to the number of “dislikes” on IMDb (which go over a 1000) not really made for the discerning fans of the original Manga series or book. The Titan’s themselves are not overly frightening to look at, their faces look more like variations on the local village idiot rather than a Grimm’s Fairy Tale type Giant.

There is much wailing and gnashing of teeth over on YouTube, where this trailer aired in 2015, about how far the film had deviated from its source material.  Still, this is a solid 3.5 star effort that deserves a look, or two. Both are available to stream, via Amazon, or to be rented or purchased in DVD.

Fans of Japanese cinema will enjoy this offering perhaps a bit more than the annoyed fans of the manga. There is a lot of violence, a bit of low-key no-genital nudity and no cursing to be seen in the subtitles.

Check out the trailer below:

Sleepy Hollow: Freedom – Highway to Hell (Review)

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The season four finale of Sleepy Hollow (titled “Freedom”) could have been called “Highway to Hell” with its connection to the devil and the bartering of souls as its centerpiece. It was a wrapping up of all the new characters introduced in this season and the possibility of a return of the grown up Molly if the series returns.

Sleepy Hollow saw the death of Crane’s fellow witness at the end of last season and this year Ichabod moved from his old stomping grounds to the country’s capital. Lt. Abbie Mills bid the show adieu and a new witness was introduced; Molly Thomas.

The change of partner and locale did not bode overly well for the series as its viewing figures dropped from just over 3 million to 1.92 million. The season average for the show’s targeted demographic also dropped from .83 to .50 this year.

Once again, the show’s overall storyline dealt with an impending apocalyptic event, referred to as “the Apocalypse” which implies that the end of the world really applies only to America and the United States. (Or at  the very least that the end of days will start there.) This gives the US a rather imperious significance in the world of the supernatural.

Since the script for Sleepy Hollow was written before the advent of November 8 and the election of the newest POTUS, it seems almost prophetic that this season’s storyline deals with an egotistical madman who becomes the newest leader of the “free world.”

(All the season four bogeyman lacks is a bad orange hairdo and the advanced age of the current POTUS.)

The season has faltered however. Despite bringing back the brilliant John Noble, who never really had the chance to chew up great bits of the scenery as he did in earlier seasons, and introducing the delightfully talented Seychelle Gabriel as the grown up Molly, Sleepy Hollow has lost its spark.

SLEEPY HOLLOW: L-R: Guest star Seychelle Gabriel and Tom Mison in the ÒFreedomÓ episode of SLEEPY HOLLOW airing Friday, March 31 (9:01-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2017 Fox Broadcasting Co. CR: Tina Rowden/FOX

The last episode of season four has Malcolm Dreyfuss (a rather impressive baddie who manages to cheat the devil out of his due) taking over the White House and holding the real president hostage.  He has raised the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and is ready to bring things to a nasty end.

Henry Parrish is the God of War and he is persuaded by his father, Ichabod to lay down his fiery sword. Crane reminds his son that freedom, the title of the episode, is more important than revenge or selling one’s soul to a tyrant. This, more than anything else, helps to save the day and allows the rest of Team Crane to stop the Horsemen.

Crane and Diana defeat Malcolm, much to the satisfaction of Jobe who immediately collects the megalomaniac’s soul. Ichabod defeats Dreyfuss because he placed a “lien” on his soul in exchange for the Philosopher’s Stone. This made Malcolm’s immortality vulnerable for a moment, long enough for the two to kill him.

By the end of the episode, Alex shows Jake just how much she cares for him, Lara/Molly decides to go walkabout and get her head straight and Crane has gotten a new partner in Agent Thomas. Jenny and Ichabod are also made part of Thomas’ new team.

The move to bring things to full circle, having a supernatural task force that reports directly to the president (just as George Washington had his own task force) was a nice touch. (Although it does feel a bit “Agent X.”)

Sleepy Hollow finishes with a kraken and a new bond between Thomas and Crane. It also sees the present day Molly released from her role as witness. If the show does somehow manage to be given another season it will be interesting to see what direction it takes.

With such low viewing figures, however, it seems that another season may not be in the cards. If you missed the season four finale head over to Hulu to catch up on all the episodes.

Cast:

Guest starring Seychelle Gabriel as Lara/Molly, Edwin Hodge as Benjamin Banneker and Terrence Mann as the Devil and John Noble as Henry Parrish.

Sleepy Hollow: The Way of the Gun – War (Review)

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Perhaps one of the best episodes of Sleepy Hollow this season, “The Way of the Gun” offers a lot in terms of time travel and there is a slight nod to “The Terminator” with a plot twist that surprised and entertained.  This season of the show has made mention of time manipulation before and it has been used to good effect in this episode.

An earlier episode featured witches who had lived for centuries and made themselves appear younger, which is a sort of allusion to time travel as well. Another “repeat” feature was Crane’s old buddy Benjamin Banneker who appeared with more magical items in his goody bag.

Dreyfuss is raising the four horsemen and not only are Crane and his team trying to stop the immortal but a mysterious young woman who wears Malcolm’s symbol is also working against Dreyfuss. She retrieves the “gun of war” (which will be used to summon the last horseman) and the young woman attempts to destroy the powerful totem.

This episode begins with Molly, Diana and Crane all interacting after the youngest witness’ Valley Forge play. It is a precursor, or a portent, of the show’s end scene.  The stranger, who tricks Ichabod and Diana by stealing the gun, turns out to be the grown up Molly.

She is now a young woman who carries and uses powerful magic. Molly  returns from the future with the aid of “a very different Ichabod Crane” to save Diana. Her mother is meant to be the horseman of war and she tries to keep Agent Thomas from dying “again.”

Before the climatic end scene, where Crane mutters (in an apt demon voice) “I am become war,” Wells and Alex are captured by Malcolm’s right hand demon Jobe. The entity tortures Jake and kills Alex, except it not real. The exhibition serves to completely un-nerve Wells and he tells Dreyfuss what he needs to know.

We learn, as a result of this almost execution, that Alex Norwood cares much more for Jake than he realizes. Although before she can confess her true feelings, Jenny arrives to save them both.

The final moments of the episode sees Molly succeed in saving her mother but Ichabod takes the bullet meant for Diana and he “dies” instead. While it seems that Crane is now doomed to be the very thing he has been fighting against, it is not too farfetched to think that the very powerful Molly will able to switch things about.

Dreyfuss has indeed started the ball rolling toward his future as a tyrant who tortures Crane on a regular basis. The introduction of the grown Molly, which was  a brilliant touch, has insured that however things turn out, there is at least one very powerful character who has the magic necessary to save the day.

The casting of Seychelle Gabriel as the grown Molly was spot on. She resembles the young Oona Yaffe enough that it is not a stretch to believe that she is the same character as a grown up.

Apart from the whole time travel storyline, there is the parallel plot line of Jenny’s going back into the relic business. It seems certain that both she and Molly, along with the newly saved Agent Thomas, will help to save Ichabod from a fate worse than death.

Sleepy Hollow airs Fridays on FOX.

Cast:

Guest starring Seychelle Gabriel as Lara/Molly and Edwin Hodge as Benjamin Banneker.

Sleepy Hollow: Loco Parentis – Little Red Molly Hood (Review)

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Taking a page from The Brothers Grimm Sleepy Hollow presents the tale of Little Red Riding Hood but with Molly in the starring role. Jenny captures Jobe and keeps him prisoner while trying to figure out how to kill the demon.

Molly father gets a visit from her father; a Marine, and Diana, her mother is somewhat ambiguous about his unannounced appearance. Jenny learns that Jobe believes that Malcolm is alive and she attempts to make him tell her where Dreyfuss is.

Meanwhile a large wolf-like creature is attacking pre-pubescent girls and eating their hearts. It is called, Ichabod informs us helpfully, a Barghest. He also explains that Little Red Riding Hood was inspired by this Germanic wolf beast that takes on the form of those we love. “What big teeth you have, grandma…”

In this instance, it takes on the form of Mitch who is still off fighting in the war, and takes Molly off into the woods. The goal is not to attend a teddy bear picnic but to have a real “heart-to-heart” with the new witness the moment she turns 11.

Luckily, the kid is pretty canny about not only staying away from the monster but she susses out pretty quickly that Mitch is not the real deal. She mentions a bike that her father got her the year before for her birthday and when Mitch responds incorrectly, she tells “daddy” that she needs to pee…now.

Overall the episode was interesting and had a number of things going on. Diana finally admits that she has been attempting to witness for Molly. Jenny proves that while she may be  pretty good demon hunter she is not all knowing and has to work at finding what will kill Jobe.

Apparently Malcolm’s becoming immortal has made him a bit mad and Crane obviously has no idea how to talk to 11 year-old girls. He tells the curly-headed moppets that King George was driven mad by syphilis and then hesitates when they ask for a definition.

Initially, when Diana brings Crane in on the Barghest case, they both believe that Malcolm is the werewolf clone that is attacking young girls in the park. It is only when Ichabod relates the origins of the beast, that Thomas makes the Mitch connection.

According to Crane, the Barghest came from Europe where it terrorized the locals. The creature came over on the Mayflower and its soul purpose in life is to eat the hearts of witnesses. (If one Googles the name “Barghest” it refers to a large black dog with big teeth from the north of England.)

Part of the Mayflower lore espoused by Crane includes the mention that Plymouth Rock was used to trap the original beast. They then use stone crossbow bolts, made from the rock, to kill the nasty thing.

Jobe helps them find Molly and Jenny allows him to leave her circle of salt. The demon gets back with Malcolm and the immortal billionaire tells him demon buddy that he will change the world.

Molly survives to celebrate her birthday with friends and cake and Diana realizes that she needs to let her witness daughter carry on with little interference.

Tom Mison got the funniest line of the entire episode with his heartfelt tale of a wooden hoop and a stick (apparently it was a woeful event if that stick broke…).

While the episode was a nice riff on the old Little Red Riding Hood tale it also lacked a little in the humor department. Mison did all the comedic bits in this one, the birthday party, the shopping for gifts and the hiding of presents made for some chuckle-worthy moments.

Sleepy Hollow airs Fridays on FOX. Tune in and see just how season four of this fantasy series plays out.

Cast:

Guest starring Bill Heck as Mitch Talbot