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.

99 Homes: A Slice of Soured American Dreams – (Review)

Written and directed by Ramin Bahrani (an auteur who has been described as the new chronicle of US cinema) 99 Homes offers up a slice of the American dream that has been soured…

Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon living the sour American dream

Written and directed by Ramin Bahrani (an auteur who has been described as the new chronicle of US cinema) 99 Homes offers up a slice of  the American dream that has been soured by the banks, entrepreneurs and an economy designed to suck the life out of the lower-middle class.  Starring the powerhouse that is Michael Shannon and Spiderman reboot star Andrew Garfield (in a serious role not reliant upon Stan Lee’s web slinger or comic books) this film festival favorite is a disturbing look at how honest sweat and labor has been overwhelmed by deal making and double dealing. 

Garfield is “everyman” carpenter Dennis Nash who loses his family  home to the bank. The institution gives the single parent  conflicting information that allows him to fall behind with his payments.  House reclamation expert Rick Carver (Shannon) shows up to take the home way from Nash for the bank.  Later, Dennis begins working for Carver and gets swept up in the nefarious dealings of the dour repossessor for the inept financial institutes who has learned to play the system and earn big money.

Laura Dern plays Nash’s hairdresser mother Lynn and Noah Lomax plays Nash’s son Connor.  Bahrani takes the viewer on an uncomfortable ride where Garfield’s character becomes embroiled in the shadowy and illegal practices of Carver and his real estate company after being forced out of his home and losing everything he holds dear. 

When one of  Carver’s workmen steals some of Dennis’ tools, the man goes to get them back and ends up working pro bono for the repression agent.  Nash has an immediate goal of reclaiming his family home. Later, Dennis loses sight of himself and his own moral compass as the greed and loopholes in the fractured system allow him to succeed beyond his wildest dreams.

99 Homes is, at times, extremely uncomfortable viewing. Nash’s humiliation, from a  range of avenues; the court, the bank, the repossession agency, is complete and soul destroying. His fruitless search for work and  temporary living accommodations at a hotel full of destitute refugees whose homes have all be repossessed force Dennis to begin working full time for the very man who took his house away for the bank.

Garfield is brilliant as the single father whose home and, by association,  life  is “stolen” by banks whose employees are making a killing by repossessing houses. Dennis Nash is not the brightest tool in the shed but has an innate honesty and a good heart that becomes polluted by his circumstance and the awareness  that he is actually rather good at repossessing homes and making money on the side from it.

Nash’s journey is a revealing look at someone facing and then working for their own personal demon.  Shannon’s character is a predator who cruises neighborhoods for potential repossessions. His business plans include stripping the houses of air conditioner units and swimming pool filter systems, as well as gutting the place from the previous owners,  while playing both sides against the middle.

In Bahrani’s America shaky financing and loopholes allow sharks like Carver and Mr. Freeman (Clancy Brown in a performance of impressive stature, although for  a plot definitive cameo the part is of “blink and you will miss” him duration) the ability to milk the system as they make a fortune out of other people’s misfortune.

Carver is an e-cigarette puffing money-making machine who has no empathy for the individuals who bankroll his lifestyle.  The real estate agent lives in a mansion and has a mistress.  He also has no conscience.

Cinematographer Bobby Bukowski gives the viewer an unflinching look at the proceedings and Bahrani edits the scenes to allow the same uncomfortable experience to flow throughout the film.  The sound is a perfect blend of background ambiance; empty houses sound empty as does the dialogue taking place in them.

While the film is a “vehicle” for Garfield (who does turn in an impressively underplayed  performance full of angst, it is Shannon who shines as the man who angrily blames the banks, home owners and the economy for his success.  The real estate agent who is making a killing from the frailties of the economy professes discomfort at his success but the man, as they say, “doeth protest too much.”

99 Homes proves that Ramin Bahrani is the new voice of middle America or the blue collar worker’s chronicler as a new generational version of “The Grapes of Wrath,” a’la James Michener via the medium of film.

This is a 5 out of  5 stars vehicle for all concerned. Entertainment based upon not just the human condition but the societal ills that affect it.  99 Homes is a powerful film that disturbs and should be a movie that makes the audience talk about the very real issues behind this tale of greed and loss.

Smoke, Smoke, Smoke That Cigarette…

Meg and I have been watching the first season DVD collection of Boardwalk Empire. A superior bit of television drama produced by HBO and starring Steve Buscemi, Kelly MacDonald and Michael Shannon. It is set in the 1920’s; that era of flappers, Eddie Cantor, the Charleston, Prohibition and “oh you kid.” It was also a time of deep-seated corruption in government, both local and not-so-local.

The sets and the costumes are brilliant. The casting, so far, has been beyond admirable; the choice of the Liverpudlian actor Stephen Graham as Al Capone exceeds genius. Of course giving Steve Buscemi the chance to shine and show just what he really has to offer as an actor, goes without saying. But despite my utilizing over 120 words to talks about the series, its plot, and its stars, that is not what I wanted to talk about. And to be honest none of these aforementioned things was what caught my eye.

The thing I noticed above anything else was the smoking.

Now those of you who follow my blog already *and to you good people, I say thank you from the bottom of my slightly malfunctioning heart.* will know that I finally gave up the devil weed after having a heart attack and two subsequent surgeries to save my life. The surgery has left me with a damaged Aorta and this fact alone has made me more health conscious than ever before in my 54 years of treading upon this earth.

My doctor and the lovely “smoking cessation” nurse feed my ego every time I go to my local clinic. I smile and nod each time they praise me on my abstinence and write me a prescription for more nicotine gum. But as I’ve told everyone, the urge to smoke pretty much dissipated after the heart attack. I actually had three (or maybe more) cigarettes on the morning of the heart attack; accompanied by about three cups of coffee. Now this nicotine (and countless other poisons) and caffeine intake was not before the heart attack, it was during it.

But the entire incident was so damn traumatic and bloody painful that I’ve had no real problem staying off the “fags.” That’s not to say I don’t want one, because I do. There is not a day that goes by where I don’t think about how great it would be to take out a cigarette, light it and drag real deep on it. Fortunately for me I a) don’t have any of the damn things in the house, and b) the thought only lasts for a split second.

I always snap back to reality pretty quickly and remember that not only are the damned things really bad for my heart, but they are also a lung sapper. I don’t fancy carrying an oxygen bottle around with me. Of course the amount of stress I am going through at the moment with my, pretty much, forced ill-health retirement and my sudden drop in income of around 23,000 pounds per year has guaranteed that I need to continue taking the blood pressure medicine irrespective of my heart issues.

I’ve just realised that not only have I taken the “long way around the barn,” but I’ve also taken the journey via a “slow boat to China.” I will get to the point I promise.

As every “ex-smoker” knows when you watch television or a film you notice every time an actor lights up and starts smoking a cigarette. In fact it looks like the entire cast of Boardwalk Empire chain smokes. They don’t just chain smoke, they also smoke filter-less cigarettes, which of course they would.

And don’t forget that tasty strychnine and cyanide!

This was the era of Lucky Strike and Camel and Chesterfields and all the other brands that helped America to fill their passion for smoking. Adverts are everywhere along the boardwalk of Atlantic City and everyone, it seems, smokes like there is no tomorrow. While watching the pilot episode I noticed that the actors were smoking a fag and then putting it out. This was followed by immediately lighting up another one.

At one point during the pilot episode I turned to my daughter Meg and said, “Just watching those guys’ makes my chest hurt.” But people smoked like that back then, and by back then I mean when smoking was not the leprous activity that it is considered now. I remember when I was a kid; people had cigarette boxes (or cigar boxes) with a “communal” lighter in their house for guests. Ashtrays adorned every room and you grew up getting acclimatized to the smell of smoke and ash.

Now it’s different, shockingly so. As I watch the remainder of the first season my heart goes out to the actors. I think about the amount of un-filtered cigarettes that they are alternatively puffing on and inhaling via someone else’s smoke and it does indeed make my chest hurt. That is, unfortunately, one of the hazards of the acting profession. I know that the Canadian actor who worked on the TV series The X-files as the Cancer Man (titled that by David Duchovny’s character) smoked herbal cigarettes through the entire series. Very commendable until you realize that herbal fags smell horrible and taste even worse. So while it might have been healthier, it stunk far worse than real cigarettes do.

I just wonder if I would have noticed the amount of folks smoking and the astronomical numbers of cigarettes being smoked in the TV series if I had not quit in August. I have a feeling that I probably would not and that I probably would have enjoyed the show that little bit more. But be that as it may, I’ll continue to watch the show and keep trying to figure out brand names are on the cigarette packet. Not that I’m looking all that hard…

1920’s deadly sophistication.

Take notice of the film Take Shelter

 

After my abysmal experience watching the 2011 version of The Thing, I was going to give films a rest for a while.  But like a cowboy who’s been thrown off his horse, I decided to get right back in the saddle. I’m glad I did. Because if I had not, I would have missed the brilliance that is Take Shelter.

This brilliant “little” film was noticed by my daughter Meg. She had seen a trailer and it  piqued her interest. We decided to check it out. Am I glad we did.

Take Shelter is a film written and directed by relative newcomer Jeff Nicols. It stars Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain and Shea Whigham. Michael Shannon, fresh from working on Boardwalk Empire, gives a more than impressive performance as Curtis. Curtis is a typical “every-man” who is suffering from violent and intense dreams – or are they visions? He is also beginning to hear things. Jessica Chastain  plays his loving wife, who despite her anger and frustration at her husbands strange behaviour, supports him as much as she can. Shea Whigham is Curtis’s best friend who he has a falling out with. Tova Stewart gives an absolutely delightful performance as Curtis’s hearing impaired daughter.

I have, after watching this film, become a Michael Shannon fan-boy. He has an “old fashioned” look about him. He makes me think of a cross between two late actors, Vic Morrow and Chuck Conners. *Shannon is actually six feet three inches tall* He is well know for playing “twitchy” characters. I do know that he made me really care about his character. In fact all the main actors gave me the feeling that they were folks I have known or worked with.

The visions (?) that Curtis sees deal  a lot with some kind of super storm. He decides that he must improve their tornado shelter. Despite losing his job and not being able to afford it he continues with his improvement plan. He is also beginning to suspect that his visions are really some sort of mental illness. I cannot go any further into the plot of the film for fear of giving too much away.

This film looked beautiful. The cinematography is stunning and crisp. The writing is perfect, it allows the actors to fully flesh out their characters and gives the viewers a tense emotional ride. We spend almost the entire film worrying about whether Curtis is nuts or if he really knows something that no one else does.

I always judge how good a film is by how I feel when it reaches the end frame. If I immediately want to watch it again, I know it is a brilliant film. When Take Shelter finished, I did want to see it all over again.

Take Shelter is a little hard to fit into a genre, but, it definitely should be seen. It is a real shame that something this good did not even receive a nod at the Oscars.