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.

Bone Tomahawk (2015) Kurt Russell & Cannibals (Review)

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The mark of any good film is the urge to immediately watch it again after viewing. “Bone Tomahawk,” with Kurt Russell battling cannibals, is one such film. With just enough truth in the production to make is stand out as a straight up western, this horror film combines genres even better than the 2008 film The Burrowers.

While the earlier western/horror had some pretty imaginative “boogeymen” this film takes from American history to bring a Native American tribe of cannibals to life, with a little poetic license, in an area quite close to where a real tribe of cannibalistic warriors existed; the Kronks.

(Anyone wanting to read more about this tribe can check out Mike Cox’s “The Texas Rangers” ‘Wearing the Cinco Peso 1821 -1900’ where he goes into detail about the group, which both the Spaniard’s and the other tribes feared; the Karankawa – called Troglodytes in the film.)

Written and directed by S. Craig Zahler (his first effort in the director’s chair) and starring Russell, Patrick Wilson, Richard Jenkins, Matthew FoxDavid Arquette and a splendid cameo by Sid Haig, this is a cracking film. In terms of cast, the film is rounded out by Lili Simmons, who plays Mrs. O’Dwyer, Wilson’s wife and there are three more well-known actors in cameos: Zahn McClarnon, as The Professor, Sean Young, as the Mayor’s wife, and James Tolkan, as the tired pianist.

At the start of the film, which is set in the mid 1800s, two literal cut-throat bandits, Haig and Arquette are busy murdering a small camp of men who are  sleeping. A gunshot alerts  a mounted group of men and the two escape on foot in the surrounding hills.  Buddy (Haig)  is killed and Purvis (Arquette) runs away in terror.

Time passes and the town of Bright Hope, where Sheriff Hunt (Russell) is the law with a deputy (Nick) and “reserve deputy” (Chicory played by Jenkins) and the man does not suffer fools or insolence gladly.  O’Dwyer, the new foreman of the local ranch is laid up with an injured leg and Chicory spots Purvis, on the outskirts of town burying the luggage he and the late Buddy stole earlier.

Hunt braces the odd acting man in the local saloon who tries to run. Hunt shoots him in the leg and as the town doctor is drunk, O’Dwyer’s wife Samantha comes to dig the bullet out. In the morning a stable lad is found murdered and the jail is deserted. Arrows left at the scene implicate a tribe of Native Americans that The Professor calls Troglodytes.

Hunt, Chicory, O’Dwyer (Cowboy) and Brooder ride out to save the deputy and Mrs. O’Dwyer. After a number of hardships, and O’Dwyer repeatedly injuring his leg, the men catch up to the cannibal tribe who outnumber the rescuers and seem other worldly.  The battle ends in capture and things look pretty bleak for the group.

At two hours and 12 minutes the film should have been overly long, however, despite the somewhat slow pace, Zahler keeps thing interesting enough that at no point does the film drag.  The action, which includes some gunplay, a theft of horses and some darned scary predators makes for a compelling experience.

The cast all bring their characters to life in the most delightful way. There are moments of truth scattered throughout and the protagonists all are of the taciturn and stoic breed of yesteryear. Russell, who was born to do westerns (despite his “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes” Disney beginnings) always makes his dialogue sound authentic.

In one scene, after the lawman discovers  that O’Dwyer’s wife has been kidnapped, a local businessman is complaining about his four prize horses being stolen. When he mentions it again,  Russell (as Hunt) stops him mid-sentence:

“You mention horses again and I will slap you red.”

Said with all the authority of Wyatt Earp, Russell makes the line as serious as a heart attack and the bigger man stands disbelieving but does not move against the threat.

The performances are spot on, as is most of the dialogue, and Russell is in good company with Wilson and Fox  working in concert to bring an air of believability to the tale of western  horror. Richard Jenkins however (who actually went unrecognized by this reviewer till the credits) gives a brilliantly odd and quirky, yet honest, performance  as the limping reserve  deputy.

The film has quirkiness to spare. Wilson talks to God throughout, and apologizes to Him when he swears inappropriately. In a film about cannibal Native American’s Hunt constantly worries about how much his companions are eating and the “gunfighter” Brooder manages to be prickly enough to everyone that they miss his humor.

(At one point the gunman claims to be the smartest man in the group because he never married.)

In terms of gore there is a moment, in the lair of the cannibals, where it is pretty horrific but it is not “in your face” and lasts seconds. There are nods to other  films. The troglodytes make one think of the hunters in Predator and there are a few little winks to other western films.

“Bone Tomahawk” looks brilliant, the  lighting is spot on and the framing of each scene is right on the money. There are some things not quite as impressive, some of the sound effects do not  ring tru; , too near the microphone or slightly off and less realistic sounding. The fashion, in terms of headgear is a bit hit and miss but none of these things really matter.

The storyline and the acting move this film forward well enough that any shortcomings are easily ignored or forgotten.

“Bone Tomahawk” is an award winning film and for good reason.  A perfect 5 out of 5 stars for a movie that engrossing, engaging and impossible to stop watching, even for a moment.  It is currently on Amazon and  this western/horror masterpiece  is a must-see film.

The Cabin in the Woods (2011): Wolfram and Hart go Big-Time

It may just be me, but the whole film kind of felt like a huge Angel episode. One where Angel and co have already been defeated by ‘Wolf, Ram and Hart’ and are now running the entire world to their own set of skewed rules. It felt like the ‘bad guys’ had won the battle, but in order to win the war had to keep sacrificing a certain amount of people to hold the ‘ancient ones’ at bay.

It was like this was really the series end of Angel and it showed us that the demonic law corporation was alive and well and holding back the evil gods by the skin of their demonic teeth. Having Whedon regulars like Amy Acker (never a bad thing) and Fran Kranz (a personal favourite after his brilliant role in Dollhouse), not to mention Tom Lenk (it was nice to see him in something other than the Pepsi Max commercials he’s been trapped in), sort of made this film seem like ‘old home week’ already, but add in the massive plot device and the twist at the end of the movie and it still felt a little like an Epilogue to Angel season 5.

But despite the niggly feeling that Eliza Dushku was going to suddenly show up and save the day, I enjoyed the film. The very presence of Richard Jenkins(who gave a star turn as the father figure in the film Let Me In) ensured that the calibre of acting was going to be top notch and it was. I adored the explanation of how the whole thing worked. The ‘participants’ had free-will going for them. Okay the cards were pretty much stacked against them from the get go, but they still had the liberty to misbehave or not. The entire feel of the ‘behind the scenes’ guys was brilliant. Right down to the betting pools on which ‘big bad’ was going to dispatch the group.

The writing was pure Whedon and Goddard gold. The scene where the gas station attendant rings the control room for a strange almost biblical rant. He  stops mid-rant and asks, “Do you have me on speaker-phone?” With much choked back giggling and gestures to keep quiet, the controller talking to the gas station guy says, “Yep, I did. Sorry about that.” He then makes a knocking noise and says, “Okay, you’re off.” Of course gas station guy isn’t off the speaker phone and the giggling and laughing clues him into this. The entire film was worth the price of admission just for this scene alone.

“I told you! I don’t want to talk about Dollhouse!”

It was these type of scenes combined with the subtle action that made the film worth watching. Wendy Lin (Amy Acker) turning up her nose at the office pool and then at the last minute placing her bet. The slow realization that everything is resting on their televised sacrifice show and the pressures and tension that entails. The premature celebrations when they think they’ve won. I could go on but what would be the point?

The film was a brilliant attempt at satirizing the horror/slasher genre that just doesn’t quite work. The film has stand out moments and for my money Fran Kranz stole the show. The Cabin in the Woods was plagued with problems from the get go. The studios who had given the film the green light, then turned around and wanted to first change the format to 3D and then just wanted to get rid of the finished product.  *Interesting to note that the other film the studio was desperate to get rid of was the re-make of Red Dawn. Red Dawn also starred Thor aka Chris Hemsworth. It makes you wonder what the studio was thinking.*

I did also get the feeling that Kristen Connolly was a replacement for Felicia Day who must not have been available for the shooting schedule. I was desperate to see this film and was gutted when I missed it’s cinema run. Watching it last night, I was actually glad that I didn’t see it on the big screen as I don’t think it would have enhanced the experience at all. I am now waiting for the blu-ray copy to come in so that I may see the making of featurettes that I live for.

Goddard, Thor and Whedon

My final verdict is that the film is a must see for Whedon fans, or indeed Goddard fans,  and it’s still very entertaining. It is not a horror film (I thought I’d better warn you) and it only just misses the satire genre. The film is still clever and what we have come to expect from Mssrs Whedon and Goddard.