The Shape of Water – Film Review

Describe The Shape of Water and it sounds creepy and perverse. The story of a mute woman who falls in love with a slimy, jagged-toothed sea monster should be the set-up to a low-budget porno-version of The Creature from the Black Lagoon rather than a front-runner for 2018’s Best Picture Oscar. Watch it, though, and you’ll be mesmerised by an emotionally absorbing story that delicately balances terror and tenderness into a heartbreaking tale of love, loss and liberation that might just be Guillermo del Toro’s best film since Pan’s Labyrinth.

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Set in 1960s Baltimore, the air is thick with Cold War paranoia. Race riots are raging across the city and government spies seem to lurk around every corner while the US and the Russians bid to out-do each other in a race for military superiority. Into this bleak, clandestine world steps Sally Hawkins’ Elisa. The mute cleaner of a secret underground lab, she splits her days between absorbing the troubles of her closeted gay neighbour (Richard Jenkins) and brassy African American colleague (Octavia Spencer). It’s no wonder she needs to start the day with a bit of ‘bath-time release‘.

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When Elisa learns that her superiors are keeping a newly-discovered sea monster imprisoned in a water tank, she finds herself inexplicably attracted to the creature and slowly forms a close bond with him. Their blossoming romance is threatened by the arrival of a ruthless government agent (Michael Shannon, excellent as a vile and vicious man of power) who wants to rip the creature to pieces to learn its secrets. Together with the facility’s kindly head scientist, Elisa hatches a plan to set the creature free before the government is finished with its experiments.

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With such a fantastical premise, the visuals are surprisingly unpretentious. The sight of raindrops dancing in time to the glide of fingertips or an entire apartment submerged in bath water are merely whimsical flourishes to an otherwise wistfully elegant tale. Like Pan’s Labyrinth, these flights of fantasy and romance are punctured by moments of horror and violence to remind us of the cold, brutal, world that exists right outside our windows. The real monsters of this story are the power-hungry men who seek to exploit those who are weak and vulnerable in order to satisfy their own greed. Sadly, modern parallels shouldn’t be too hard to find.

Yet del Toro is in a far too hopeful a mood to let fear and oppression be the overriding emotions of his film, and The Shape of Water bursts with the deeply-felt chemistry between its two leads.

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Doug Jones, as he so often does, projects great swells of pathos through the scales and gills of his ethereal creature. Meanwhile, Hawkins is utterly captivating as Elisa. Without uttering a word, she creates a complex, endearing character – one who’s quiet, intelligent and passionately forceful – through physical gestures alone. Just one subtle tweak to the muscles in her beautifully expressive face can convey more emotion and meaning than most actors can muster during an Aaron Sorkin-penned monologue. So believable is their tenderness and affection, you never once question that a woman would fall in love with a cat-eating sea monster. Their genuine bond keeps us in a thrall even as the plot plunges towards despair and destruction.

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And plunge it most certainly does, as Elisa and her band of forgotten souls stage a daring escape from the facility, culminating in a gut-wrenchingly tense climax that will shake the tear ducts of even the most hardened cinemagoer. It might sound strange, but The Shape of Water has to be seen to be truly understood, in all its boundless beauty.

Runtime: 123 mins (approx.)
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Screenwriters: Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor
Stars: Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer

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Coco – Film Review

One of the most colourful and joyfully mesmerising occasions in the world, Dia de los Muertos has provided a vibrant, otherworldly backdrop to everything from Amblin-esque TV movies to epic romances to exhilarating action thrillers. Few, if any, of those movies can claim to have brought to life Mexico’s annual celebration of the dead with as much warmth, nuance and captivating flair as Coco, though. Pixar’s latest astounding animation ambitiously and affectingly blends cultural admiration, gorgeous visuals and lively musical numbers into a heart-tugging triumph.

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Our hero is Miguel (Gonzalez), a 12-year-old boy who yearns to sing and play the guitar like his idol Ernesto de la Cruz (Bratt). The only problem is that his family has been forbidden to enjoy or play music ever since Miguel’s great-great-grandmother was left heartbroken when her musician husband abandoned her to pursue his passion.

Determined not to remain trapped in this mariachi Footloose, Miguel plans to run away with the stolen guitar of his musical hero but instead winds up trapped in the Land of the Dead. Unable to return home until a deceased ancestor gives him a blessing, Miguel teams up with boney hustler Hector (Bernal) to find his relative and make it back to the world of the living before he’s forgotten by his family.

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Throughout, Coco is a loving tribute to Mexican culture, with references to local foods and customs bursting out of every scene. Ofrendas (shrines to passed family members) are a pivotal thematic touchstone, while Alebrijes (folk art sculptures of mythical creatures) are turned into fantastically entertaining characters. Even the entire voice cast has South America heritage – with the natural exception of Pixar mainstay John Ratzenberger – such is the commitment to breathing Mexican traditions into every sinew of this story.

It’s exquisitely animated, too, the kaleidoscopic city of the dead and the floating bridges of shimmering marigolds being the most obviously spectacular showpieces. Yet it’s the smaller details that truly take your breath away: the weathered skin of elderly relatives, worn and etched with memories; the warm glow of a melting candle; or the scuffed cobbled streets of Santa Cecilia, so authentic that it requires a double take when you see a cartoon boy racing across them.

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Such beauty will help to keep you captivated when the bum notes are inevitably struck. The middle chunk of the movie falls flat as Miguel and Hector become trapped in a mechanical series of underwhelming hijinks, lurching across the city in search of Miguel’s ancestors. It’s telling that this lull comes when Coco adheres closest to formula, hitting all the usual beats with familiar a timing and rhythm. Suddenly, there’s less energy and charming authenticity, and the pace drags as a result.

Yet when every thing is played in tune, Coco is a lively, breezily entertaining adventure filled with clever gags, endearing characters and some exceptionally ear-worming songs curtesy of Frozen’s Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez. At it’s very core, though, is a complex, thoughtful story about a young boy coming to terms with death and learning to cherish his loved ones. And when it gently eases into its touchingly tender resolution, everyone watching will need to wipe a tear from their eye… even a skeleton.

Runtime: 105 mins (prox.)
Director: Lee Unkrich
Screenwriters: Adrian Molina, Matthew Aldrich
Stars: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach

The Post – Film review

“We can’t have an administration dictating to us our coverage just because they don’t like what we print about them in our newspaper,” growls Tom Hanks’ grizzled newspaper guy Ben Bradlee in this 70s-set thriller about the leaked Pentagon Papers. It’s a statement you can picture modern-day newspaper editors the world over muttering, arriving as this film does in an era when Donald Trump’s White House brands every unfavourable story as ‘fake news’. You get the sense that Steven Spielberg knows it, too. In fact, so keenly aware is he of The Post’s pertinence and prescience, his story often trips over its own self-importance, undermining an otherwise compelling, finely crafted film.

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For those unfamiliar, the Pentagon Papers were a 7,000 page report on the United States’ involvement in Vietnam between 1945 and 1967. The key finding within the damning documents claimed the US government knew they couldn’t win the war, yet continued to send troops into battle rather than admit an embarrassing defeat. Needless to say, officials were not keen for the report to be made public. So when the papers got their hands on them, the Nixon government issued a ban on publication, kicking-off a legal challenge that went all the way to the Supreme Court.

The Post focuses mostly on The Washington Post’s role in the eventual publication of the papers. Namely, the internal wrangling between Bradlee and his publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) over whether to risk bankruptcy and possible prison by running the story or to suppress the findings and allow the government to get away with one of the greatest scandals in American political history.

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Hanks is magnetic as Bradlee, perfectly encapsulating the legendary editor’s swagger as he prowls through the newsroom, energised by the burr of breaking news and the clacking of typewriter keys. It’s an infatuation with old school journalism that’s clearly shared by Spielberg, who drools over the age-old practicalities of newspaper journalism, turning the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of operating a printing press into a beautifully soothing display of operatic craftsmanship. The director also brings plenty of visual panache to proceedings, using inventive angles and motifs to enliven otherwise drab scenes of journalists and businessmen debating in boardrooms, bedrooms and huddled over payphones.

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It’s Streep’s Graham who is the emotional fulcrum of the story, though. The United States’ first female newspaper publisher, Graham is initially lost in a male-dominated environment: walking unnoticed into boardrooms, spoken over in meetings, undermined by her colleagues when they think she’s out of earshot. Streep affectingly and compellingly portrays Graham’s struggle for respect, turning fumbling hand gestures into a steely grasp as she gradually finds her voice and takes charge of the decision over wether to publish the papers.

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If only Spielberg could resist the urge to over-egg the resonance of the film’s themes and ideals. All too often, potentially powerful moments are bludgeoned by cheap cinematic tricks that serve to detract rather than enhance the drama. One scene, which sees Graham striding out of court to meet a crowd of empowered, independent women, strives for poignancy but comes across as a hackneyed attempt to curry favour with Oscar voters.

Nevertheless, The Post is a timely reminder of the value of a free press – one that “serves the governed, not the governors” and warns those in charge that an abuse of power will not go unchecked. And that’s an important, moving and powerful message with which everyone can resonate. No tricks required.

Runtime: 116 mins (approx.)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenwriters: Liz Hannah, Josh Singer
Stars: Tom Hank, Meryl Streep, Bob Odenkirk, Matthew Rhys

 

Darkest Hour – Film Review

Of all the actors who’ve portrayed Sir Winston Churchill, few castings have caused the turning of heads quite like Gary Oldman. A career spent lending his lean, sinewy frame to such rebellious outcasts as Sid Vicious and Lee Harvey Oswald is hardly ideal preparation for playing the jowly, growly titan of British politics, after all. Yet what Oldman lacks in physique, he more than compensates with energy and physicality, superbly capturing the dogged determination of his often larger-than-life subject with greater nuance, depth and, yes, weight than ever before. If only Darkest Hour provided a similarly compelling film to match his absorbing performance.

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Scripted by A Theory of Everythings Anthony McCarten, Darkest Hour is focused on Churchill’s remarkable skills as an orator, pivoting around three crucial speeches he gave over a four-week period in 1940. With Hitler’s forces rampant and Western Europe on the brink, the newly-installed PM comes under pressure to strike a peace deal with the Nazi regime. Refusing to submit to the tyranny of a vicious dictator, Churchill resolves to fight on, placing him in opposition with the King, his political enemies and his own conscience.

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It’s striking to see how convincingly Oldman captures the eccentricity and blustering energy of the notoriously theatrical Churchill. Complimented by considerable, though not overbearing, prosthetics, Oldman’s Churchill barrels through the halls of Westminster, swivels on his heels at the despatch box, and barks orders to his amiable secretary (a spirited Lily James) while sloshing about in the tub or “sealed within the privy”. It’s no wonder many of Churchill’s peers considered him to be an embarrassing liability.

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His performance is no mere caricature, though, exploring Churchill’s fears and flaws with affecting subtlety and empathy. As the situation in Dunkirk becomes more desperate and his adversaries, led by Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), try to steer him towards opening peace talks with Germany, Churchill becomes beset by doubt, plunging into a ‘black dog’ depression as he questions his thinking. Is the war already lost? Is he needlessly sending young men to die? Is his risking the lives of the British people by refusing to negotiate?

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So much of this plays out exactly as you’d expect – hushed meetings in gloomily-lit corridors, cigar-chomping ruminations over war maps, an unexpected arrival to rouse Churchill when all seems lost. And that’s the problem with Darkest Hour: it’s a decent story, engagingly told and with compelling performances, but it lacks an emotive spark to truly make an impact. While director Joe Wright imbues scenes with plenty of visual flair – one stunning motif sees Churchill frequently boxed in by inky-black darkness, everything hinges on Oldman’s powerhouse performance. The pace noticeably dips whenever he’s off screen.

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You sense Wright knows as much, which is why he wisely keeps the camera in lockstep with Churchill’s hustle, prowling alongside him as Oldman drives the drama forward through sheer force of will. It’s telling, then, that when looking for a climactic event, Wright chooses to avoid the more obviously cinematic evacuation of Dunkirk. Instead, he once again draws in on Oldman’s Churchill, stripping everything else away as he delivers a final, soaringly evocative speech to rouse not only his fellow politicians, but an entire nation of fight on in the face of terrible adversity. Gary Oldman playing Winston Churchill? Turns out they’re a perfect match.

Runtime: 125 mins (approx.)
Director: Joe Wright
Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten
Stars: Gary Oldman, Lily James, Stephen Dillane, Kristin Scott Thomas

Molly’s Game – Film Review

In Molly’s Game, Aaron Sorkin may have found the Sorkiniest of material with which to make his directorial debut. Based on the eponymous memoir, the tale of Molly Bloom’s journey from wealthy poker hostess to the centre of an FBI money laundering investigation is a dense, dramatic, exceedingly talky affair that bristles with murky morals, corrupt officials, legal machinations and a sleazy tabloid media – all told through the glitzy prism of celebrity poker. It’s also Sorkin’s most progressive and surprisingly feminist piece work to date, celebrating the courageous resolve of one talented woman who repeatedly suffers at the hands of powerful men and keeps pulling herself back up.

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Jessica Chastain is Bloom, a former competitive skier who, following a devastating knee injury, heads to Los Angeles in search of a fresh start. There she winds up working for a Hollywood slimeball who puts her in charge of running his weekly celebrity poker game. Though wildly successful, Bloom quickly grows frustrated with the unbalanced power differential and decides to strike out on her own. Soon she’s running the hottest game in the world and living lavishly off the extravagant tips of her high-rolling clients, which include movie stars, athletes, business tycoons and members of the Russian mafia. And that’s when the FBI come calling…

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What unfolds is 140-minutes of slick, compulsively absorbing courtroom drama as Bloom battles the competing threats of the FBI, a public smear campaign and pressure from her own lawyer to spill the beans on her clients in order to avoid serving jail time. Working behind the camera for the first time, Sorkin keeps things simple, restricting the action to drab, windowless rooms that lock in the tension, allowing his snappy screenplay take centre stage. Every scene crackles with Sorkin’s familiar rat-a-tat-tat rhythm and rapid-fire dialogue, which more than compensate for the lack of visual panache.

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It also doesn’t hurt to have an actor as utterly compelling as Chastain in the lead role. While her co-stars perform effectively in entertaining, if largely one-note roles, Chastain is sensational as the resilient, beleaguered Bloom. Far from the trashy party-girl depicted in the tabloids, the movie reveals Bloom to be a richly complex character. She’s incredibly intelligent, hard-working and fiercely ambitious, having built a multi-million dollar business using little more than her wits; yet she’s also an aggressive, antagonist alcoholic who sought to profit off the addictions of others. Chastain plays these hidden depths superbly, lending pathos and emotional strength to someone who has been misrepresented, mistreated and mistrusted by everyone around her and yet remains true to her moral convictions.

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It’s Molly’s defiance that will likely prove difficult for viewers to accept, especially in the wake of the recent sexual misconduct allegations that have swept Hollywood. While her determination to defend her reputation is understandable, the fact that this requires her to protect the misdeeds and abuses of powerful men makes her stance feel less admirable. More uncomfortable still is a late hint at a possible redemption for these men. In the end, Molly is saved not by her own talents and intelligence, but by the benevolence of a group of old men who take pity on her. How audiences react to that will determine whether Molly’s Game possesses a winning hand or a busted flush.

Runtime: 140 mins (approx.)
Screenwriter/director: Aaron Sorkin
Stars: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera

Bright – Film Review

Sometimes a premise is so unavoidably eye-catching that the resultant movie all but sells itself. Netflix’s Bright is a prime example, pitching an darkly comic alternate reality where fairytale creatures live uncomfortably alongside humans in modern-day Los Angeles. It’s basically Lord of the Rings meets Training Day, only with the sight of Will Smith bludgeoning a fairy with a broomstick thrown in for good measure. Sadly, the end result fails to live up to the expectation, resulting in a clumsy and confusing cop-comedy-fantasy-thriller-social-drama unable to blend its mish-mashed parts into an entertaining whole.

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All credit to director David Ayer (Suicide Squad) and screenwriter Max Landis (Chronicle) for crafting such a vivid, richly imaginative world. Two thousand years after humans banded with mythical creatures to defeat the Dark Lord, the victors have neatly divided into social factions. Elves are the elites, gliding through their glitzy gated community in sleek sports cars. Orcs are the thuggish underclass, dismissed and discriminated against by everyone for picking the losing side during the war. And humans, it seems, are somewhere in the middle, grinding out a living by doing the jobs no-one else wants to do.

While there’s a lot of clever ideas at play here – the notoriously mischievous fairies are depicted as pesky insects who need to be exterminated – it often feels like we’ve only scratched the surface of what this word has to offer. Key concepts such as a secret prophecy and the existence of brights, magic users who are closely regulated by federal forces, are introduced and then left frustratingly underdeveloped.

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The story is similarly underfed. Following the fine buddy cop movie tradition of chalk-and-cheese police pairings, Smith’s grouchy Daryl Ward is forced to partner with Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton), the force’s first orc officer. But when a routine call lands the pair in possession of a magical wand, the movie shifts into an plodding chase movie as Ward and Jakoby race aimlessly across a gloomy Los Angeles pursued by corrupt cops, federal agents, an orc blood cult and Noomi Repace’s evil ninja elves. Quite why Lucy Fry’s waifish-looking elf also tags along for the ride is also never made clear.

Such a busy plot, coupled with Ayer’s typically frenetic pacing, leaves little time for the characters to flourish. Edgerton does well to imbue his orc with kindness, humility and pride from beneath a mound of prosethetics, yet the pain of being shunned by his own kind and the tumult of having to choose between his people and his badge never quite ring true. Smith, meanwhile, is merely required to shoot stuff and crack wise like a creaking Mike Lowrey, with little attention paid to his family struggles or his past troubles with the orc community.

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That also means that Bright’s admirable attempts at social commentary also fall flat. The notion of using mythical creatures to shine a light on our own social divisions is an effective, if not wholly original device, but it seems that Landis’ has nothing new to say on the subject, save for the fact that some people are unfortunate to be born without privilege. It’s almost as if a wealthy white man might not be best placed to explore the nuances of racial tensions.

The strongest moments, as they so often do with buddy cop movies, come when Smith and Edgerton are exchanging banter in their cop car. Like when Jakoby correctly surmises that Ward isn’t getting enough sex, just by examining the look on his face. It’s a smart, funny, entirely honest scene that reveals much more about their personalities and relationships than any cartridge-showering shootout ever could.

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Perhaps the movie would’ve been better served spending more time with these two misfit cops, rolling around this vibrantly magical world trading swipes about the sorry state of their Iives. Now there’s a bright idea…

Runtime: 117 mins (approx.)
Director: David Ayer
Screenwriter: Max Landis
Stars: Will Smith, Joel Edgerton, Noomi Repace, Lucy Fry

 

The Greatest Showman – Film Review

Of all the ‘human curiosities’ showcased in his famed New York circus, none was more beguiling and intriguing than P. T. Barnum himself. Born into a life of grinding poverty, the legendary showman fought his way from homeless hoaxster to wealthy founder of one of the most audacious variety shows the world had ever seen.

If The Greatest Showman struggles to capture the complexities of such a man, who supported the abolition of slavery yet sought to profit from the humiliation of those on the fringes of society, it undoubtedly succeeds in dazzling with a Barnum-style sense of joyous spectacle – delivering soaring musical numbers and a virtuoso performance from a full-blooded Hugh Jackman.

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After a swift introduction to our subject in his pomp, we race back to Barnum’s childhood as a penniless dreamer who nevertheless manages to woo local rich-girl Charity (Michelle Williams) with promises of a remarkable life. Yet the next 25 years bring nothing but dead-end jobs and missed opportunities, until Barnum spots the chance to con his way into a bank loan and buys a failing waxwork museum.

He promptly fills the crumbling building with a collection of unique individuals – including a bearded lady, the diminutive Tom Thumb and the world’s fattest man – to great financial success. But when his popularity still fails to grant him a seat among American high society, Barnum gambles everything he has – including his marriage – to embark on a high-class tour of the country’s opera houses with beguiling Swedish singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson).

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The film breezes through its plot in under two hours, so its hardly a shock that there’s no time for a more nuanced look at Barnum’s success and the troubled lives of his circus attractions. Instead we’re served a hackneyed rags-to-riches journey filled with mawkish themes of family and inclusivity as Barnum, blinded by his success, forgets what’s truly important – an undemanding arc where the dramatic beats are so clearly telegraphed you’ll barely need to pay attention to the story.

That turns out to be no bad thing as you’ll be so transfixed by the spectacular set-pieces on show that you won’t be able to focus on anything else. The film delivers a succession of foot-stompingly catchy songs (the soaring This is me is a highlight, swelling with emotion and a pop-tinged chorus that invites you to sing along) written by La La Land’s Pasek and Paul, which first-time director Michael Gracey deftly choreographs with splashes of lavish colour and glitzy flourishes. And at the centre of it all is an effervescent Jackman as the unshakable Barnum – a whirlwind of burning ambition, brash charisma and twinkling charm who commands attention in every scene.

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Like the outlandish carnival of entertainment from which it drew inspiration, The Greatest Showman is unlikely to garner much warmth from critics thanks to its reliance on hoary cliches and underwhelming plot. Yet, for the rest of us, there’s something undoubtedly charming and really quite moving about a film where everyone involved pours their heart and soul into welcoming the masses and sending them home with a big smile across their faces. Mr Barnum would be proud.

Runtime: 105 mins (approx.)
Director: Michael Gracey
Screenwriters: Jenny Bicks, Bill Condon
Stars: Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson, Zac Efron