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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Happy Death Day – Film Review

It’s a rare occasion when a great performance manages to elevate an otherwise sucky movie. The likes of Nicholas Cage and Eva Green have made careers out of the art – but very few others have managed to pop up out of the mess and do something truly special to make their movie watchable. Jessica Rothe does just that in Happy Death Day, her full-blooded performance turning an otherwise forgettably bloodless teen slasher movie into a genuine thrill.

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Rothe plays Teresa – or Tree for short – an irresponsible college student whose birthday – a day she already loathes – gets off to the worst possible start when she wakes up hungover in the dorm room of her adorably dorky one-night-stand. Naturally, things get progressively worse for Tree in the ensuing 24 hours as she endures repeated calls from her disappointed dad, snarky snipping from her sorority sisters and the needy advnaces of her sexually confused ex. Oh yeah, and she gets murdered in a campus underpass by a baby-faced psychopath. But then she wakes up, stuck in the same day, unable to to break the cycle until she finds her killer.

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Few surprises lay ahead in this slasher horror meets teen comedy as Tree naively barrels into every cliche in the horror cannon in her attempt to Live.Die.Repeat her way to uncovering her killer’s identity. There’s enough walking through darkly lit corridors and fleeing into obvious dead ends that genre aficionados will likely suffer a repetitive strain injury from the amount of eye rolling they’ll be doing. The lack of invention wouldn’t be so problematic if Tree’s many deaths weren’t so scare-free and gore-less. That’s the key flaw with this Groundhog Day-aping format: we already know she’ll wake up again so we have no reason to fear her next impending demise – especially as it appears it’ll be largely painless.

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Thankfully, Rothe is the movie’s saving grace. Whether she’s strutting across a college campus in the nude, delivering brilliantly bitchy one-liners with venomous aplomb or going full Sarah Connor in her attempts to defeat her killer, Tree is a fireball of badass energy that actually makes the movie a fun, spirited watch for 90 minutes. It’s also pretty refreshing to see a female action hero being so unafraid to be unlikeable and confident in her sexuality – at least until she’s bizarrely slut-shamed by an incomprehensible third act twist. It’s just a shame that the rest of the movie doesn’t share her boldness.

Runtime: 96 mins (approx.)
Director: Christopher Landon
Screenwriter: Scott Lobdell
Stars: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Charles Aitken

Mother! – Film Review

Whether it’s Jennifer Connelly’s desperate drug addict in Requiem for a Dream or Natalie Portman’s barmy ballerina in Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky seems to draw an almost sadistic thrill from dragging his desirable female leads through hell. Even so, the torment inflicted upon Jennifer Lawrence’s titular Mother in the director’s latest psychological horror is beyond anything we’ve seen before.

A dense, deranged and distressingly breathtaking piece of art, it’s no wonder Mother! has polarised critics, with many praising it’s sickening beauty and others dismissing its befuddling plot as nothing more than auteuristic twaddle. The truth, as if often does in these cases, lies somewhere in the middle. Mother! is an undoubtedly astounding work of artistic vision, both horrific and mesmerising; but in his haste to disturb and disorientated his audience, Aronofsky loses sight of exactly what he’s trying to say.

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The movie starts off in compelling fashion, resembling a slow-burn chamber piece as Lawrence’s Mother devotedly restores the previously gutted home she shares with her husband (Javier Bardem), a poet wrestling with his latest work. Their idyllic seclusion is disrupted by the unexpected arrival of Ed Harris’ wheezing doctor and, the next day, his boozed-up wife (Michelle Pfeiffer). Invited to stay for as long as they like by Bardem, the destructive couple make themselves comfortable, breaking precious heirlooms and asking invasive questions. It’s not long before Mother starts to worry that her husband has opened the door to something far worse than passing strangers.

Aronofsky’s direction is masterfull in these early scenes, gently dialling up the tension and paranoia by drip-feeding jarring sounds (amplified by the absence of a soundtrack) and unsettling images as Mother’s anxieties take shape. And unsettling is most certainly the right word. Like Hogwarts, if J.K. Rowling had written the Harry Potter series while suffering a bad trip on LSD, the house has a mischievous life of its own. The walls shake, the doors don’t lock, and the floors ooze blood from human-like orifices. Despite her desire to make it a model home, Mother is a prisoner here, never leaving the confines of the house and shot either in tight close-up or from her own dizzying perspective. It’s a claustrophobic experience, but also an exhilarating one.

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Not that any of it prepares you for a brutal and bewildering final act that’s the closest thing to an actual living nightmare ever committed to film. Time seems to lose all meaning as the walls shift and mutate in the blink of an eye and all manner of frightening apparitions storm the scene, culminating in one sequence so vile and vicious, it will likely be too grotesque for many.

The technical skill on display here is impressive, with Aronofsky seamlessly mashing together a discordant collection of genres and influences. Yet, as his visual ambitions expand and become weirder, he loses sight of his story. Mother! works best as an intimate study of maternal anxiety, with Lawrence powerless to prevent the dangerous forces of the world from invading her perfect home and laying ruin to everything she holds dear.

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But as Aronofsky’s roller-coaster of bizarre despair shifts into overdrive, he over complicates matters by throwing even more ideas into the mix. Religion, family, sexuality and the crumbling of civilisation are all exposed and plastered across the screen. Still, Aronofsky saves his most scathing work for a self-loathing portrait of the creative process as Bardem’s blocked artist becomes increasingly frustrated by his inability to find inspiration.

It’s this theme that eventually overwhelms and derails the plot. As the focus shifts more and more towards Bardem’s creations, Lawrence’s angelic Mother gets lost in the maelstrom, losing her voice and agency until she is little more than a (at times literal) punchbag for Bardem’s creative ambitions.

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There’s no denying that Mother! is a bold and unforgettable visual masterpiece, but as soon as Lawrence’s compelling presence fades into the background, the film descends into a cold, hollow mess of vivid imagery that lacks purpose or meaning. It seems that, like his onscreen counterpart, Aronofsky is guilty of letting the embers of a good idea burn out before that’ve truly caught fire.

Runtime: 121 mins (approx.)
Director/Screenwriter: Darren Aronofsky
Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer

 

It – film review

For those who’ve ever pondered what the resultant movie would’ve looked like had Stephen Spielberg directed The Exorcist in 1973, Andy Muchietti’s It might be the closest you’ll get to the real thing. Pitched somewhere between The Goonies and E.T., if either of those movies had a penchant for perma-grinning demonic clowns or severed toddler arms being munched on like breadsticks, this latest adaptation of Stephen King’s classic tome is a heartfelt coming-of-age yarn that will pin you to your seat – even if it doesn’t always rattle your bones with fear.

Barring a few slight differential nods, this new version immediately sets itself apart from the Tim Curry-starring TV movie of 1990 by making some smart updates to the source material. Discarding the cumbersome back-and-forth timelines (saving the grown-up part of the story for a planned sequel), Muchietti shifts the action forward from the quaint 1950s to an Amblin-inspired 80s that often makes it feel like we’ve mistakenly dropped in on the set of Netflix’s Stranger Things.

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Like that TV show, It hones in on a band of young outsiders, each with their own identifiable dysfunction. There’s Richie, the class joker; Ben, the chubby new kid on the block; Miles, the orphaned son of a sheep farmer; Eddie, a germaphobic mama’s boy; Stan, whose dad is a rabbi; Bev, the snarky token female of the group; and stuttering B-B-Bill, whose little brother was believed to have drowned during a heavy storm.

Though it leads to a rather baggy and cliche-riddled opening third, Muchietti’s devotion to developing each member of The Losers Club pays off to great effect when the gang eventually face-off against Bill Skarsgard’s titular supernatural being. Each kid has their own frightening encounter with Pennywise, who often takes the form of their greatest fears.

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While the fright-factor of these encounters is fairly hit or miss – Bev’s bloody grapple with a tangle of sentient drain hair is chest-poundingly terrifying, while Eddie’s tussle with a decaying patient feels rote by comparison – they’re still intensely gripping throughout, the horrifying effect amplified because we understand the personal stakes for each kid and feel invested in their survival.

It helps that the entire cast are superb throughout, each perfectly capturing the carefree recklessness of youth and the paralysing fear of impending adulthood that courses through the veins of every adolescent.

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And then there’s Pennywise. Though Tim Curry’s iconic performance will continue to linger long in the memory, Skarsgard has successfully carved out his own distinct interpretation of the unhinged child killer. With his oversized porcelain dome, puffy cheeks, protruding bottom lip and grubby Victorian garb, Pennywise is a triumph of make-up and design. Yet it’s the subtle nuances in Skarsgard’s performance that really draw you in and disturb. The realisation that It’s eyes aren’t looking in the same direction as Skarsgard executes that slight malevolent smirk and a bead of drool drips from his chunky fangs will unsettle even the toughest of moviegoers.

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The only disappointment is that the resultant horrors don’t quite match the insidious power of Skarsgard’s performance. Muchietti leans heavily on well-worn horror tropes, with jump scares, spooky empty rooms and bone-snapping body horror all getting a thorough airing here. The practical effects work is mightily impressive, but the set-pieces themselves so often fail to elicit a stir simply because we’re so familiar with how they will play out. It’s telling that the most chilling scenes of all are the moments when the kids are subjected to real-life horrors, whether it’s a harrowing encounter with a rabid school bully or the uncomfortable touches of Bev’s lecherous father. Proof that sometimes the suggestion of evil can be even more potent that the real thing.

Nevertheless, It works surprisingly well as a standalone movie – a rarity in these times of tentpole blockbusters, unleashing an emotionally affecting tale that effectively relays the horror in King’s original novel while amplifying its heart. How Muchietti will make the second part as entertaining and satisfying is anyone’s guess, but the very prospect has us grinning like a bloodthirsty demonic clown whose just spotted his next victim.

Runtime: 133 mins (approx.)
Director: Andy Muchietti
Screenwriters: Chase Palmer, Gary Dauberman, Cary Fukunaga
Stars: Bill Skarsgard, Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Taylor, Sophie Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Grazer