The Shape of Water (2017)

2018 #256
Guillermo del Toro | 123 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English, American Sign Language & Russian | 15 / R

The Shape of Water

Oscar statue2018 Academy Awards
13 nominations — 4 wins

Won: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Score, Best Production Design.
Nominated: Best Actress (Sally Hawkins), Best Supporting Actor (Richard Jenkins), Best Supporting Actress (Octavia Spencer), Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Costume Design, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing.

I still can’t quite believe a creature-feature fantasy romance won Best Picture. It remains surreal to see a genre movie conquer the Oscars like that. Even The Lord of the Rings, for all its so-Fantasy-it-defined-the-genre-ness, has a lot of the “historical war epic” in its form (not to mention the genre-transcending cultural impact that film trilogy had), and so its win seems less striking than this out-and-out monster movie. Naturally, The Shape of Water doesn’t actually conform to the commonly-understood connotations of what a “monster movie” is, and therein lies what makes it something fresh, and therefore Best Picture material.

In fact, even “Fantasy” isn’t quite the right term for The Shape of Water — “fairy tale” is nearer the mark. It begins with voiceover narration talking about a princess as the camera glides underwater into a room where everything is afloat, including a sleeping woman… until everything gradually settles to the floor, an alarm goes off, and she wakes up — and now it’s just a real room. Except, even then, it’s not really real — it’s storybook-real; movie-real. Almost literally, in the sense that her apartment is above an old-fashioned movie palace. It’s a gorgeously designed set, but it doesn’t feel like somewhere someone would actually live — but it’s only just out of kilter, which is part of why it’s so fantastic. In case you missed it up top, the film also won an Oscar for production design, and that was certainly deserved.

Dreaming

Anyway, the woman in question is Elisa (Sally Hawkins), whose reality could hardly be more distant from that of a fairytale princess: she’s working nights as a cleaner at a government facility, wiping up the splattered piss of “clever men”. She’s also mute, communicating via sign language to her friends, coworker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and down-on-his-luck neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins). Things change when a mysterious new project arrives at the facility. Well, it’s no surprise to say that turns out to be a… kind of… merman… human/fish… being… It’s accompanied by head of security Strickland (Michael Shannon), who hates its guts and desires nothing more than to inflict pain, and scientist Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who is more sympathetic, for his own reasons. But it’s Elisa who, almost accidentally, comes to bond and communicate with the creature, in secret; but as their connection grows, she realises something must be done about its predicament.

I’ve read some reviews that berate Shape of Water for its straightforward storyline — I’ve described a fair chunk of the plot just getting to that point of conflict, and you can probably infer much of the rest. But I think such criticisms miss the point. For one thing, it is not fiction’s only goal to shock us with plot twists. There’s more to storytelling than just surprises, and Shape of Water certainly has more to it. For another, it is quite clearly a fairy tale — albeit an adult-minded one — and those go more-or-less one way. And even then, the events that I thought would form the film’s climax happen at the halfway point, so this viewer was at least somewhat surprised.

Toxic masculinity

So what is there instead? Characters, for one. We don’t get too much backstory on any of them — which is interesting, because apparently del Toro wrote lengthy summaries for the main characters, some running to 40 pages, which were provided to the actors to read and use if they wanted. Whether they embraced them or not, they are all well-judged performances. Hawkins, Spencer, and Jenkins got the nomination nods, but it would’ve been equally at home in the hands of Shannon or Stuhlbarg. And that’s not to mention Doug Jones, who conveys the creature’s emotions with physicality and movement alone — aided by superb prosthetic and CGI technicians, of course. But while the film’s primary focus is on the interspecies love tale he features in, each supporting character has their own subplot to help sketch their personality, and provide meaning and resonance to the main story.

That’s where theme comes into it — intricately linked to the characters, because this is all about outsiders and otherness. The fish-man is the most obvious “other”, with Elisa positioned second (as alluded to earlier, she seems to only have two or three friends and acquaintances she can actually communicate with); but there’s also Zelda, a black woman, and Giles, a gay man — and this is ’60s America, making those statuses even ‘lower’. Plus there’s Dr. Hoffstetler, but that would be a spoiler. Suffice to say, his unique predicament is given a more nuanced portrayal than you’d normally find in American media. All of this exists in counterpoint to Strickland, who’s basically the physical embodiment of toxic masculinity. For a film set in the ’60s, with a lot of Cold War overtones — and in a Fantasy environment, with a supernatural romance at its core — The Shape of Water certainly has a lot of timely relevance.

Something fishy goin' on

But, while you can hold it up as a mirror to the here and now, it also has a timelessness — like all the great fairy tales, of course. It transcends its ’60s setting and its 2010s production to really be about values of humanity — of acceptance —that are always pertinent. By tucking these messages into a fantasy that is most assuredly aimed at adults (it practically contains a laundry list of “things not suitable for children”), del Toro has given depth and meaning to an outlandish movie that, yeah, fundamentally, as the jokes all go, is about a woman fucking a fish.

5 out of 5

The Shape of Water is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Crimson Peak (2015)

2016 #33
Guillermo del Toro | 119 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA & Canada / English | 15 / R

Mia Wasikowska stars opposite a British thesp best known for playing a comic book villain and a red-headed repeat-Oscar-nominee, in a Gothic drama-thriller from an acclaimed non-Anglo director? That’s a description of Stoker, Park “Oldboy” Chan-wook’s modern-Gothic chiller that co-starred Matthew “Watchmen” Goode and Nicole “The Hours” Kidman, which I awarded a five-star review and a place in my top ten last year. It’s also a description of Crimson Peak, Guillermo “Pan’s Labyrinth” Del Toro’s classic-Gothic chiller that co-stars Tom “Thor” Hiddleston and Jessica “Zero Dark Thirty” Chastain, which struggled to find an audience in cinemas last year. That last fact has often been attributed to its marketing, which I presume was as a horror movie (I never watched any of the trailers). It’s understandable the studio went for that, though: they know how to sell horror, but Crimson Peak is actually something more uncommon.

If you’ve not at least heard of The Castle of Otranto then there’s a chance your expectations of Crimson Peak may be misaligned. Which is not to say you won’t like it, especially if you’re of an open-minded disposition, but if having heard it’s “Gothic” and a “horror movie” has conjured up something Hammer-esque in your mind, then you are indeed off base. I think most people hear “Gothic” and automatically extrapolate “Gothic horror”, at least as far as movies are concerned. Crimson Peak isn’t a Gothic horror, though — at least, not in the Hammer sense — but rather a Gothic Romance, which is as distinct from “horror” as it is from “romance”. Perhaps “Gothic melodrama” would be a term better suited to today’s audiences. OK, maybe not — frankly, it’s difficult to imagine any scenario in which a movie of this kind generates big bucks at the box office unless you somehow made one that features a comic book character beating the crap out of the cast every 20 minutes.

The story actually concerns Edith Cushing (Wasikowska), a well-to-do businessman’s daughter in upstate New York who is occasionally haunted by ghosts. She falls for visiting English gent Sir Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston) and, long story short, moves with him and his haughty sister Lucille (Chastain) back to their crumbling — literally — pile in the English countryside. The house hides many secrets, and ghosts, too. Having said it’s not a horror movie, it would be unfair to class Crimson Peak as simply a tame drama — as you’d expect from writer-director Guillermo del Toro, those ghosts can be bleedin’ scary, and there are certainly a smattering of good old fashioned jumps to boot.

If you start reading online (the ones I read, at any rate), you tend to find people either: a) thought there weren’t enough ghosts, or b) thought there were too many ghosts. And there’s an element of truth in this: the horror bits are a little bit too horror-genre for a Gothic romance/melodrama, but they’re undoubtedly not in it enough to transform it into a full Horror movie. Someone with the predilection to enjoy both is required to stomach the film, which I must say I am, and I dare say Del Toro would fit that bill also. It seems clear that he’s made exactly the film he wanted to make; it’s just unfortunate that turned out to be a tricky sell, and consistently misunderstood by a mainstream audience. (I say “mainstream audience” because you can find an abundance of comments on film-fan websites noting how it was incorrectly marketed, etc.) That said (minor spoiler here), it’s stated in the film itself that the ghosts are a metaphor. OK, it’s stated by Edith about the story she’s writing, but you don’t need a degree in Film Studies to realise this is meant as a meta-comment on the film as well. Or maybe you do.

Whatever one’s thoughts on the story and tone of the film, it can’t be denied that its technical merits are extraordinary. Every inch of the design work is gloriously imagined, and the cinematography — the lighting in particular — is spectacular. And that gigantic house set…! And the climactic ‘limbo’ set, too — incredible work. (That’s not a spoiler, incidentally: it was the set’s nickname, not its literal location.) The ghost effects are excellent too — original, creepy, and executed in a way that blurs the lines between make-up, animatronics, and CGI. It’s a shame the film as a whole wasn’t better received, because I imagine that’s all that held it back from numerous awards-season nods.

Crimson Peak is exactly the kind of film that, on reflection, I may wind up liking even more than I do now. Perhaps others will feel the same and it will also gain better standing in assessments of the director’s filmography — even as it is, it’s definitely one of my favourite Del Toro films (though I really need to give Pan’s Labyrinth another go, to see if I can see what all the fuss is about this time). The film’s tagline was simply “Beware”, but perhaps the viewer needs to be warned instead to “be prepared” — if you know what you’re getting in to, I think Crimson Peak has a lot to recommend it.

4 out of 5

Crimson Peak premieres on Sky Cinema (including via Now TV) tomorrow, Sunday 17th July.

Pacific Rim (2013)

2014 #62
Guillermo del Toro | 131 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Pacific RimThe names writers choose for their characters can sometimes tell you a lot about a movie. Pacific Rim is the kind of film that has characters called Raleigh Becket, Stacker Pentecost, and Hannibal Chau.

This is a film about giant monsters invading Earth, and we fight back with giant robots. It has the logic of the Japanese movies, anime and art that inspired it rather than any basis in the real world. Which is fine — del Toro has said it was aimed at 11-year-old boys (hence the “for over 13s” rating, of course), and it slots pretty neatly into that world. Which means it should also cater to a good many “adult” genre fans, which does make it flopping in America a little surprising. I suppose the lack of a recognisable brand name is a deciding factor in that market now.

Stand out features include blunt, functional, over-explanatory dialogue delivered in largely second-rate performances, but which at least carry us through the story solidly; and fights that are moderately exciting, but could do with zooming out to give a proper sense of scale, not to mention some variety in their primary black-and-blue colour palette. There’s a whole featurette on the Blu-ray about how hard they worked on conveying scale. Oh. Didn’t come across for me. OK, the giant robots didn’t move super fast, but it still felt quicker than I’d expect from something of that extreme size.

Perhaps the problem lies in how the film was obviously made for 3D — not because stuff’s poking out at you all the time, but because of shots that are clearly meant to have great depth, but where everything is in focus. For 2D it could probably do with a shallower depth of field, and maybe this is where the scale went awryRobot rescue — it was the 3D that added depth and height, and without that (or, as I said, an adjustment of focus to compensate) it’s all a bit… not flat, but not big either. That aside, it is beautifully shot, with excellent lighting.

Yet, for the easy criticisms, Pacific Rim largely entertains. Compared to most of the blockbuster fare targeting 11-year-old boys these days, it’s a positive triumph. Heck, compared to the other films for that age group that star giant robots, it’s Shakespeare. Similarly the music, by Game of Thrones’ Ramin Djawadi, is a little obvious but also suitably fist-pumping, which at least renders it easily enjoyable.

Goodness knows where the mooted animated series and confirmed sequel are going to go with the world that seems so wrapped-up here — but hey, at least this one told a complete, self-contained story. It might fall short of excellence in many areas, but it’s an exciting, fun thrill ride nonetheless.

4 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

Dragonslayer (1981)

2010 #73
Matthew Robbins | 104 mins | TV | PG / PG

Back when he was still directing The Hobbit, Guillermo del Toro spoke a bit about his plans for Smaug, the dragon antagonist of Tolkien’s tale. Talking about the lack of “landmark” designs for dragons, there was one he did single out (I’ll give you one guess which it was)…

One of the best and one of the strongest landmarks that almost nobody can overcome is Dragonslayer. The design of the Vermithrax Pejorative is perhaps one of the most perfect creature designs ever made.

Indeed, the realisation of the spellcheck-bothering dragon is definitely one of the film’s high points. It’s an impressive creation, brought to the screen in those wonderful pre-CGI days through a total of 16 puppets, which included a 40-foot hydraulic model and the first use of “go-motion”, a computerised version of stop-motion designed to add motion blur. Of course it has that veneer of ’80s effects work, which is either nostalgic or amateurish depending on your point of view (and, most likely, age). Some of it looks expectedly dated — it’s nearly 30 years old after all, and hasn’t benefitted from the attention lavished on the likes of Star Wars (even discounting all the CGI Lucas has pumped into that) — but largely it remains effective.

Vermithrax Pejorative is a long time coming, however, wisely kept off screen by director Matthew Robbins. It’s not that the monster shouldn’t be revealed, just that, like Alien, it carries more power when glimpsed in parts and flashes, and the wait to see it builds the tension. It’s worth the wait, and it’s not as if the rest of the film is worthless.

Aesthetically, it’s got that nicely dirty, realistic feel to its depiction of the Dark Ages, which has been rather lost as swisher filming techniques have come along to make everything oh-so-stylised, particularly in genres like fantasy. The rough, practical effects add to this feel, in a way CGI is unlikely to do (not that it couldn’t, I’m sure, but it would have to be exceptionally well managed and I can’t think of an example).

A very young-looking Peter MacNicol leads the cast, being sporadically (shall we say, kindly) fresh. He’s been better served in character roles since. According to IMDb he’s embarrassed by the film and doesn’t include it on his CV. Particularly when one considers the kind of work he does now, it’s quite easy to see why. Being a US-produced medieval-ish fantasy film, everyone is English — except the two leads, of course. They’re all fine but, like every high-concept fantasy blockbuster, this is more about the adventuresome hijinks and giant monster than character development. Similarly, an interesting subplot about the move from The Old Ways of magic and superstition to The New Ways of Christianity feels like a good idea that hasn’t been fully integrated, made up of little more than a couple of passing nods and a negatively-inclined inclusion in the coda.

Dragonslayer is a little scrappy, in a way — the narrative, the acting, the effects — and yet, for that, it’s a minor treat. I don’t know what The Youth Of Today would think of it, but as someone who in his childhood watched many examples of this kind of film on video from the small rental place in town — films like The Princess Bride, The NeverEnding Story; you could even include big-hitters like the Star Warses or Ghostbusters — it fits nostalgically into that era. And there’s a lot to be said for nostalgia.

4 out of 5