Review- The Shape Of Water (directed by Guillermo Del Toro)

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Guillermo Del Toro’s career has been one of flights of fancy, a director with big ideas and big imagination. He has been heralded with acclaim for past fantasies The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pans Labyrinth (2006) but he has also missed the mark for many with the big budget bombastic Pacific Rim (2013). And whilst his last film Crimson Peak (2015) was a deliciously dark gothic tale, it failed to find an audience for Del Toro. However his latest film arrives on the back of winning the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival and a haul of 13 Oscar nominations, signalling a return to form and one that encapsulates many Guillermo hallmarks.

The Shape of Water is brimming with his love for fantasy and for cinema itself; it is the stuff of B-Movie horror but wrapped up in the styling of a classic Hollywood melodrama, offering both the beauty and the brutality that often inhabit the same space. The film begins in the 1960s with a look into the sweet but simple life of our heroine Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman whose days are filled with practicality but also a sense of wistful imagination, alluding to the loneliness she feels. Elisa works as a cleaner in a government laboratory, a routine that allows her to go almost unnoticed until one day she comes across the scientists latest and most dangerous discovery- an amphibious but human alike creature (played by long time Del Toro collaborator Doug Jones). Elisa begins to bond with the creature; their mutual inability to communicate through spoken language allows them to connect through music, eggs and their own sign language and which makes their resulting against all odds romance, wholly believable. However the political climate means there is Cold War era paranoia afoot with the soviets trying to acquire the ‘asset’.

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And there is a menacing government agent named Strickland (Michael Shannon) who appears to have a personal vendetta against the creature and wants it to be destroyed, thinly veiled in the name of science. So it falls to Elisa to hatch a plan to rescue the creature from a terrible fate and find a way to keep their burgeoning relationship afloat.

The marvel of The Shape of Water is how it takes a supremely odd premise, one that shouldn’t work yet weaves it into a fantastical and credible love story, one that feels like a fairytale that has been told through the ages. It plays to Del Toro’s strengths as a director, he simply does not paint pictures but he creates worlds, ones that promise to show us the mythical but also pull us back to harsh sadistic realities. Whilst the film is full of enchanting imagery, of old movie theatres, overflowing baths, stolen moments and dream sequences, it also takes us to the dark side, mostly through Shannon’s evil agent. He may be dressed in a suit but Strickland is the real monster of the film and creates flashes of violence that permeate the narrative, a tool often deployed in the Del Toro cannon. Michael Shannon uses his bug eyed intensity to create a true villain of the piece, you can almost hear the audience want to hiss (and cower) whenever he is on screen.  The rest of the cast sell the oddball premise with class and conviction, each supporting member brings something to the table. Elisa’s loyal best friends Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and Giles (Richard Jenkins) both carry the character arch of being on the fringes of society in the 60s but both are fully realised characters, rather than just serving the purpose of affirming their alignment to Elisa. Michael Stuhlbarg meanwhile is the wavering compass of the film, his (secret soviet) scientist wrestles with his conscious of doing his duty for his country and finding compassion for the creature he is to steal.

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But at the heart of it all is Sally Hawkins, a woman who often seems fragile and used to being put upon but who transcends her exterior with a steely determination, she is a woman who may appear delicate but who has desire in her heart, sexually and emotionally. Hawkins carries the film with her expressionistic face and her unearthed strength for that what was missing from her life and for what will now make her feel whole. It is a slight shame then that the end of the film seems somewhat rushed, when it’s allowed to breath in so many other areas that our love story’s conclusion is given short shrift but this is a minor damp squib when we have already been delivered so many riches.

Whether Del Toro’s big bold fantasy will make waves at the upcoming Oscars remains to be seen and its unique cinematic vision may be too diverse for some audiences but then the director has always marched to the beat of his own screen drum. It is a delight to see such a piece of work that is clearly a passion project, one that has not been compromised by the powers of the studio. It is also a timely fable for our troubled times, a reminder of those living on the outside, whose voice is often not heard, of those wanting to rise above what is unsaid and to break above what is seen on the surface.

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Review- Midnight Special (directed by Jeff Nichols)

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In the short space of three films, Jeff Nichols has established himself as a director worthy of the term auteur, bringing emotional depth and lyrical storytelling to his work. From the anxiety inducing allegory of paranoia in rural America in Take Shelter (2011) to the Southern coming of age soul of Mud (2012), he skilfully blends heart with added dimensional undercurrents. With his fourth feature Midnight Special, Nichols continues to build upon his impressive cinematic catalogue, this time dipping his toes into the science fiction genre pool but without sacrificing his knack for emotive integrity.

The film begins with a news report of child abduction but the pieces of the story begin to form a different picture. A child has been taken, from a dubious settling known as The Ranch populated by a set of deeply religious members, but the child, eight year old Alton (Jaeden Lieberher),  was taken by his birth father  Roy (Michael Shannon) for his own protection and for Alton’s own purpose. It is revealed that Alton possesses otherworldly powers, his condition and capabilities grow and emerge further, a fact that makes him a target for both the Ranch, who believe he is their religious savour and for the FBI who believe he is a threat amidnight groupnd a potential weapon.

What follows is a race against time as Roy, accompanied by his former childhood friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton), a state trooper who is affected by his predicament and who believes in Alton’s plight, head across the Southern landscape to reach a preordained destination  whilst being tailed by government officials and a couple of sinister Ranch members. If these narrative tropes seem familiar, those expecting bold brass sci-fi action may be disappointed because what emerges is something altogether different but all the more rewarding for it. The film adopts a slow burn journey that cares as much about the family drama at the heart of the matter as its bolder story arch and allows its actors to inhabit their characters. Michael Shannon who is Nichols go to guy, again displays why he is one of the best and most underrated actors around with a performance that speaks so much with so little words. His expressions and mannerisms belie the inner turmoil he is wrestling; every pained breath discloses the duality of Roy’s situation, his sorrow and his determination.  When Roy tells Alton ‘I like worrying about you’ Shannon echoes the words that many parents must feel, that it is their job to protect their child, no matter where the consequences will take them. Kirsten Dunst continues her semi renaissance after Fargo with a contrasting sensitive turn as Alton’s mother who was exiled from the Ranch and has a fleeting reunion with her son, avoiding sentimentality. Joel Edgerton is on solid form as the type of friend we would hope to have in a desperate situation-proactive and resourceful; his limited knowledge of Alton’s back-story doesn’t prevent him from believing in his purpose. Adam Driver portrays a sense of earnestness and heart that is a million galaxies away from Kylo Ren, his Adam Sevier is the type of government agent we would hope to have in a desperate situation, he wants to understand Alton and not merely contain him. Meanwhile Jaeden Lieberher sidesteps the precocious child act that Haley Joel Osment cornered once upon a time to deliver a naturalistic performance beyond his years/this world. midnight drive

The effects tend to serve the film rather than overshadow it, the early restraint gives way to a flourish in the final act yet we never descend into over reliance of CGI which is something to be commended and something to be thankful for in this cinematic age. The aesthetic and themes of Midnight Special have drawn comparisons to late 1970s/early 80s science fiction films particularly those of Spielberg and it is easy to see why, the DNA of Close Encounters and ET weave into its fabric, though Nichols should be celebrated for bringing his own vision and not merely emulating his peers. He has created a film of hope, of earnestness in a somewhat cynical time, one that will no doubt confound as many as it will attract, for it does not unravel all of its mysteries.

But the point is not to have all the answers, it is merely a snapshot of time, we as the audience experience what Alton’s parents do, the uncertainty of the situation, trying to form a grasp of the events-how and why did Alton come to be and where is he headed, yet we are not given the bigger picture. We can only go so far along the journey and the rest, like many things in life, has not been written.