Michael Shannon

The Shape of Water

30/01/18

The release of a Guillermo del Toro movie is generally a cause for some excitement, but The Shape of Water arrives in the UK already garlanded with 13 Oscar nominations – this year’s most nominated film. It’s an unusual state of affairs because fantasy movies rarely get much of a look in at the Academy Awards, apart from the occasional grudging nod for special effects and cinematography. It doesn’t take long, however, to appreciate how this film has managed to garner so much acclaim. It’s a gorgeous, multi-faceted allegory that isn’t adverse to taking risks – The Creature From the Black Lagoon dancing in a Busby Berkeley routine? Hey, no problem!

To my mind, there are actually two del Toros out there – the one that creates eerie fairytale fantasies like Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone, and the one that offers us the likes of Pacific Rim, where giant robots punch colossal lizards repeatedly in the head until (eventually) they die. Take a wild guess as to which del Toro I personally favour! I’m glad to report that The Shape of Water falls squarely into the former category.

We’re in Baltimore in 1962 at the height of the Cold War. Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a reclusive mute woman, works as a cleaner in a high security government laboratory, alongside her supportive friend, Zelda (Octavia Spencer). When a mysterious new life form – simply referred to as ‘The Asset’, arrives for safekeeping – it is accompanied by its keeper, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon, excelling in what must be his most repellant role to date). It turns out that the lab’s new addition is some kind of amphibious man, captured in the jungles of South America, where he is worshipped as a god – and it soon becomes clear that Strickland’s job is less to find out about this new acquisition than to make sure the Russians never do. Resident scientist, Dr Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), is interested in studying the creature, but the American military seems determined to view it as a suitable candidate for vivisection. Meanwhile, Elisa is beginning to establish a strange and deepening friendship with it…

The outline of the story itself may sound vaguely ridiculous, but it simply cannot prepare you for how utterly compelling del Toro’s film is. It’s a multi-layered affair, beautifully shot and cleverly scripted. Elisa is an outcast, watching from the edges of society, and her best friend Giles (Richard Jenkins), a graphic designer, is in a similar position, exiled from his regular place of work because he is secretly gay. The claustrophobic atmosphere of the early sixties is brilliantly conveyed. All-American diners seem friendly as they sell their day-glo green pies, but won’t allow black people to eat alongside their white customers. The old-fashioned cinema above which Elisa and Giles live plays to nearly empty houses every night because of the growing power of television, and yet every TV screen we see displays a series of classic movie comedies and sumptuous musicals. The Asset too is an outcast, a creature that doesn’t belong in this blinkered, paranoid world. Little wonder then, that both Elisa and Giles fall under his spell.

I cannot recommend this film highly enough. Every frame of it bursts with creativity, the performances are exemplary (special mentions should go to Hawkins – who manages to convey so much without the luxury of words, and to del Toro regular, Doug Jones – who makes us care deeply about his scaly bug-eyed character and about what will ultimately happen to him).

I appreciate that not everybody is going to love this as much as I do. It requires an almost total suspension of disbelief; this is in no way a realistic film. It’s a fantasy that deals in archetypes, a contemporary reworking of a tale that could have bled from the pens of the Brothers Grimm, juxtaposing scenes of beguiling sweetness with ones of graphic violence. I watch it spellbound. I had thought that del Toro couldn’t possibly improve on Pan’s Labyrinth, but you know what? I rather think he has.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

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Loving

03/02/17

Writer/director Jeff Nichols seems to favour outlaws. Take Shelter, Mud and Midnight Special all feature protagonists who, for a variety of reasons, find themselves on the wrong side of the law. Loving is, however, the first time he’s based a film on a true story.

Virginia, 1958. Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) romances his sweetheart Mildred (Ruth Negga), gets her pregnant and then arranges a hasty marriage. So far, so everyday; but it’s not as straightforward as you might suppose. Richard is white and Mildred, African-American. Though they have travelled to the more enlightened Washington DC to get hitched, such a marriage is still deemed illegal in the state of Virginia and almost before they know it, they have been dragged from their bed in the dead of night and slung into jail. The upshot is that they are faced with a difficult choice. They can get the marriage annulled and forget that anything ever happened; or they can leave Virginia for a minimum of 25 years, risking long jail sentences if they are ever reckless enough to return. But the Lovings are made of stern stuff and they vow to live together in Virginia whatever circumstance may throw at them…

It’s staggering to think that only fifty years ago such laws could even have existed and the Loving’s case was eventually the basis of a major change to the American constitution, so this is an important subject. Nichols relates the story in his signature style, taking his own sweet time, steering clear of sensationalism and coaxing superb performances from his lead actors. Neggar has already been rewarded for her efforts with a well-deserved Oscar nomination, but in many ways it’s Edgerton who has the trickier role, portraying a gruff, monosyllabic man who bears the many crosses he is made to carry with exceptional stoicism.

The film’s gentle pace is clearly something that divides people. We’ve rarely witnessed so many walkouts from a movie as We saw on the Friday evening we viewed Loving. But I found the film powerful and eloquent, an excellent addition to Nichols’ growing canon of work. Nice too to see a cameo from the director’s favourite actor, Michael Shannon, as the photographer who takes pictures of the couple for an article in Life Magazine.

Some people change the world in the glare of publicity. Others do it quietly, avoiding the limelight, but their contributions are nonetheless every bit as valuable. Loving is an accomplished film that’s well worth your attention.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Nocturnal Animals

nocturnal-animals-trailer

05/11/16

Nocturnal Animals is a spiteful little film, full of bile and petty score-settling. Beautifully styled and well-acted throughout – with a stellar cast of cameos supporting the leads – this film feels like a tragic waste of talent, a plethora of artistic skill funnelled into a project with a vacuum for a heart. The worldview here is warped. The whole thing – not just the inner story of Sheffield’s novel – feels like a sterile revenge plot, the work of an embittered soul with sadistic tendencies.

Amy Adams plays Susan Morrow, a successful but miserable art dealer, trapped in an unhappy marriage where her riches mean nothing; her life is a hollow shell. When she was young, in grad school, she was briefly married to a different man, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), and he was the true love of her life. But Susan was too greedy, too bourgeois, too much like her mother, to appreciate the creative sensitivity of a man like Edward: she wanted the trappings of a middle-class life, and didn’t support him in his artistic endeavours.

Nineteen years later, a manuscript arrives on her desk. It’s a proof copy of Edward’s novel, soon to be published. It’s dedicated to her, and it tells the tale of a couple just like them, brought to life for us on screen as Susan reads compulsively. The protagonist, Laura (Isla Fisher, styled to look exactly like Adams), is raped and murdered, along with her daughter. Clearly, Edward is still a long way from getting over Susan’s rejection of him.

It’s an ugly, mean-spirited story from start to finish, with a deep misogyny at its core. From the freak-show fat women of the opening credits to the gratuitous nastiness of Laura’s death, it’s lacking any sense of proportion – or of charm. Nor does it work as a study of the dark side of humanity; it’s all too petty and too personal for that. And it’s boring a lot of the time too, all ponderous shots of people in baths, and endless scenes where Adams gasps, startled by what she’s read, adjusts her glasses, then picks up the book again. The novel’s plot is pretty turgid too: after the initial excitement of the murders, it’s a rather dull procedural, where we know exactly whodunnit, and so do the police.

Seriously, this is a disappointing film. It looks fantastic and the cast is a dream-team by anyone’s standards (Adams and Gyllenhaal are joined by Michael Shannon, Laura Linney, Michael Sheen and Andrea Riseborough, among others) but, ultimately, this just leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

2.5 stars

Susan Singfield

Midnight Special

Unknown

10/03/16

Writer/director Jeff Nichols has given us some fine movies over the last few years but one thing he’s not so good at is coming up with a decent title. Take Shelter? Not one of the best. Mud? A terrible title for an excellent film. And now, here’s Midnight Special, a title that for the life of me I can’t see the relevance of when applied to this absorbing story – but I suppose this is a minor niggle. The film this most reminds me of is ET… though I hasten to add, a much more sophisticated, grown up and gritty version of Speilberg’s sci fi tale.

Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher) is a very special boy. It has something to do with his eyes. He must be kept in darkness as much as possible and has to wear special goggles whenever he steps into the sunlight. When we first meet him, he’s been abducted by his biological father, Roy (Michael Shannon) and his friend,  cop Lucas (Joel Egerton) from the religious community that has looked after him for the past two years. Because of the boy’s habit of ‘speaking in tongues,’ the cult’s leader,  Calvin (Sam Shepard) believes that Alton may be some kind of messiah and he and his followers will do just about anything to get him back, even if it means picking up weapons to enforce their will.

Sam and Lucas hook up with Alton’s birth mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) and the four of them set off on a perilous journey to bring Alton to the special destination where he repeatedly tells them he needs to be – but how can they get there when the combined forces of the FBI, the US military and a bunch of religious fruitcakes are intent on intercepting them?

Midnight Special is expertly told, releasing nuggets of information bit-by-bit, just enough to keep you hooked and to make you want to know more. When the solution is finally revealed it is, quite frankly mind-blowing and at this point, will divide audiences into ‘hell yes!’ or ‘no way!’ categories. I, happily, belong to the former. There are compelling performances from all concerned (Adam Driver is particularly good as a baffled boffin trying to work out what’s happening) and the pace never flags.

This is a riveting story about the power of belief and the lengths to which people will go to honour it. It also confirms Nichols as a film maker at the height of his powers.

It will be interesting to see what he does next.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney