Sally Hawkins

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

 

Advertisements

Paddington 2

10/11/17

Paddington is a tough act to follow. That first film got everything right – a family entertainment that really did have something for everyone. It was also highly successful, so of course there was always going to be a sequel. The modestly titled Paddington 2 says it all. Not Paddington Episode Two, or Paddington Rides Again. No, this does exactly what it says on the tin –  a second adventure featuring Michael Bond’s celebrated ursine hero.

But, can it hope to be as good as its progenitor? The fact that the film’s release has been delayed for a month while the production company scrambles to disassociate itself from a certain Harvey Weinstein doesn’t augur well but, against all the odds, this second installment of the franchise manages to unfold its delightfully silly story without putting a single paw wrong.

The film opens with a flashback to darkest Peru, where Uncle Pastuzu (Michael Gambon) and Aunt Lucy (Imelda Staunton) first encounter the orphaned bear cub who will become Paddington – and we discover that Aunt Lucy has a longheld ambition to visit the city of London. After the credits we nip smartly back to the present day, where Paddington is now a valued member of the Brown family, helping Henry (Hugh Bonneville), Mary (Sally Hawkins), Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) and Judy (Madeleine Harris). He’s also fitting in nicely with the community of the street on which he lives – cue plenty of cameos from what seems like scores of celebrated comic actors.

But with Aunt Lucy’s 100th birthday approaching, Paddington is looking for a suitable present for his beloved aunt so, when his friend, Mr Gruber, (Jim Broadbent) who runs the local antique shop, shows him a charming (and rather expensive) pop-up book of the city, Paddington resolves to earn enough money to buy it for her. To this end, he tries his hand at window cleaning and barbering, both with suitably hilarious results. Then, by chance, his path crosses with that of has-been actor, Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant), who, it transpires, wants the pop-up book for his own nefarious purposes…

Once again, the screenwriters have managed to capture the spirit of Michael Bond’s evergreen tales, presenting us with a storyline that will have people of all ages laughing uproariously – when they’re not clutching for their handkerchieves. Yes, this is undoubtedly manipulative stuff, but it’s done with such style and such sure-footedness, that you cannot help but be swept along. Scenes where the unthinkable happens and Paddington is actually sentenced to a spell in jail will have the hardest heart breaking into tiny pieces – and the little bear’s developing friendship with prison chef Knuckles McGinty (the ever dependable Brendan Gleeson) is a brilliant conceit which occasionally yields comedy gold.

It doesn’t end there. Paddington 2 is endlessly inventive (scenes where the little bear and his aunt cavort amidst a pop-up recreation of the city of London are a particular highlight). Perhaps the biggest surprise here is Hugh Grant (who, weirdly, we think we spotted walking a tiny dog near Rosslyn Chapel a couple of weeks ago). His turn as the self-obsessed Phoenix Buchanan is one of his best performances ever and he very nearly steals the show from the titular bear – still endearingly voiced by Ben Whishaw.

When you witness some of the absolute dross that passes for ‘family entertainment’ these days, it’s reassuring to see something as lovingly crafted as this. The next question? Can they do it a third time? Well, that remains to be seen. Meanwhile, this will do very nicely indeed.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Paddington

MV5BMjE1Mzc3NTk3NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTMzNTk4MjE@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_

30/11/14

For what is ostensibly just another children’s movie, Paddington arrives surrounded by controversy. It has a PG certificate (mildly ridiculous when you think of the kind of big budget carnage that generally acquires a 12A) and others have complained that this new cinematic manifestation features a bear (voiced by Ben Whishaw) that is decidedly ursine and not at all like Michael Bond’s original teddy bear creation. At the end of the day all this matters little. The film is a real delight, cleverly put together and featuring plenty of content to appeal to the more mature viewer. In fact, it might be true to say that much of it will be wasted on really young viewers and there are a couple of scenes here (mostly those featuring evil taxidermist, Millicent (Nicole Kidman)) that may actually traumatise them.

The film begins with an origins story (something that Bond never bothered with) which shows a family of rare bears in ‘darkest Peru’ that are discovered by British explorer Montgomery Clyde (Tim Downie.) From him they learn to speak English and acquire a liking for marmalade. When he departs, he leaves them with an open invitation to visit him in London. But it takes a tragedy (an earthquake) to galvanise young Paddington into heading for England.  At Paddington station, he meets the Brown Family – Hugh Bonneville as an uptight insurance broker and Sally Hawkins as a much more free-thinking book illustrator. The Browns and their two children take Paddington in as a guest and much hilarity ensues…

And it does ensue, most convincingly. In fact, the script by Paul King, never puts a paw wrong, milking the slapstick sequences for enough laughs to keep a young audience entertained, whilst delving into more wistful pastures for older viewers. There’s a wonderfully inventive feel to the film – a host of Heath Robinson-esque inventions, some really appealing visual tricks (a repeated trope of the Brown’s home depicted as a doll’s house is a particular pleasure) and of course Ms Kidman’s character which introduces a touch of menace that the original story lacked. Despite so many doubts, the film makers have done credit to Michael Bond’s original creation (he himself has said that he can ‘sleep easy’ after viewing it) and have successfully ‘opened it up’ to create a satisfying family entertainment, that only the grumpiest viewer will find fault with. A well-deserved hit for the festive season.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney