The Shape of Water

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* * 1/2

Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a lot of movies in the ‘human falls in love with non-human’ sub-genre of horror/fantasy. There’s King Kong, obviously. Howard The Duck. Splash, in a pinch. It’s obviously not a dramatic theme that obsesses a lot of people. Which makes Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape Of Water all the weirder. He’s taken this singularly perverse – perhaps unpopular – idea, and made a tonally bonkers high-gloss mainstream-adjacent oddity that for all the world feels like everyone loves movies about cross-species love.

Obviously, what del Toro loves more than anything is ‘monsters’ (and in countless interviews he’s said as much). His films are full of them. With The Shape of Water, he makes literal this love, by having his leading lady, Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a cleaner in a secret government laboratory in the United States in the 1960s, fall in love with an amphibious humanoid fish-fellow clearly inspired by The Creature From The Black Lagoon. To level the playing field (and allow for a lot of strained thematic depth) he’s made Elisa a mute.

I don’t know who on earth this very peculiar film is for (besides del Toro). There were two young boys, sans parents, sitting next to me, who had obviously come for a film from the dude who made Hellboy and Pacific Rim; after Hawkins had gamely masturbated in her bath – twice – one said to the other, “What’s she doing in there?” They laughed uncomfortably at all the profanity and other sexual situations (some of which might provoke a titter or two in an adult audience) and were probably as weirded out as I was by some of the gory violence, considering the general tone – in a movie that barely has a general tone – was ET-era Spielbergian.

Indeed, the film feels like Spielberg (the camera never stops moving; the score constantly underlines the action) crossed with Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie, Delicatessen – the production design is clearly influenced by both) crossed with David Cronenberg (The Fly, for multiple resonances). It’s full of childlike wonder but also a childish desire to shock. It’s Guillermo’s playpen, and, at this limited budget (it cost $20m but looks like much more) he’s allowed to do whatever he wants, which may not be what anyone else wants.

And yet… people all over the world are responding to this absurd mishmash, with the possibility very real that it may win the Oscar for Best Picture! There is no doubt the craft is impeccable (if cheesy and seriously old-fashioned) and Hawkins gamely gives a performance that, while skirting dangerously close to Amelie-level cutesiness, just manages to be involving. Michael Shannon commits with every cell of his being to playing a cookie-cutter villain, and Octavia Spencer swallows her pride to play a horrendously written colleague of Elisa’s. And, all too obviously, the creature is also a big big metaphor, with del Toro spoon-feeding us Notes On Tolerance through displays of homophobia and racism. To paraphrase what they say about Trump, it’s like a dumb person’s idea of a smart movie.

Swinging Safari

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* * * 1/2

Stephan Elliot’s love letter to his very ‘70s childhood Swinging Safari is constantly frenetic. There is perhaps more pure human energy in every frame than any film I saw in 2017, or in recent memory. Most frames contain at least three people – indeed, often it’s more than six – and they’re almost always all yelling, moving, gesticulating, agitating. In addition, there are design elements, including iconographic ‘70s props, practically filling every available space in the frame not filled by a wildly oscillating human or four. There’s a hell of a lot of stuff, everywhere, all the time, and the sheer energy of it all is undoubtedly contagious, propulsive, and fun.

Likewise, the performances are pitched substantially above the pace, energy and sheer commitment of real life. Those by some of the rather incredible ensemble cast – Guy Pearce, Rhada Mitchell, Julian McMahon – are allowed to spill heavily over into caricature. But the lead performances, by youngster Atticus Robb as Elliot stand-in Jeff Marsh, and Jeremy Sims as his dad Bob, are at least closer to reality, and somewhat touching.

According to Elliot, the film is an extremely autobiographical account of a defining month of his childhood, when he formed a life-long friendship with costume designer Lizzie Gardiner, played here (re-named Molly) by Darcy Wilson. The story is framed with a transposed version of the real-life beached whale incident from Florence, Oregon in 1970. As the beachside town Jeff lives in tries to deal with a huge rotting carcass lying on its greatest asset, Bob and his friends’ parents experiment with sexual ‘liberation’.

The energy, the design, the situation – everything about the film feels comedic, but it’s not actually a laugh-out loud kind of film. There aren’t a lot of ‘jokes’ that land, and the drama, such as it is, is underwhelming. But the sheer colorful brio of the direction, performances and design make for an engaging and relentlessly entertaining ninety-six minutes. If nothing else, it’ll certainly take you back.

You can listen to my interview with writer/director Stephan Elliot here.

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Darkest Hour

* * * 1/2

Watching Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour is not a revelation, but a reminder – that Oldman is one of the greatest screen actors ever, and stands alongside Daniel Day-Lewis and Meryl Streep as one of the great technical chameleons. His Churchill, like Day-Lewis’ Lincoln and Streep’s Thatcher, may be cloaked in make-up, a voice, physical padding and a wig, but has total integrity of heart and soul.

As with watching Day-Lewis and Streep in Lincoln and The Iron Lady, you’ll probably spend the first scene with Oldman / Churchill marvelling at the make-up and being aware of it (indeed, I’ve no doubt the first scene for each of their characters, in each of their films, is designed to let you take this moment). Then, you simply forget about it – not just the make-up, but the actor within. As far as I was concerned, for the rest of Darkest Hour, I was watching Winston Churchill, and boy, was he fabulous.

The film itself is a little ponderous. Working uncannily well as a complementary narrative (or an unofficial prequel) to 2017’s Dunkirk, Wright’s parliamentary procedural shows none of that film’s verve and flair. It’s an older style of filmmaking, made for an older style of audience. If you’re a Churchill or World War Two buff, you’ll probably find some of the dialogue painfully expository, but enjoy seeing terrific actors playing some of your favourite mid-20th Century British politicians; if you don’t know much about Churchill’s wartime Prime Ministership, you’ll get a hearty lesson, because Wright and screenwriter Anthony McCarten have opted to give you a lot of detail.

But you come, and you stay, for Oldman. If you’re a performance buff, you can’t afford to miss this. It’s uncanny, it’s technically virtuosic, it’s mesmerising, it’s brilliant. Oldman gets the humour, the doubt, the drunkenness, the moods, the intelligence, the heart and soul of the man. It’s great screen acting at the very, very highest level, and must be seen to be believed, and admired.

Movie Chat!

Movie Chat!

Don’t feel like reading reviews? Have a listen to CJ chat about a bunch of awards contenders, taken from The Nightlife on ABC (Australia).

ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD and THE POST

COCO and THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI

THE FLORIDA PROJECT and CALL ME BY YOUR NAME

As always, your comments welcome. And please share Film Mafia with your friends who like movies.

The Post

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* * * 1/2

There is a term certain critics use that’s quite fun: “wiggy.” It’s generally applied to films that are set in another period, and often to films portraying real people. The ultimate wiggy films are, for example, films where most, if not all the main characters look kind of ridiculous via the efforts the hair and make-up people have gone to make them look like their real-life counterparts.

The Post is very wiggy. It’s far more wiggy than Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which, on the surface, looked like a more likely candidate for top honours: crazy muttonchops, ludicrous sideburns, Lincoln’s beard (facial hair counts as “wig”). But Lincoln was a labour of love that Spielberg spent a very long time developing; it was long on the drawing boards and long in pre-production. I’m sure he had someone – paid, perhaps full-time – working on a bust of Daniel Day-Lewis from the moment the actor committed to the film, experimenting with wig.

By great contrast, The Post is Spielberg’s rapid response to Trump. It went from page to screen in nine months – an astonishingly quick process for a “Spielberg Film”, or any film. And so it’s quite wiggy, and rushed in other ways, because Mr. Spielberg – who knows what he’s doing, perhaps more than any other practitioner, of any industry, on the planet – made the decision early on that getting the film in theatres in order to reflect Trump’s War On The Press would – pardon me – trump the demands of perfectionism. Time was of the essence; perfect sideburns were not.

Working fast, Spielberg resorts to what he knows works; thus, at a moment of great decision, a camera slowly moves in on a Great Actor’s face. Would there be a more interesting way of doing the moment, something unexpected, understated, or even subversive? Undoubtedly. But Spielberg didn’t waste time. He captured a moment of Great Acting in a Spielbergian manner, and moved on.

The result, which plays like a prequel to All The President’s Men (1975), is spectacularly entertaining, in the way that Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jaws are spectacularly entertaining. Breathlessly paced, it’s a journalist-movie thrill ride. Spotlight, which won the Best Film Oscar two years ago, had far more nuance, character development and emotional heft. The Post has urgency, in spades. There is no reason not to see it. It is professional, angry, and fun.

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