THE SHAPE OF WATER***** Weird and Wonderful


A LONELY, INHIBITED, sexually frustrated woman develops a feeling of human empathy, which morphs into love for an extra-terrestrial, aquatic creature. “The Shape of Water” is a bold, weird fable of love and its opposite number, hate.

A compelling Sally Hawkins (“Paddington”) who miraculously combines mousy spinsterish reserve with raw sexuality is Elisa Esposito. She is a shy, mute cleaner whose lowly (social) stature and narrow circle of friends masks a huge generosity of spirit, and a stubborn fearlessness. Her opposite number is the always watchable Michael Shannon as Richard Strickland (notice the name: strict land), a dark, tortured soul, incapable of love and, like his severed fingers, rotting from within.

As her unexpected love for this strange creature blossoms, his all-consuming hatred for it deepens…as if, like the balance between matter and antimatter, love’s life-affirming power needs its balance of hate’s destructiveness.

It is clear from the very beginning that Elisa and her gay, ostracized friend (Richard Jenkins) live slightly off-centre lives… as if they’re both waiting for something to happen. Hers is one of routine and repetition: get up with the alarm, run a bath, masturbate, boil an egg, drift off to sleep on the morning bus, clock in, clean the floors of the vast cavernous mysterious government research centres where she works and return home.

His too is also one of routine, expressed by his by-the-book regimentation.

Their routines are broken by the arrival of a large, sealed tank containing a creature captured somewhere in South America.

Both Elisa and Richard respond to the creature with the curiosity it commands. Both want to know more about this strange being. But whereas her -human-curiosity leads her to try to understand and communicate with the creature (And that she is mute affords her a means of communication unconstrained by language), his – institutional- curiosity (He is a mere agent of an implacable and amoral army general) pushes him toward dissection and murder.

Her communication with the creature is all gesture. (Actions speak louder than words). And the gesture that soothes his savage beast is the offer of an egg. The symbolism of a woman offering him her eggs is not misunderstood. Their growing love is liberating (She must free the creature from its chains), life changing and life enhancing. And ultimately (for this is no child’s fairy story) sexual. The two become one, floating in a world of their own.

Thus it is with love…it is as wondrous as it is rare (They are the only ones in the story to find love)

But for him, the creature is the ultimate “other”…the “other” that, because it is not understood, is therefore threatening. It doesn’t look like him (He muses at one point that God looks human…or rather, God looks like a White man) and therefore must be tortured, chained up and eliminated. This is the only way institutions understand how to deal with “the other”, be they aquatic creatures or, for that matter, Mexicans, Blacks, Muslims…whatever.

But the pleasure of “The Shape of Water” isn’t just the story; it’s the telling of it. From the moment when the titles begin immersing us in its floating, undulating world of water, to the strongly accented shadows (of Dan Lausten’s cinematography) that shape every carefully orchestrated frame, director Guillermo del Toro conjures up an unique and very distinct world. That said, I felt at times that I could have been watching some lost Orson Wells movie. The texture of the movie has that same sense of visual craftsmanship and cinematic drama.

Sylvain Arseneault’s sound design also makes its presence notably felt…almost as though, in compensation for Elisa’s muteness, del Toro needed to give a clearly articulate aural voice to the movie. The sound comes across as a series of communicating layers: the clip clop of hurrying footsteps that synchronize with the thuds and clanks of machinery, the hoots and screeches of the outside world, the bubbling, gurgles of whooshing water…all knitted together by Alexandre Desplat’s subtle score.

So, was this worth “best movie” accolades? It is a masterful piece of pure cinematic bliss. And so, well deserving of its laurels. Personally I prefer the quieter, more tangibly real movies such as “Lady Bird” and the unrewarded “The Florida Project”.

But, hey, I’m not complaining.
THE SHAPE OF WATER: Director/Writer: Guillermo del Toro (“Crimson Peak”). With: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spenser, Richard Jenkins. Cinematography: Dan Lausten (“John Wick Chapter 2”, “Crimson Peak”). Production Designer: Paul D. Austerberry (“”Pompeii 2014”, “The Twilight Saga”). Composer: Alexandre Desplat (“The Twilight Saga”, “Harry Potter”)

 

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MIDNIGHT SPECIAL**** Spellbinding


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WHEN THE UNBELIEVABLE, the fantastical flies in the face of ‘reality’, of everything we’ve grown to believe about how the world functions, writer, director Jeff Nichols suggests (as he did in the brilliant Take Shelter and Mud) that we can choose one of two routes: succumb to the wonder, the quasi religious ecstasy of the supernatural or shut it out, pretend (since there’s no rational explanation) that the experience you know you experienced, simply never happened.

Nichols’ movies live in that space between science fiction and religion; between fiction and faith; perhaps they’re both the same thing.

The – very libertarian – story centers on the picaresque flight of a small nuclear family (and a friend) as they battle to protect their son from the threat of the shadowy forces of government. Alton Meyer (twelve year old Jaeden Lieberher) is a strange – literally – otherworldly child, whose eyes barely hold in check explosions of fatally destructive light (he must wear heavily tinted shades and hide, like a troglodyte, from the sun), who talks in tongues, mutters indecipherable coordinates and has powerful kinetic abilities. He even seems to have the unsettling ability to appear to be in two places at the same time.

Up to now, he has been carefully guarded by his close-knit, Amish-like, farming community, amongst whom he’s seen as a –the– God figure. But word of his powers has reached the wider community and on his tail is a- seemingly- sympathetic NSA agent, Paul Sevier, the ever popular Adam Driver (Star Wars VII).

Alton is a cute enough kid, tenderly devoted and dependent on his protective dad (the always compelling Michael Shannon). And on dad’s broad shoulders rest the need to protect him from the increasingly aggressive community that wants to keep him and feels ownership of ‘their God’ and now an implacable government that wants to take him away and study him. (At its emotional heart, this is simply a very tender and touching parent/child story.)

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This child is either a god to be worshipped or an alien phenomena to be studied and feared.
So…in the silence of the night, a well armed dad and an old friend (Joel Edgerton, from Black Mass etc.) steal away, driving in darkness to reunite with mom ( Kirsten Dunst) and thence to one of the coordinates identifies by Alton.

Violence ensues and strange worlds unfold, some of which quite take your breath away.

Nichols leaves no ambiguity in showing us the close encounter of the third kind (though the sensibility is radically different, there certainly are elements of Close Encounter… + ET). But, in the face of the ocular proof, that which we cannot understand, we must simply deny. The last few scenes (like the early movies of M Night Shyamalan) turn the movie on its head.

If the unexplained cannot be converted – as it has been since the beginning of time – to (dumb) faith, then deny, deny, deny.
The truth is out there…

 

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL. Dir/writer: Jeff Nichols. With: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Jaeden Lieberher, Adam Driver. Cinematographer: Adam Stone (Mud, Take Shelter). Production Designer: Chad Keith (Take Shelter, Begin Again)

 

99 HOMES **** High Rise Excellence


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MICHAEL SHANNON (FROM the underrated “Take Shelter”) is one of those actors who always seems to pop up in interesting movies. In “99 Homes”, he does not disappoint. The movie could well have been called “99 Lives”. It focuses on the agonizing human side of the 2008 housing crisis when, it seems, half of blue collar America had their lives foreclosed.

The movie begins with a stark image of the lives shattered by the implosion of cheap mortgages: we see the blood-smeared wall of someone who’s just shot himself. And emerging from the scene of this suicide, liken a succubus, is Rick Carver, Shannon’s real estate agent turned gun-toting eviction supremo. Carver is the cold, ruthless amoral face of the bank closures. As he tells his distraught victims, “I’m not evicting you, the bank is”… in other words, don’t blame me! For Carver, a home is no more than real estate… just a concrete box waiting to be flipped for a profit.

One of the concrete boxes he forecloses on (with, of course the full support of the police) is that of Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield who co-produced, emerging out of his Spiderman outfit to give a stunning performance). Nash is a recently unemployed carpenter/plumber/mason and general Jack of all trades. He lives with his young son (Noah Lomax) and mother (Laura Dern in a thankless role as his distraught conscience) in the home they’ve always lived in. No matter. The clash between Carver and Nash is the existential clash (as Carver sees it) between winners (“America is only for winners” he tells Nash) and losers; between an implacable (and in this case, corrupt) law and a sense of moral decency; between the abstract and bloodless idea of ‘The Bank’ and the tears of ‘real’ people; between real estate and a home.

The human dimension of Writer/director Ramin Bahrani’s well-crafted moral maze comes when, in urgent need of a handyman, Carver turns to Nash. Out of desperation, Nash swallows his revulsion of working with the man who kicked him out of his home and begins to work for him. Carver finds that he’s lucked out: Nash is more than a handy man; he’s an excellent leader. He’s also desperate to get back his home. And, as Carver well knows, a desperate man will do desperate things. Bit by bit, the lure of easy money, much of it made by bending the law, strips away Nash’s conscience and self worth. Profit as always, wins out over the values of human decency and empathy. Justice loses out to the law. The trajectory of the story follows Nash’s moral decline…his drift from proud father and son to a ‘nose’ following the scent of the money.

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In the hands of lesser actors, Bahrani’s fable of human frailty could easily have come across as a bit too strident, as there’s no question whose side the director is on. But Garfield’s Nash emerges as a basically decent person (with a wonderfully realized bond with his son), torn apart by circumstances and his own too fallible humanity. The Englishman Garfield inhabits this down and out blue collar American as if it’s his own skin. As he suffers wordlessly, introspectively, his is a master-class of acting with the eyes. He allows us to see beyond them to his conflict and despair and greed and tragic loss that’s tearing him apart.

For Carver however, as the embodiment of the housing crash, of ruthless profiteering, ever on the prowl for fresh victims like some daylight Nosferatu, Shannon offers a portrait of unfeeling sleaze. If Garfield communicates his anguish via the despair in his eyes, Shannon’s sneer shouts his contempt of the losers.

It’s a writer’s movie. Bahrani shares writing credits with fellow writers, Amir Naderi and Bahreh Azimi. Theirs is a screenplay that’s densely, almost theatrically articulate. For the sleazy Carver is, if nothing else, a glib, smooth talking apologist for unrepentant greed. And those writers gave him a magnificent script to bring alive.

It’s a jucily written role in a jucily well directed film.

And finally as an aside, the team that brought this very American tale to the screens are Americans of Saudi, Iranian, Russian, Afghani and English descent. How very American (but don’t tell Trump)

Mud: A Clear Winner


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In “Mud”, director Jeff Nichols (who also gave us the magnificent, and I suspect, under-viewed “Take Shelter”) has created an engaging, nuanced coming of age story set in the other-worldly environs of the Mississippi.

Told mainly through the eyes of the principal character, Ellis (Tye Sheridan), it’s the story of two boys who discover a boat wedged in the top of a tree on a deserted island somewhere in the middle of the fast flowing river. They claim the boat as theirs, only to discover that there’s someone living in it. That someone turns out to be a disheveled, chipped-toothed Matthew McConaughey (the eponymous Mud) in one of his finest roles since “Lone Star”. He spins the boys a story about waiting for his lover, a story that Ellis, with his fine sense of chivalry and innocent idealization of true love, swallows hook line and sinker. What Mud hasn’t told them is that he’s really on the run, having killed a man in a jealous rage. True love and true jealously are twins that we see unfold.

The main storyline concerns the actions of the boys as they try to rescue Mud – from the island, the law and, eventually, from his less than faithful lover (a sexy, white trash Reese Witherspoon).

The influences of Mark Twain’s Mississippi books are evident – the boys, Ellis and Neckbone (newcomer Jacob Lofland) are Huck and Tom; Mud is their version of the fleeing Nigger Jim. Like “Huckleberry Finn”, the movie’s bi-focal vision looks at the small domestic drama of one boy’s rite of passage into the flowering of (a priapic) maturity, as he learns to see things as they are, and not the romanticized fantasy of how they should be… about finding the kernel of truth hidden within its husks of lies.

It is also, like the book, about the nature of flight and freedom. At its most obvious, Mud is fleeing the law and a posse of ruthless vigilante bounty hunters, lead by the wonderful, jowly Joe Don Baker as the God fearing father of Mud’s victim, bent on revenge. He (Mud) also has to free himself from his own fantasized version of Juniper (Reese’s character) whose on and off love is destroying him. She herself, trapped, doomed, trying to escape to a better life has a tattoo of a bird in flight, the ultimate symbol of freedom. Ellis’ mother Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson) has to escape a failed marriage and free herself from the isolation of the river (one of the characters early in the film describes the river as the place where you either found a living, like Neckbone’s uncle -the compelling Michael Shannon – or isolation). Mud’s father (or father-figure), Tom (Sam Shepard) has himself escaped a shady past to the freedom offered by the isolation and invisibility of the river.

There are two recurrent images and symbols – of snakes and of birds in flight. Mud has a large curling snake (tattoo) wrapped around his torso; he’s been bitten in the past by one and nearly dies (as happens to Ellis); at various points, people are disparagingly cursed as “nasty snakes”. The snake seems to be the hard and harsh reality that you need to be aware of and avoid. It’s the danger lurking at your feet. The graceful flocks of birds that arc across the sky from time to time are the obvious image of the unfettered life, the kind of life the boys seem to have as they whizz about in their small boat and motorbike; the kind of life that’ll end soon enough as maturity and jobs hem them in.

Jeff Nichols paces the movie nicely, slowly building the narrative and drawing us in to Mud’s every changing stories about himself, his lover and his father, even as the darker forces of retribution arm themselves and quicken the story to its final explosive shoot-out.