Tuesday, 27 February 2018

The Shape of Water (2017)

Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer work together to save a misunderstood creature in The Shape of Water

Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Sally Hawkins (Elisa Esposito), Michael Shannon (Colonel Richard Strickland), Richard Jenkins (Giles), Doug Jones (The Creature), Michael Stuhlbarg (Dr Robert Hoffstetler), Octavia Spencer (Zelda Delilah Fuller), Nick Searcy (General Frank Hoyt), David Hewlett (Fleming), Lauren Lee Smith (Elaine Strickland)

Guillermo del Toro: part arthouse director, part thumping action director, who else could have made both Pan’s Labyrinth and Pacific Rim? The Shape of Water falls firmly into the former category, and continues the director’s long-standing interest in fairy-tales and fables, creating adult bedtime stories filled with romance and wonder, but laced with violence and human horror (and it’s always the humans who are the monsters). The Shape of Water has been garlanded with huge praise – but yet I’m not quite sure about it. Just not quite sure.

In 1962 in Baltimore, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute cleaner working in a government facility with her colleague, friend and effective translator Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Her only other friend is her neighbour, a gay out-of-work advert artist Giles (Richard Jenkins). The research facility takes delivery of a strange amphibious creature (Doug Jones), captured in the wild by sinister CIA man Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). While Strickland and lead scientist Dr Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) conduct tests on the creature, Elisa befriends it – the two of them drawn together by their isolation and inability to communicate verbally. When the decision comes from above to dissect the creature, Elisa decides to help it escape. 

The Shape of Water is an adult fairy-tale that uses the structure, rules and heightened reality of the bedtime story. So we have Elisa as “the Princess without a voice”, the government facility as the evil castle, the creature as a mixture of damsel in distress and knight errant, and Michael Shannon’s vile government spook as a sort of perverted evil Queen. While the film is set in 1962, it’s aiming for a fantasy world feeling: Elisa and Giles even live above an old-school movie cinema, while the facility itself is a dank, subterranean concrete prison, part medieval dungeon, part industrial complex, dressed in a retro-1950s style. There’s no denying the film looks fantastically impressive.

The plot hinges on the growing bond between Elisa and the creature, which flourishes first into a mutual friendship, then semi-romance and finally into a full-blown relationship. If there is one part of the movie which I felt didn’t quite work, it was the build between friendship and love. While del Toro does some excellent work showing these two bonding over a common lack of language – she teaches him some basic sign language, they both share a love of music – I felt the jump between friendship and sexual attraction seemed a little big.

Del Toro films it all beautifully – and his empathy for both characters is very moving. But the film wants us to feel this deep connection for (and between) the two characters – and I’m just not sure I did. I’m not sure the film gives the time it needs for this development. Great as Michael Stuhlbarg’s (and excellent as his conflicted performance is) character is, could the film have removed his sub-plot and invested more time in the relationship? Yes it could – and I think this could have made a stronger movie. This is of course a personal reaction – I’m sure plenty of people will be bowled over by the romance of the film – but I didn’t quite buy it. For all the soulfulness of the film, I just didn’t find myself investing in this relationship as it built as much as I should.

This is despite Sally Hawkins’ expressive acting as Elisa. I find Hawkins a bit of an acquired taste: she is a little too twee, something about her eyes and vulnerable smile is a little too head-girlish. Of course that sprightly gentleness works perfectly here, but the character is more interesting when del Toro explores her depths, her desire and well-concealed resentfulness under a cheery exterior (practically the first thing we see her do is masturbate in the bath – a daily ritual timed to the second via egg timer, functionally getting these feelings out of the way before the day ahead). Hawkins mixes this gentle exterior and passionate interior extremely well throughout the film.

The principal supports are also excellent. It’s no coincidence that del Toro makes our heroes all outsiders: a mute, a black servant and an ageing gay man. As well as showing why these characters might be drawn together, it’s also a neat parallel commentary on attitudes of the time – Octavia Spencer in particular makes a huge amount out of a character that is effectively a voice for Elisa half the time, investing the part with a huge sisterly warmth.

Richard Jenkins is both very funny and rather sweet as a man scared of being alone and frightened about doing the right thing. Most of the film’s laughs come from him – but so does a large degree of its heart. Jenkins gets some fantastic material – from hints that he has been fired for social and sexual misdemeanors from his Mad Men-ish former job, to his growing realisation that his hand-drawn art is being left behind in a world embracing photography (“I think it’s my best work” has never sounded like a sadder mantra), and above all his hopelessly sad infatuation with the friendly barman at a local diner (the sort of hopeless crush you feel he must realise isn’t going to go anywhere good – but still manages to be endearing before it gets there).

Del Toro’s dreamy fable has plenty of potential monsters and obstacles in it – from government suits to Russian heavies – but the main antagonist is Shannon’s Strickland. Great as Shannon is in this role as a menacing heavy with a hinterland of insecurities and self-doubt, it’s a character that feels a little obvious. He’s the monster, you see! It’s a heavy-handedness the film sometimes uses – not least in its occasional references to the race politics of the era – that weights the deck, and tries to do a little too much of the work for the audience. Again, a film with one fewer sub-plot might have allowed this character greater depth. As it is, his vileness is established from the first second, which means the metaphor of his hand with its increasingly rotten, gangrenous fingers seems a little to on-the-nose.

But The Shape of Water is a labour of love, and a testament to love – and del Toro reminds us all what a luscious and romantic filmmaker he can be. The later romantic moments between Elisa and the Creature have a beauty to them – not least the moments when they immerse themselves together in water. Other moments are too obvious: an imagined song-and-dance routine is so signposted in advance that it carries little emotional impact. In fact, the film’s main fault may be it is too predictable: most of its plot developments I worked out within the first few minutes – but it sort of still works. After all, fairy-tales are predictable aren’t they?

Del Toro has made one from the heart here. It’s not a perfect film – it’s not a masterpiece, and I think it’s a less complex and affecting work than the brilliant Pan’s Labyrinth – but it’s made with a lot of love and a lot of lyrical romanticism. It looks absolutely astounding. It’s actually surprisingly funny and wonderfully acted: Richard Jenkins probably stands out, and my respect for Octavia Spencer continues to grow. Del Toro is gifted filmmaker, and he is working overtime here to make a romantic, sweeping, monster movie cum adult fairy-tale. All the ingredients are there: but somehow I didn’t fall in love. Did I miss it? Maybe I did. And I can’t think of much higher praise than I’m more than willing to go back and look again and see if I get more of a bond with it next time. But, for all its moments of genius, I found the delight was on the margins rather than the centre.

Monday, 26 February 2018

King Arthur (2004)

Clive Owen leads his merry men in clumsy would-be Arthurian epic King Arthur

Director: Antoine Fuqua
Cast: Clive Owen (Arthur), Ioan Gruffudd (Lancelot), Keira Knightley (Guinevere), Stellan Skarsgård (Cerdric), Ray Winstone (Bors), Mads Mikkelsen (Tristan), Joel Edgerton (Gawain), Hugh Dancy (Galahad), Ray Stevenson (Dagonet), Stephen Dillane (Merlin), Til Schweiger (Cyrnic)

The story of King Arthur has entertained generations for so long, it’s actually a bit of a surprise that there hasn’t been a great movie made about it. Sure there have been entertaining guilty pleasures (like my love for the bobbins Excalibur) but there hasn’t been a great action adventure made about the legendary king. And this Jerry Bruckheimer actioner sure ain’t it. But it re-enforces my seemingly never-ending appetite for distinctly poor, big-budget, epic films.

Arthur (Clive Owen) is a half-Celtic Roman cavalry officer who commands a Sarmatian cavalry unit, serving a fixed term of service with Rome. They help to guard Hadrian’s Wall against rebel native Britons. Before their discharge, the knights are given one last job: go behind enemy lines to rescue a prominent Roman citizen living beyond the wall. Once they arrive, they find he has enslaved the local Brits – including imprisoning a young woman named Guinevere (Keira Knightley). Knowing a Saxon invasion force lead by the fearsome Cerdric (Stellan Skarsgård) is ravaging Britain – and that the Romans are withdrawing from the empire – Arthur decides to lead the whole group back to the wall and safety.

King Arthur isn’t a terrible film, just a totally mediocre one. It’s an uninspired coupling together of half-a-dozen other better movie: from its Dirty Dozen line-up, through its Gladiator style score (Hans Zimmer rips himself off again), to its remix of a thousand period sword epics from Spartacus on, mixed with its Braveheart style design and battle scenes. It’s almost completely unoriginal from start to finish. There is no inspiration here at all – it’s made by people who have seen other films and based everything on that rather than wanting to make a film themselves.

It even wraps itself up with an unseemly haste, as if all involved knew they hadn’t nailed it so decided the best thing to was to knock the whole thing on the head and call it a bad job.

The film probably stumbles from the start with its claim to present a sort of “true historical story” of King Arthur. Now I’m not one to get hung up on historical accuracy too much – except when it’s making extravagant claims which are just not true – but the “true story” here is bobbins. Nothing really feels right – from the Roman politics to the idea of a group of loaded Roman settlers setting up a huge estate deep into Scotland (I mean what the fuck was Hadrian’s Wall for eh?). The knights bear very little resemblance indeed to their legendary counterpoints. In fact it’s almost as if they had a script about a brave band of Roman soldiers and just stuck the name King Arthur on it for the name recognition (perish the thought!).

The idea of a group of seasoned, grizzled warriors isn’t a bad one – and it works rather well here because most of the actors in these roles are pretty good (particularly Mads Mikkelsen as a sort of Samurai Tristan). It makes for some interesting dynamics and always some fine character work – the best arc going to Ray Stevenson’s Dagonet as a knight who finds something to fight for. It also contrasts rather well with Stellan Skarsgard’s world-weary villain, who’s seen it all and finds it hard to get excited about ravaging and pillaging anymore.

But it’s a shame that this promising set-up gets wasted. After a good start, when we get to see all our heroes’ personalities reflected in their fighting styles as they repel an attack on a bishop, these dynamics quickly settle down into the usual tropes: you’ve got the joker, the cocky one, the reluctant one who’s only out for himself… Fortunately the Director’s Cut (which I watched) deletes the worst of Ray Winstone’s comic “banter”, but it’s still pretty standard stuff.

The mission behind the wall then pretty much follows the pattern you would expect: the guy they go to rescue is an unsympathetic bastard, they find themselves protecting the weak, it’s a dangerous journey back to safety, blah-blah-blah. Although a battle on the ice has some genuine excitement to it, there isn’t anything new here at all. Everyone just feels like they are going through the motions. 

When the battles kick off in earnest, they are pretty well mounted – even if they are hugely reminiscent of the opening battle of Gladiator and the low-camera, immersive battles of Braveheart. Sure there is a smoky immediacy about them, like a sword wielding Saving Private Ryan, but it’s still pretty much what you would expect. The action pans out with no real surprises – our heroes and villains even match up for the expected clashes.

Clive Owen is a fine actor, but he is manifestly wrong for the role of a classical hero and the awe-inspiring battlefield heroics he is called to carry out here. He’s too modern an actor, with too much of the world-weary smoothness to him, for him to really convince as this hardened medieval warrior. Owen’s delivery and style is so restrained he can’t bring the bombast or elemental force the part requires. Allegedly he was cast because Bruckheimer believed he would be the next James Bond – the actor they turned down for Arthur? Daniel Craig… 

Nope. Sorry.

Similarly Kiera Knightley is just as miscast. Let’s put aside the fact that she is half Owen’s age. There is a prep school headgirlishness to her that just doesn’t work when we are asked to buy her as woad-covered warrior princess. She’s too strait-laced, too polite, too sophisticated. When she does step into the full-on Boudicca look, you’ll giggle rather than tremble. For all her exertion, she’s not convincing in the role either.

But then that’s King Arthur all over: trying hard but not convincing, with such a tenuous link back to the original myth that the fact they are just using the Arthur name to flog some more tickets is all the more obvious. Major elements of the legend are missing – in particular the Arthur-Lancelot-Guinevere love triangle is cut down to the merest of suggestions, enough for it to be noticed but not enough for it to feel like a real plot – and other elements (Merlin, the Sword in the Stone, the Round Table) seem shoe-horned in for no real effect. It’s basically just a bombastic B-movie, a sort of Gladiator rip-off without the poetry. Moments of fun, but still not that good.

Saturday, 24 February 2018

Dracula Untold (2014)

Luke Evans rises above another terrible film in this first terrible attempt to launch a "Dark Universe"

Director: Gary Shore
Cast: Luke Evans (Vlad the Impaler/Dracula), Dominic Cooper (Sultan Mehmet III), Sarah Gadon (Mirena), Art Parkinson (Ingeras), Charles Dance (Master Vampire), William Houston (Cazan), Diarmaid Murtagh (Dumitru), Noah Huntley (Captain Petru), Paul Kaye (Brother Lucian)

Every studio wants its own Cinematic Universe. Because the lesson from Marvel’s patient and excellent build of an entire world is that people will come and see every single film you make in a series. Right? Perhaps that explains the painful attempts of Universal to turn one of their few recognisable assets – monster movies – into some sort of bizarre linked universe. The project is currently in terminal decline after the flop of Tom Cruise’s The Mummy. But before that, a reboot had already been attempted with this bizarre retelling of the Dracula origins story.

Vlad the Impaler (Luke Evans) is a guy who wants to put his life of impaling behind him. All he wants is to lead his people peacefully in Transylvania. So imagine his disappointment when his boyhood rival Sultan Mehmet III (Dominic Cooper) arrives and demands the tribute of the first born sons of Transylvania – including Vlad’s son Ingeras (Art Parkinson). Vlad umms and ahs and then he decides – y’know what – not on his watch. But how can he keep his people, his son and wife (Sarah Gadon) safe? Well the only solution is to take on the mighty Power of the Vampire from a mysterious cave-dwelling creature (Charles Dance). Vlad now has unlimited strength for three days – but can he resist the craving for human blood that will make the transformation permanent? And will the powers last long enough to repel the Turks?

Okay. So obviously this film is complete rubbish. I mean it really is. It’s hilariously overshot – the action sequences are frequently hard to follow, so swiftly does the camera swoop and swirl like the bats Vlad can transform into. Shore is in love with showy shots – one battle is seen through the reflection on a CGI sword that is thrown in the air and twirls in an arc downwards (yes it is as complex and unengaging as I made it sound).

The plot is complete bobbins. It’s all “Forsooth my lord” and “We make for the monastery!” (a building, by the way, of unlimited size that seems genuinely able to accommodate most of the population of Transylvania). The film wants us to remember that Vlad is a cool bad-ass but also that he is ashamed of his life of sticking people on poles (needless to say, his signature move breaks out eventually). Vlad is a vampire and a monster – but he is also someone we need to root for, so he is portrayed as a lovable family man who never really seems that tormented by urgings for blood.

Luke Evans. One day he will be a star. If you could find a good performance in a terrible, stupid film it would be his. He is fully committed and he gives the part so much emotional depth – way more than is in the script. He really, really sells Vlad’s humanity and makes his character feel like a warm, lovable guy – but he mixes it with an edge behind the noble call of duty. Evans is genuinely rather good in this. The guy deserves so much better.

I’ll give a pass as well to Sarah Gadon and Art Parkinson, who at least treat the parts with a certain respect. Charles Dance has fun under bizarre make-up as a wizened monster. Everyone else is here to be as over-the-top and stupid as possible – not least Dominic Cooper, whose ludicrous accent, utterly unimposing frame and inexplicable sudden detailed knowledge of vampires makes for a deeply stupid, bad performance. But then everyone is going for it – Paul Kaye leaves no piece of scenery unchewed in his brief performances – and going for it badly. Everyone comes out of it badly.

The plot makes no sense: a strange gypsy emerges from nowhere to try and serve Vlad (why?) and then only returns at the end to help set up a sequel-that-never-came. Every decision Vlad makes is terrible. The villagers oscillate wildly from pathetically grateful yokels to “burn him!” lunatics to – well it would be spoilers, but let’s just say there is quite the body count. In fact, the only thing really interesting about the story is wondering what will make Vlad remain a vampire (which we all know he will do) – of course it is a “noble sacrifice”.

The biggest problem with the film is that Vlad is both far too powerful and far too noble. Since he can literally kill thousands of people single handed, why does he waste time taking his people into the woods – why not ride out single handed to meet the Turkish force and take them out? If he is so noble that he is never tempted once to keep the powers of a vampire for selfish reasons, where is the dramatic tension?

The film eventually ends in another overblown, stupid fight scene with bats and invulnerable vampires flying about the place. That’s before we head into an unearned coda in the modern age which sets up a sequel that is not coming, and includes a few groan-worthy references back to the original novel. But then this is a cartoon made by people who thought that they didn’t need to bother to make a good movie at all if they slapped the Dracula name on it.  I suppose you could say it’s just trying to entertain: but with no real interest in doing anything other than making more movies off it later, it’s a bit of a pointless mess.