The Shape of Water (US, 2017)


I hope you’ve seen this film but if you haven’t don’t read this: go see.

I was uneasy about Phantom Thread a few shots in but I was sold on The Shape of Water during the first shot that ‘steadicams’ through Elisa’s (Sally Hawkins) underwater apartment. The beautiful (throughout) set design becomes magical as the ripples of water wobble our vision. We are in a fairy tale land where it appears that there will be a happy ending but, as in Pan’s Labyrinth, the reality of the time – the early ‘60s – threatens political violence.

Del Toro loves monsters; he apparently made a pact with them that he would love them if they allowed him to go to the toilet and so avoid wetting his bed when a child. Misunderstood beasts populate his films, most obviously in Hellboy 2 where the hero tells his girlfriend that it’s great in the troll market because no one stares at him. The monster in The Shape of Water is based on ‘The Creature from the Black Lagoon’, an early 3D movie released in 1954.

Paul D. Austerberry deserves plaudits for the production design, it almost trumps the narrative, but there is no doubt that it is Guillermo del Toro’s vision we are seeing. His colour schemes are always calculated – green dominates here – and always beautiful to look at. As is Sally Hawkins’ magnificent performance as Elsa, a mute whose loneliness leads her to the ‘monster’. Richard Jenkins, as a closeted gay man, is also excellent in his heart breaking portrayal of being a man ‘out of his time’. Not only does his homosexuality make his life difficult his commercial art has become unfashionable.

It’s 1963, Cold War paranoia and civil rights protests are ongoing in a country under siege from, as the film suggests, itself. The civil rights protests are only referenced in passing but the hatred of the ‘Other’, intensified by the Cold War, is the focus. Michael Shannon, the film’s real monster, plays the security man who wants the ‘creature’ dissected. The Russian spies are played for laughs but are – apart from the sympathetic scientist – as culpable as the Americans.

Elsa’s apartment is above an Orpheum cinema, with is showing the Biblical epic ‘The Song of Ruth’, and it is as if all the ideas of cinema have percolated through the roof to infiltrate her life. Of course, cinema infiltrated del Toro’s life as a boy and his films are on-going homages to films he loves but he manages to avoid pastiche, in the way Tarantino has no wish to, and so offers a rich dish of layered meanings. The poster for The Creature from the Black Lagoon featured the titular ‘monster’ carrying out the pathetic female lead; del Toro reimagines this to make the female a protagonist of verve and resource. Her silence is contrasted with the loquacious Zelda (Octavia Spencer on great form) who also representsAfrican Americans; both are also working class cleaners in the government research institute.

Shannon’s stricken Strickland’s middle class life, with its burgeoning consumerism epitomised by his purchase of a ‘teal’ Cadillac, comes across as a ‘Stepford Wife’ hell and is particularly disturbing when he has sex with his wife. Strickland is literally rotting, his injured fingers turn black and he constantly eats sweets, and his soullessness is only matched by the ‘five star’ general who isn’t impressed by loyalty. Strickland’s shown putting into practice the manifesto of The Art of Positive Thinking and we see how its philosophy to be empty.

At the heart of the film is Hawkins’ Elsa whose pathos, particularly in the musical sequence when she imagines finding her voice, is moving. Doug Jones’ creature is a magnificent costume brilliantly embodied. The film requires more than one viewing to revel in its cinematography and marvel at the marvellous.


Thor (US, 2011)

Oedipal shenanigans

Yet another male having to prove himself to his father… yawn. Oedipus and Freud are probably the fathers of Hollywood. Are Hollywood execs yearning to prove themselves to their fathers? Are their lives so empty that they constantly seek self-realisation in the resolution of the narrative? So why am I bothering to blog this film?

I’m not familiar with the Marvel comic source material but the film version does offer, at least, a slightly more subtle version of masculinity than, say, Schwarzenegger’s Conan. Chris Hemsworth’s pretty boy musculinity does manage to find a non militaristic way of being a man. I won’t be giving the film away by telling you that the catalyst for this is a woman: Natalie Portman’s attractive (under-statement) scientist.

Visually the film’s OK; by that I mean it’s pretty stunning but CGI’s ability to do anything has rendered it virtually incapable of creating genuine spectacle. I ended up in the 3D version which only confirmed that, for this type of cinema, it is entirely unnecessary; something multiplex audiences are starting to agree with by choosing the cheaper 2D versions this summer over the 3D offerings.

Alice in Wonderland (US, 2010)

Evil v good? Yawn.

I don’t know the original well enough to comment on what’s actually been changed in Tim Burton’s version, but clearly  the episodic nature of Carrol’s fantasy has been replaced by a conventional good v evil narrative. The boredom this instills is epitomised by the way the Jabberwocky pauses to roar like all CGI monsters.

What a disappointment from Tim Burton and the cast seem to be going ‘through their numbers’ though I think Mia Wasikowska, as Alice and seen in the first series of the brilliant In Treatment, could be a star in the making.

Bechdel test: Pass (7/4)
Protagonist: Female (2/6)

Pleasantville (US, 1998)

Postmodernism with meaning

This is an audacious film that melds the comedy of laughing at the myth of the American ’50s to social commentary on discrimination. Siblings David and Jennifer find themselves in a ’50s black and white TV programme but, particularly through her behaviour, they soon literally bring colour to the characters’ lives.

Jennifer is sexually predatory whilst David is the virginal nerd who knows everything about the TV show. So it’s Jennifer who initiates the youngsters of the hyperreal world of Pleasantville to the pleasures of the flesh. Add the fact that there’s no sense that Jennifer is doing ‘wrong’ then we have an usually positive representation of female sexuality from Hollywood (though it’s a pseudo-indie film made by Warners’ division New Line).

However as David (‘Bud’ in Pleasantville) notes it’s more than sex that brings colour into people’s lives (though his onscreen mother’s self sexual awakening brings a coup de cinema when a tree explodes into flames). Previously anti-book Jennifer starts reading the classics, DH Lawrence of course to start with, and finds the world of books even more enticing than sex. Here the film’s ideologies clash: on the one hand, the conservatism of (mythic) small town America is mocked; on the other, canonic literature is good for you.

The film’s postmodern playfulness is, as in the same year’s The Truman Show, deployed to meaningful effect. Art is portrayed as a subversive and enriching activity which challenges the patriarchy of the television programme in which the characters ‘live’. The book burning sequence, and the ‘no coloreds allowed’, are chilling reminders of the real world of suppression of ideas and discrimination.

Postmodernism usefully flattened the distinctions between high and low culture in a democratic move. However, the ‘anything goes’ destruction of the meta narrative of the canon reduced the common cultural  inheritance that we experience. Indeed, the invention of Literature as a subject was intended (see Matthew Arnold) to cement social values in the face of the decline of religion in 19th century Britain. So while the anti-elitism inherent in destroying the canon is good (who chose the canon in the first place? we didn’t) the common points of reference in contemporary society seem primarily to rest upon celebrity. Such that we can’t be presented with a documentary of street kids in India (and this is after Slumdog Millionnaire!) without it being Lindsay Lohan’s India. I’m not arguing for the return of the canon, which Pleasantville is, but it was better than what we’ve got now.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (UK-Canada-France, 2009)

Ladies and Gentlemen! We present nothing new!

This was Heath Ledger’s final film, his death during shooting brilliantly finessed by having Depp, Farrel and Law also play his character. It’s also a Terry Gilliam film and we can expect, like Tim Burton, a visual feast. However, whilst the cast is good, and some of the visuals are startling, I felt I’d seen it all before. The film presents a coagulation of music hall, Heath Robinson contraptions and the Faust story – so he have seen it before but unlike, say, Wallace and Gromit, it’s done is such a cliched and clunky way that the visual sheen cannot disguise the shortcomings of the script. Even having Tom Waits as the Devil – perfect casting for his raspy voice – doesn’t compensate for the ridiculous ending.

It was a troubled production but maybe Gilliam, like Scorsese, has run out of things to say. Or maybe I’m turning into a miserable old git who thinks he’s seen it all before.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the witch and the wardrobe (US, 2005)

How can such a big budget movie have such ropey special effects (they’re not all bad but some of them are back-projection city)? Anyway, it gets the effects it deserves. (OAR)

Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno, Mexico-Spain-US, 2006)

261029-pans_labyrinth_image_2A brilliant fantasy combining the brutal realism of the Spanish Civil War with a young girl’s escapist (after a fashion) fantasies. There’s a brilliant line describing fascism (accepting orders unthinkingly) and Sergio Lopez plays evil brilliantly. Visually stunning (all on E15m apparently) and emotionally gripping. One of the movies of the year. (Pictureville)


I’ve just seen the film for the fourth time and it gets better with viewing (and age). The protagonist, Ofelia, is ‘coming of age’ during the dying embers of the Civil War which, we know, Franco has not only won but will rule for another 30 years. Her escape into her fantasy world is entirely rational. I thought, when I first saw it, that the film might be dallying in the ‘fantastic’, where the fantasy may or may not be true; however, subsequently I’m convinced it’s not. In addition it becomes clearer that the story is as much about Cpt Vidal as Ofelia. The psychopathology of fascism is engraved in his pained expression and inability to relate to others, other than through violence. It is painful that such pathologies are starting to thrive in Europe, in Greece in particular, in response to economic austerity. Of course the response of the oppressed would better being of the ‘left’ than the ‘right’ but the Establishment prefers to deal with the latter, knowing it so well.

Ofelia’s is about becoming an adult, she has to complete the faun’s (or Pan’s) tasks before the full moon (of her first period). She is an active protagonist, unusual for a female, particularly a pre-pubscent one (unless we are in Miyazaki Hayao’s universe). Mercedes, who becomes a surrogate mother to her because her own is incapacitated by pregnancy, is also a dynamic character; particularly in the scene when she confronts Vidal. However I do wonder about the film’s sexual politics when we find Ofelia in the fairy tale world told to sit beside her father, who’s positioned highest in the mise en scene. Fairy tales are, of course, patriarchal; maybe that’s del Toro’s point.

Add a beautiful mise en scene, thrilling battle sequences, a villain to viscerally hate and an ending that… well just in case you haven’t seen it… you have a magnificent film.