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The Shape of Water (2017) Movie Review by Stephen McLaughlin

SHAPE OF WATER

Director: Guillermo del Toro
Writers: Guillermo del Toro (screenplay by), Vanessa Taylor (screenplay by)
Stars: Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins

As I write this this review it has just been announced that “The Shape of Water” has been nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress (Sally Hawkins), Best Supporting Actress (Octavia Spencer), Best Supporting Actor (Richard Jenkins), Best Director (Guillermo Del Toro), Best Original Screenplay (Written by Vanessa Taylor), Best Original Score, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Production Design and the Best Film Editing. All of the above by the way are very difficult to argue with for consideration at this years Academy Awards.

“The Shape of Water” in my opinion can only be described as a brilliantly weird story set in a top secret research facility in the 1950s, a lonely janitor Elisa (Sally Hawkins) forms a unique relationship with an amphibious creature (Doug Jones) that is being held in captivity. Going back a few months ago I described the trailer like a ‘Monster of the Week’ episode of ‘The X-Files’. Now having seen the movie I still feel that way. The story is a very simple but strange tale of Elisa falling in love with this creature and the amphibian having the same feelings for her. Everything around the storyline is what makes the film so special. Yes the story is uniquely weird and I enjoyed that element of it. It’s classic Guillermo del Toro here we are talking about, who else can make a story like that work and be accepted. But going back to what I was saying, everything else around the story is what will make this movie stand out against the rest.

The cast and in particular Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon and Richard Jenkins are amazing. Hawkins is an absolute joy to watch as the lonely janitor who works closely with Zelda (Octavia Spencer) in the facility and although lives on her own spends most of her time with Giles (Richard Jenkins) and I will speak about both these characters shortly. Elisa to me is a strong woman in the sense that she understands what is happening in the facility towards the creature is wrong and knows that something has to be done to save it. Watching Hawkins interactions with the amphibian is interesting and sweet and you can see the challenges for the actress who because of the character being a mute and having to interact with a actor in a lizard suit is using her expressions and emotions more in a physically way than normal, you can be excused for thinking…this is weird. But honestly once you have watched this movie and every scene Hawkins is in you will understand why she has been nominated for Best Actress. The character has an inbuilt confidence about her towards the authorities and not in an obnoxious way, but a quiet confidence that although they see her as an inferior, which is probably due to her inability to speak and more prejudicially because of her occupation, she regards herself if not an equal, superior in a moral sense. Elisa is such a likeable character and Sally Hawkins portrays the role brilliantly.

Octavia Spencer as Zelda Fuller is somewhat the moral compass of the film. Riding high on the back of her amazing portrayal of Dorothy Vaughan in Hidden Figures the Academy Award Winning Actress (Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in The Help) again performs brilliantly and I was interested to see what kind of a character Zelda would be. She is probably Elisa’s best friend and work colleague. Both of them stick together in what is predominantly a male environment and have each other’s back. Zelda sees the good in Elisa and even when Elisa’s plan is in full flow and Zelda’s conscious flits back and forth between what is right and what is illegal, you know she is a good person and Spencer does well to portray that weight on her shoulders. Don’t get me wrong, Octavia Spencer is limited in her screen time and although I would have enjoyed a fuller role you just have to accept and enjoy her presence while you can.

Michael Shannon as the antagonistic Richard Strickland and leading the operation for the military is such a deep and intense character. Shannon continues to surprise me in his investment in his role and even though you are suppose to despise this character you can’t help wanting more when he isn’t on screen. Strickland is so invested in his career that his family life just appears to go through the motions with little interaction between him and his wife and kids. Bizarrely after a struggle with the amphibian, Strickland loses a couple of fingers, luckily found on the floor by Elisa but unfortunately not in time and although his digits are attached back onto his hand as the film progresses you can see (and thankfully not smell) his fingers becoming more bent out of shape and darkening. This to me illustrates the maniacal side of Shannon’s character, which I actually found rather amusing.

I know Richard Jenkins as more of a comedy actor and amazingly didn’t recognise at first playing the lonely Giles. As I previously mentioned, Giles and Elisa spend quite a bit of time together and chat about their days, although obviously Giles is the one doing the talking. Both of them although aren’t romantically connected share a common bond and companionship and spend most of their time together after work hours. Jenkins transformation physically is what through me off and his unique speech patterns for the character manage to mask the actor even further. He is brilliant in this role and really matches the benchmark of acting alongside Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer and Michael Shannon.

If there is one thing you are guaranteed with Director / Writer Guillermo Del Toro, that is a unique storyline. 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth is a great example of an excellent storyline that invests in the emotion and it’s characters. Del Toro is one of the best at this, regardless of how strange the plot may be he manages to draw you into his fantasy film and you can’t help but enjoy it. I am so glad he is on board to write and direct Pinocchio project as I think will be amazing and right down his street. Vanessa Taylor worked on the screenplay with Del Toro on “The Shape of Water” and looks like the perfect collaborator on this film. Taylor’s talents cannot be ignored here as although Del Toro’s name is more familiar, she is already in the process of working on next years (2019) Aladdin with Guy Ritchie and screenplay writer John August. Taylor’s previous work writing is mostly in television and most noticeably on HBO’s Game of Thrones and an excellent choice for this movie.

One of the most noticeable factors in “The Shape of Water” is the visuals. Sometimes the performances and direction can overshadow this and not deliberately but it is one of the first things the audience will intake and appreciate. The look of this film is both stunning and luscious in ever little detail. I can’t help but appreciate that the larger percentage of the look of this movie is practical effects and the Cinematography captures the look and feel to this perfectly, especially in the top secret facility that is enclosed with restrictive light and colours of green and rusty yellow are a common theme in this movie. Alexandre Desplat’s score also compliments the film in it’s eeriness and Desplat totally absorbs and understands what is required to give this unique film a unique sound. In his own words he said mentioned that melody he wrote for the opening scene is actually made of waves. Desplat admitted that he did not do that on purpose, but by being completely immersed in the love and the water elements, he wrote a melody that plays arpeggios like waves. Wow that is just amazing.

Overall “The Shape of Water” is a stunning piece of film and will dominate the Academy Awards. On a personal level though, it took me by surprise on how I felt going into the movie and what I got out of it in the end. The performances from the cast are breathtaking, the direction and story are what we now expect from Guillermo Del Toro but that doesn’t mean there are a few surprises on the journey. This is a film that is a must see and I can’t recommend this enough.

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Frank & Lola (2016) Movie Review by Darrin Gauthier

FRANK AND LOLA

Director: Matthew Ross
Writer: Matthew Ross
Stars: Michael Shannon, Imogen Poots, Justin Long

Plot:  A psychosexual noir love story, set in Las Vegas and Paris, about love, obsession, sex, betrayal, revenge and, ultimately, the search for redemption.
Running Time: 88 minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: Critics 67%    Audience 39%

Why I watched it: The cast, easy answer.

Random Thoughts: I love seeing good actors get to do new things and here is a prime example, Michael Shannon gets to play a romantic like lead, it’s as close as he’s going to get.  Also I think Poots is a very underrated and underused actress.

What I liked: The main reason to watch this movie is for Shannon and Poots, both are very good.  Going in you would think Shannon would act circles around her but she holds her won. Her work here and in The Green Room has really shown her range. Michael Shannon is a different cat that’s for sure, even when he’s playing a good guy you’re scared of him.  Watching this he reminded me of a young James Woods, he’s intense and at times very charming and liable but you never trust him 100%.  He gets to do something here that’s different and he runs with it.

Really this film is about a toxic relationship, two people who are damaged/a tad off but are drawn to each other.
The plot tries to get you to think this is a thriller but really it’s a story about two people and the drama they cause.  It’s intense and I will say I never truly knew where it was going.

What I didn’t like: This film left me baffled, it’s a bit of a mess, the film is way too short for the story it’s telling, things just seemed left out, random scenes are thrown together and you honestly have no idea what this movie is about.
There has to be stuff left out but I can’t review what I think should have been in it so I have to go with the film I was watching and for me the story doesn’t hold together.

The plot holes and the jumps in logic make your head spin.  I honestly believe that Justin Long’s character is a fairy godmother, Poots meets him in a bar and he hits on her and then he’s like what do you do for a living, oh really I can help you with that I own a company.  Oh your boyfriend is a chef my dad helps people with restaurants and we know a famous chef who wants to open a restaurant in Vegas, but he’s in France so I’ll pay for air fare and a hotel for you to cook for him.  Really?  Then it so happens that a man Poots says raped her also lives in France and Shannon googles him and finds his address and goes to get revenge.

At this point you think this might be a joke but no they’re dead serious. I will say this the main thing about this damaged couple is interesting and yes it has sex and real emotion and tension to it but we don’t know who they are, we’re thrown into this without seeing the love built up, they do have chemistry but I throw that to the actors.  The story really wastes what could have been a gut punch movie or even about people trying to fix themselves and trying to be happy but what we get is a mess.

Final Thoughts: I liked the two leads a lot but I disliked the story they were in.

Rating: 5/10

The Night Before (2015) Movie Review by Stephen McLaughlin

THE NIGHT BEFORE

Director: Jonathan Levine
Writers: Jonathan Levine (screenplay), Kyle Hunter (screenplay)
Stars: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie, Jillian Bell, Michael Shannon, Lizzy Caplan, Heléne Yorke

“The Night Before” is set on Christmas eve with three lifelong friends Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackiespend) spending the night in New York City looking for the Holy Grail of Christmas parties. Unfortunately for Ethan, as time has gone on, both Isaac and Chris although possibly not maturing have lives of their own. Chris has become a very famous athlete living most of his personal life on live broadcasting via social media and Isaac is now married and him and his wife are expecting their first born. Ethan on the other hand is living on nostalgia and hides away from commitment and responsibility and is determined to have the night of their lives on their final Christmas eve.

The film is about the changes in people’s lives as they get older and hanging onto nostalgia can hold you back from living your life. This is mostly the case with Ethan played by the brilliant and charismatic Joseph Gordon-Levitt who as a young boy lost both his parents around the Christmas holidays and through his best friends Isaac and Chris became their own little family watching out for each other in their younger days. Every Christmas Eve they would play out their ritual of very funny antics.

Although technically a Christmas movie “The Night Before” is a comedy film in the same mold as Pineapple Express (2008) some folk might say a “Stoner Comedy” but I feel that term doesn’t complement the storyline. The plot itself is about these three friends all living different lives and have their insecurities about their futures. Although Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character Ethan is supposed to be the main focus, I felt Isaac (Rogen) was the show stealer and in two particulars scenes involving a “talking” baby in a church and the nativity set outside the church. Gordon-Levitt is given top billing and the storyline focuses around his character that serves mostly as a master of ceremonies.

Ethan has issues committing to his ex girlfriend that he realises needs more than he thought. Isaac appears to be very straight laced at the beginning of the movie which surprised me with Seth Rogen restraining himself from his usual outrageous performances. Nevertheless, we don’t have to wait long to see this character unfold after his wife gives him a box of pick n mix assorted drugs as a one night only gift. Unfortunately although hysterical, the character overshadows the other two and in more ways Chris played by Anthony Mackiespend. Don’t get me wrong Mackiespend is fantastic as the more successful of the three but underlines the insecurities that come with his found fame.

I can’t let this review go without mentioning the brilliant Michael Shannon as Mr. Green. I’ve never seen a character who is unsettling but at the same time soothing. He is of course the guy you go to for some weed but although playing the stoner there is also something quite philosophical about his character and although used perfectly in his role. I still wanted to see more of this madman.

As far as “The Night Before” goes, it’s more than just a comedy. The sentimental element is there that is traditional with the holiday season. Perhaps it doesn’t have those memorable lines or scenes that other holiday movies have. It’s an enjoyable but strange little movie that I think everyone should give a try. For me I only had one niggle with the film and that was Christmas Eve felt a lot longer than 24 hours. We’re a good hour into this film and a lot of events have happened in this time leading to the party of a lifetime when suddenly they are all at Chris’ Mum’s house having dinner. This is after a few bars and a few bizarre incidents have happened in chasing down a thief and meeting Mr. Green. Apart from that the movie moves along okay and you will have a laugh or six along the way. Watchable and Recommendable.

Man of Steel (2013) Movie Retro Review by Stephen McLaughlin

MAN OF STEEL

Director: Zack Snyder
Writers: David S. Goyer (screenplay),  David S. Goyer (story)
Stars: Henry Cavill,  Amy Adams,  Michael Shannon, Russel Crowe, Diane Lane, Kevin Costner, Laurence Fishburne

Back in 2013 the “Man of Steel” opened the DC / Warner Brothers expanded universe doors and with a slight bump in the tracks regarding Batman versus Superman and Suicide Squad although it looks like they are on the right road again with this summer’s release of Wonder Woman directed by Patty Jenkins.

I was almost convinced back when “Man of Steel was released that it wasn’t originally being set out as the first in this universe. Yes we spotted the LexCorp and Wayne Security Easter eggs planted throughout the movie but probably right up to a month ago I stubbornly refused to believe that DC and Warner Brothers had this planned back then. It convinced me even more this was the case when not until the last couple of years that the studio have gone full pelt on their comic book universe. But I have now been told that I am wrong (and even did a bit of research in secret shhhhh) and that of course “Man of Steel” is DCs what “Iron Man” is to Marvel (enough with the comparisons)

So we Kick Off the movie with Russel Crowe portraying Jor-El (Superman’s father) debating with the Kryptonian Council that he is convinced the planets core is unstable and the planets existence will cease in a matter of weeks. Falling on deaf ears, Jor-El and his wife Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer) decide to take action of their own and save their child Kal-El (Superman) by sending him to the nearest inhabitable planet for his survival and the survival of the Kryptonian people. The sequence itself is just an updated version of the now legendary scenes starring Marlon Brando as Jor-El and Susannah York as Lara from “Superman: The Movie” from 1978.

I had always enjoyed rewatching the original movie back in my childhood. The John Williams score, the special effects had us believe a man could fly and the awesome casting of Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Ned Beauty, Jackie Cooper and upcoming stars in Margot Kidder and the late great Christopher Reeve who incidentally does not appear in the original movie until a good hour into it. “Man of Steel” on the other hand introduces the main players very quickly and at this point I think it’s only fair to say that I will not be making anymore comparisons between “Man of Steel” and “Superman: The Movie” from now on.

Michael Shannon is fantastic and ruthless as the military leader of Krypton “General Zod” and from that opening 10 minutes we realise how passionate and loyal he is to the people of Krypton in his own mad way. Zod and his Crew are captured and sentenced to the Phantom Zone (a solitary dimension) by the Council.

The scene involving Kal-El’s launch into the unknown is heartbreaking for Jor-El and Lara and you can sense the moral dilemma the father and mother endured to save their child. Kal-El’s arrival on earth is quick and effective that we don’t have to go into any great length or detail into his arrival into the small town of “Smallville” and Snyder’s  direction and Goyer’s writing allows us to focus more on the emotions of the characters throughout the movie without being bogged down with obvious exposition. The planet’s implosion visually is stunning and tragic and baby Kal-El is sent hurtling in space towards his new planet (plotted on some Kryptonian sat nav)

It is at this point we are thrown forward in time to the present and we are introduced to Henry Cavill as Clark Kent (Superman’s disguise) on a ship in his late twenties. The movie jumps back and forth throughout Clark’s younger years but it is done in a way that doesn’t interrupt the flow of the movie nor confuse the audience members. It is also a great way to introduce Clark’s earth parents Martha and Jonathan Kent played by veteran actors Diane Lane and Kevin Costner. Martha and Jonathan’s role throughout the movie cannot be ignored or underestimated as they are essential to the upbringing and moral values that Clark has inherited and defines his character.

Another particular scene that has to be mentioned is Jonathan Kent’s beliefs
and willingness in guiding Clark in his growth as he develops his “special powers” and keeping them at bay for his own good and only using it when the time is right is powerful. For anyone who hasn’t watched this film yet I won’t spoil it but there is a moment during a hurricane sequence that in a brief moment is sad yet poignant to Jonathan’s relationship to Clark. This is storytelling and character development at its best and can never be taken for granted. The look Costner gives Cavill will hit you right in the feels.

Zod’s return is of course predictable and after Krypton’s doom it was inevitable and to be honest pointless sending him and his crew to the Phantom Zone to begin with as once the planet imploded it released them and Zod’s mission was to track down Kal-El and extract components from his DNA to give Krypton a rebirth using planet earth as a base.

Amy Adams as Lois Lane appeared to be a great casting decision and I always saw Lois as an earthy Princess Leia back into day. Headstrong and a leader in every sense. Adams manages to portray this character very quickly and is key to earth’s understanding of how we come to understand Superman and how the human race must trust this one man who is clearly their only chance against the General.

The climatic battle between Superman and Zod is shattering to say the least and if DC / Warner Brothers have one thing over their competitors that is their cinematography. Visually “Man of Steel” is shot uniquely and Zack Snyder’s hands are all over it, in a good way. The imagery is so crisp and precise and the choice of colours throughout the movie depending on the mood of the scene is vivid and stunning.

Overall, “Man of Steel” is a Superman movie in its own right. Yes it does retell the origins story and yes it does rely on a well known villain but Snyder and Goyer take the movie from a different angle and set the tone for the DC / WB cinematic universe going forward. Highly recommendable.

Nocturnal Animals (2016) Movie Review by John Walsh

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS

 

Director: Tom Ford
Writers: Tom Ford (screenplay), Austin Wright (novel)
Stars: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon

Nocturnal Animals, the latest film from Tom Ford, focuses on the beautiful, seemingly rich and successful, Los Angeles gallery owner, Susan Morrow (Amy Adams). A west Texas debutant we learn later, she lives an extravagant lifestyle, with artwork aplenty hanging on the walls and other oddities dotted around her modern penthouse. It’s quickly apparent however that she’s deeply unhappy, with trouble brewing below the surface. She despises her job, is crippled with insomnia and her husband Hutton (Armie Hammer) has made some bad business decisions, leaving them teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. A strange package arrives at her residence and after giving herself a vicious looking paper cut in the process of opening it, we learn that within this is the manuscript of a new novel penned by her ex-husband. Dedicated to Susan, and having not spoken to him for the best part of 20 years, curiosity gets the better of her and she begins reading it, quickly becoming engrossed.

The focus then flips to the perspective of the novel, becoming a mini film within the larger main story. Following the Texas man, Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal) as he sets out on a road trip with his wife and daughter. Driving in the dead of night, on an empty, pitch black highway, they become embroiled in a terrifying cat and mouse chase with degenerate rednecks. The three of them are attacked, the overly timid Tony is easily overpowered and both his wife/daughter are kidnapped and later killed, leaving him questioning his masculinity and power in the aftermath. The novel plays out as a sort of tragic, therapy session on their failed marriage. The events that transpire on screen during the fictitious scenes, a manifestation of the pain Edward felt after his split. He wants to make Susan aware of the suffering she caused him and it appears to work too, as she begins to look sorrowfully into her past.

The film utilises flashback scenes throughout to flesh out Susan’s past and we’re even offered a brief glimpse of the tumultuous relationship with her mother (Laura Linney). The latter prophetically telling Susan that a marriage between the two will be destined to failed and that Edward lacks mental strength, as well as the driven attitude to keep her happy. The highs and lows of her marriage are then played out, the brutal way she ends it giving an illuminating insight into the clear allegory of the novel. She’s seen questioning Edwards artistic ability, before ending their marriage prematurely and even going as far as aborting their baby behind his back. Meanwhile, in the novel, we continue to follow Tony as he enlists the help of gruff detective, Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), in an attempt to get justice. They investigate for a year, before finally narrowing in on two of the three the culprits, Lou and Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Quick justice is served shortly thereafter, with Bobby, who we learn is suffering from terminal lung cancer and in no mood for letting the scumbags off lightly, shooting the former dead, whilst helping to lure the ringleader Ray to his end. Tony corners him, and after a short, tense standoff, finally avenges his family’s death. There’s a rather bizarre moment afterwards, when he appears to shoot himself accidentally, before crawling outside and succumbing to his wound.

Following these forays into Edwards past, the true allegorical significance behind his literary doppelgängers tragedy and the wider story as a whole is revealed. The devastation felt by Tony from losing his family within the novel echoing the grief of the author losing his unborn baby and wife. The emotional turmoil, eventual killing of the rednecks and his own death, representative of Edwards grief over the years, the eventual beating of his inner demons and finally being able to move on with his life. The films ambiguous end scene features Susan being stood up by Edward, after requesting dinner with her former husband. A final confirmation perhaps that he has moved on from his troubled past.

Both Adams and Gyllenhaal do a fine job in this film. Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson though, put in the standout performances for me. The former referring to his character as a ‘grotesque sort of angel’. A perfect description for the calm, guiding influence his character provides to Tony. He’s also highly likeable, his devil may care attitude, thanks in part to terminal cancer, giving him an almost humorous brutality when dealing with the murderous rednecks. Johnson is almost unrecognisable in this role as the redneck plumber/rapist/killer. Sporting an authentic southern drawl and long, unkempt hair, not to mention a shaggy beard, that’s every bit as crazy looking as the maniacal look in his eyes. I couldn’t possibly write this review without giving mention to the highly memorable scene involving Ray and an outside toilet. If any further insight is needed into the arrogant nature of the character then look no further.

The film itself is highly stylistic in its visuals. Seamus McGarvey, skilfully providing a stark contrast between the barren, gritty, rural Texas and the lonely cityscapes of Los Angeles. From the artwork on the walls to the immaculate costume. Musically, the score is well refined with clear classical origins. Featuring some beautiful string arrangements. It does a good job of switching things up as the film jumps between the action based novel scenes and the slower, more emotional parts featuring Susan.

Ultimately, I’d love to say sit here and say that it’s a fantastic film, but unfortunately that would be a lie and I can’t. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad film, just merely above average to good. I highly enjoyed the thrilling trips the film took into Edwards brutal world and the acting throughout was fantastic. However, it lacked emotional substance of any kind and whilst I understood the underlying theme of the film. I just wasn’t invested in the two main protagonists enough to actually care.