Review: The Shape of Water

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Guillermo del Toro has always had a unique style as a filmmaker, and his love of monsters has continued to give cinema-goers colorful and nuanced portrayals of the creatures and stories he holds dear, ensuring that his films stand out compared to the more one-dimensional and disposable paranormal offerings that tend to populate the contemporary cinematic landscape. While del Toro is no stranger to passion projects as evidenced by a significant number of his previous works, it is clear from the onset that The Shape of Water is the very definition of an unadulterated labor of love.

Much like Jean-Pierre Jeunet has always had his own style in terms of visuals and narratives, it was not until Amélie that he truly managed to engage viewers outside his usual target audience. Jeunet’s 2001 film became a darling among critics and audiences alike because it continued to be true to Jeunet’s aesthetic, however, while he did not compromise the essence of his style in order to execute his vision for Amélie, there was a different kind of depth and sweetness to the story, which resonated exceptionally well with viewers. Similarly, del Toro has had a dedicated following for years, and while he has become increasingly well-known outside dark fantasy and horror circles, just like Jeunet until the release of Amélie, the Mexican auteur has been considered too much of a genre-specific filmmaker to create something that could appeal to a broader audience without compromising his artistic integrity.

Arguably, on paper, The Shape of Water has an undeniably del Toro-esque appeal, as the story can essentially be described as what would happen if the Creature from the Black Lagoon did not have to kidnap his love interest, but instead found reciprocated love. However, while del Toro has dismissed any speculation as to possible connections between his latest effort and his Hellboy films, what truly makes the The Shape of Water work beyond the appeal of the fantastical elements, is that the story at its core is deeply human and relatable. Brimming with a sincere sweetness and maintaining an exquisite tonal balance that serves to perfectly suspend the viewer’s disbelief, most audiences will be hard-pressed to not fall in love with the story and the characters that inhabit it.

Having insisted on casting Sally Hawkins and Michael Shannon for the roles of leading lady and callous villain respectively, it is abundantly clear that their parts were written specifically for them. Hawkins brings her radiance and warmth to the character of Elisa, making it another noteworthy addition to Hawkins’ already impressive résumé of thoroughly engaging performances. Shannon takes another turn as a menacing antagonist, once again reminding us that the intensity he can bring to a character without making it feel like he is merely reprising past turns as other baddies, is an integral part of what makes him such a unique talent.

The supporting characters portrayed by Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins and Michael Stuhlbarg add additional depth to the story and help further build the world of the film. Having once again written the part specifically for the actor, del Toro enables Spencer to deliver her trademark, love-fueled sass in the role of Elisa’s colleague, Zelda, with great potency. Richard Jenkins also takes another turn as a likable, yet insecure and slightly bumbling supporting character in the role of the gay bachelor Elisa shares an apartment with. Lastly, Michael Stuhlbarg impresses as a secretive scientist with a highly compelling character arc. While this could all be considered typecasting, by giving the actors such well-written characters to portray, del Toro has ensured that the cast both individually and as a whole are absolutely pitch perfect for the story, and thereby increase the viewer’s ability to invest in the film.

Needless to say, the visual aspect of the film is as stunning as one has come to expect from del Toro’s hand. The score further emphasizes the sweet, heartfelt tone of the film’s style and narrative, however, do not be fooled; this is still very much a del Toro vessel. Thus, the filmmaker has playfully sprinkled elements of unsettling body horror throughout the film. These elements are genuinely unpleasant, but they never feel out of place and do therefore not detract from the overall sense of the film being an enthralling fairytale for adults.

What Guillermo del Toro has always done well is world-building. His fascination with dark fantasy and his ability to bring the figments of his imagination to life with such vibrancy attests to the greatness of his talent. However, what really makes his films stand out is the amount of heart that is poured into the stories and characters. Easily his strongest film since Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water has more in common with del Toro’s 2006 effort than mere stunning visuals and excellent special effects work, as he once again uses the historical tension of the era wherein the film is set to emphasize its emotional depth; in Pan’s Labyrinth it was post-Civil War Spain, here it is Cold War era America. This adds an additional sense of gravitas to the characters’ motivations and emotions, which further emphasizes that sometimes the strange and unusual is in fact deeply human rather than monstrous, just as humans are often the real monsters.

Verdict: 10 out of 10.

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Review: The Disaster Artist

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Anyone who has ever witnessed The Room – which by many has deservedly been called the best worst movie ever made – can attest to how the weirdness of the film does not merely boil down to incompetent filmmaking, but also to its paradoxically significant amount of entertainment value, the presence of which is as enigmatic as the film’s mastermind Tommy Wiseau. Very few definitive details are known about Wiseau, which makes for meeting the man in person as odd an experience as witnessing his work.

With the cult following the film has gained, the opportunity to meet Wiseau and his friend and co-star Greg Sestero presents itself rather often, as they continue to travel the world to meet and greet fans at midnight screenings where laughter, heckling and plastic spoons fill the air. As such, it was therefore understandable that Sestero eventually decided to write about his experiences with Wiseau, The Room and the madness that ensued. The result was the insightful and entertaining The Disaster Artist, which was eventually picked up by James Franco to adapt for the big screen, and here we are!

With the seemingly endless number of projects he is constantly involved in, James Franco has a very prolific career to say the least. Never settling for just one genre or archetype, the wide variety of characters he has portrayed is impressive, and while not all of the films he has been involved with have been critically acclaimed successes, the elder Franco brother has proven time and time again that he is one of the most remarkable talents of his generation. Comparatively, while younger brother Dave Franco has yet to become a household name, he has still managed to build a solid career without riding the coattails of his brother.

Some probably still suspect that Dave Franco has been given a lead role in his brother’s latest directorial project as a family favor, but his performance quickly puts such misconceptions to shame. Not only does he sell the character of Greg as a naïve, young man who makes some hilariously questionable choices, he also manages to maintain the likable and relatable qualities necessary to enable the audience to invest in the character. His performance also helps to further ground James Franco’s portrayal of Tommy, which is already a supremely balanced performance in its own right; considering the eccentric essence that saturates Tommy’s existence, portraying him as an absurd caricature to ridicule him would be all too easy. Fortunately, the Tommy that James Franco presents the viewer with perfectly conveys an utterly strange individual without losing any of his humanity, ensuring that anyone who has experienced Tommy in any capacity can buy into the illusion Franco’s performance is selling, all the while also enabling them to invest in Tommy’s dreams and feelings on a more general, human level.

The narrative structure further emphasizes the human themes of The Disaster Artist, again avoiding becoming a cheap mockery of the shortcomings of two people who may be lacking in talent, but are brimming with ambition. As such, the film is therefore a heartfelt and humorous story about friendship rather than a parody of a disastrous film production, which brought its main men a different kind of fame than they had originally hoped.

The setting of the more modest side of late 1990s and early 2000s San Francisco and Los Angeles is a somewhat stark, but realistic contrast to the glitz and glamour Tommy and Greg are seeking. Here, their relationship and their struggles are allowed to build and intensify at a satisfying pace that keeps the viewer engaged from start to finish. Once we get down to the shooting of The Room, everything is meticulously recreated, all the way down to the terrible lighting utilized on the set of Tommy’s disasterpiece. The amount of time allocated to the recreation of what happened on the set of The Room ensures that this part of the film is a genuinely comical centerpiece that neither outstays its welcome nor outshines the rest of the story.

With a truly remarkable central performance from James Franco and copious amounts of heart and wit, The Disaster Artist is a sincere combination of comedy and drama that serves to tell the story of the absurd trials and tribulations of the creators of the best worst movie of all time. Thanks to the tremendous amount of warmth and humanity, The Disaster Artist is as a result endearing without being sentimental and hilarious without being cruel, making James Franco very worthy of the awards he has already started raking in for this one.

Verdict: 10 out of 10.

Review: Justice League

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Not only has establishing the DC Extended Universe proved to be an arduous task with the numerous flops threatening to be a deadly counterweight to the one big hit the current film franchise managed to land with Wonder Woman this summer, the production of Justice League itself has also been tumultuous, to say the least. When Zack Snyder decided to step down from Justice League due to the tragic loss of his daughter, Joss Whedon stepped in to cover for Snyder, helming a substantial amount of re-shoots. Among DC fans, concerns understandably grew that Warner Bros. were simply trying to imitate the Marvel formula by bringing in the director of The Avengers, but while it is for better and most definitely also worse easy to see which elements Whedon has been in charge of, Justice League overwhelmingly comes across as the vision of a Snyder who has reined in his preference for angsty bleakness and muted colors and instead attempted to create a more vibrant film with more of a comic book feel than his previous DCEU offerings.

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Review: The Florida Project

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So-called slice-of-life cinema may not be everyone’s idea of a fun time at the movies, but for those who enjoy films that seek to engage its audience by making them reflect on human themes they may or may not already be familiar with, such films have time and time again proven to be incredibly rewarding cinematic experiences. Much like Moonlight won the hearts of critics and moviegoers alike thanks to its impressive performances, excellent cinematography and heartbreakingly relevant story, The Florida Project finds itself in a similar vein. While Moonlight is arguably the stronger film of the two, it is perfectly understandable why Sean Baker’s latest effort has been compared to the most recent Best Picture winner, just as The Florida Project has also created a substantial amount of awards buzz already.

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Review: The Death of Stalin

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From subversive World World II comics to Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump parody on Saturday Night Live, political satire has long been an integral part of the pop-cultural landscape, serving as a cathartic breath of fresh air during trying times. As Armando Iannucci has proved with previous directorial and writing efforts such as The Thick of ItIn The Loop and Veep, he is no stranger to this type of satire, but while his previous offerings have focused on contemporary scenarios, The Death of Stalin concerns a gruesome time period that is thankfully a thing of the past. Satirizing such a serious subject may seem like a problematic or insensitive choice to some, but as any good satirist will tell you, it is often within the most volatile political situations the most impactful satire lies, as true satire highlights the absurdity without neglecting the severity.

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Review: Thor: Ragnarok

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Considering the amount of superhero movies we have been bombarded with in recent years, the time where such films were a rarity seems like a distant memory. Looking back at those films, some of them have become classics that remain enjoyable, but some of them have also rightfully placed themselves on many lists of the worst movies of all time. It is therefore impressive that contemporary superhero films have maintained as high a standard as they have, which is largely due to a formula that was perfected with Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man a decade and a half ago. However, as good as that standard is, it does get rather repetitive with time. Even the mighty Marvel – which has continuously received praise for the offerings of their MCU – has to some extent become predictable, and while this summer’s Spider-Man: Homecoming was one of their better films, the final fight in particular felt painfully formulaic. Instead, what made the newest version of the web-slinger worthwhile was the relatability of the characters and the refreshing meta approach the film took. Another Marvel property that benefited greatly from the meta approach was the non-MCU adaptation of Deadpool, and while Thor: Ragnarok may not be led by an R-rated motormouth like Ryan Reynolds, the latest film about the mighty Thor is an incredibly enjoyable meta adventure, not least thanks to eclectic Kiwi director Taika Waititi being at the helm.

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Review: The Snowman

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So-called Nordic Noir has been all the rage in recent years, with crime drama shows such as The Killing and The Bridge thrilling and chilling audiences across the globe with that specifically Scandinavian brand of incredibly dark, but highly realistic mystery. Aside from the popular TV shows, books by authors such as Jo Nesbø have been equally successful, and it was therefore only a question of time before one of Nesbø’s stories about detective Harry Hole would be adapted for either the small or the big screen. In the cinematic adaptation of The Snowman, Michael Fassbender portrays Harry Hole, the protagonist of several of Nesbø’s books, and Rebecca Ferguson plays his crime-solving counterpart as Katrine Bratt in a production lead by director Tomas Alfredson, effectively marrying talent of both Hollywood and Scandinavia alike.

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