THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 3 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Sexual Content, Graphic Nudity, Violence and Language

Directed by: Guillermo Del Toro

Written by: Guillermo Del Toro & Vanessa Taylor

Starring: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Lauren Lee Smith, Nick Searcy & David Hewlett

I’ve yet to see a bad movie from Guillermo Del Toro. Whether it be the eerie combination of Gothic horror and old-fashioned romance in his highly underrated CRIMSON PEAK, a dark fairy tale/war drama in PAN’S LABYRINTH, or Lovecraftian sensibilities in both HELLBOY movies, Del Toro clearly creates the films that he wants to make. Even lesser efforts like giant insect B-movie MIMIC still is miles above other 90s B-flicks of its same genre. Del Toro knocks another film out of the park with THE SHAPE OF WATER! This film plays out like CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON meets BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. With an audience-pleasing narrative and loads of imagination, THE SHAPE OF WATER is a wondrous cinematic experience!

In 1962’s Baltimore, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute custodian working at a top-secret government facility. Esposito is looked down on by her snobby superiors, but has two great friends in talkative Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and oddball artist Giles (Richard Jenkins). Everything changes when Elisa’s workplace receives its latest experiment: an Amazonian humanoid-like amphibian (Doug Jones). In a strange twist of fate, Elisa and the “monster” begin to form a romantic bond. All the while, headstrong Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon) turns into a fearsome villain intent on dissecting the creature and concerned scientist Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) tries to keep the creature safe at all costs.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that THE SHAPE OF WATER began as Guillermo Del Toro’s original idea for a CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON remake. When he was a child, he wanted to see the creature and Julie Adams romantically end happily ever after. Unsurprisingly, Universal (the same studio that effectively killed its “Dark Universe” in the space of one movie) rejected Del Toro’s original take on a remake. Del Toro then transformed his idea into THE SHAPE OF WATER and has also dubbed it as his first “adult” film that tackles issues he’s concerned about in the modern age…as opposed to childhood fantasies and nostalgia seen in previous entries in his filmography. As a result, THE SHAPE OF WATER just might be Del Toro’s best film since PAN’S LABYRINTH.

Although it might sound hard to buy in a believable manner, the romance between Sally Hawkins’ protagonist and Doug Jones’ creature is totally compelling from start to finish. The ways in which these two outsiders bond over food, music, and sign language is beautiful. Hawkins is able to communicate everything she means without ever speaking a word…save for one dream sequence that serves as a great stylish WTF moment in the best way possible. Doug Jones does his usual weird thing as a monster, but doesn’t deliver any frights (save for when the creature is threatened).

Besides being a simple fantasy-romance between a mute woman and a fish-man (a description that woefully undersells this film), SHAPE OF WATER also has many subplots that further flesh out its characters in interesting ways. Nearly every character in this film receives a story arc that occurs around the woman-monster relationship. The most interesting of which easily belongs to Michael Shannon’s unusual villain. Strickland is easily one of the best roles that the madly talented Shannon has taken so far and allows him to flex his evil acting muscles as the story’s despicable antagonist. He also delivers a particularly gruesome moment that made my theater’s entire audience cringe and exclaim in unison.

I won’t mention too many details about the rest of the subplots. However, Michael Stuhlbarg is a very interesting character and his story arc is especially relevant to the time period of the 1960s. Richard Jenkins is just plain weird in spots, but that’s his character in this film. His distinct brand of quirkiness provides some chuckles, as well as many emotional moments that resonate in unexpected ways. Octavia Spencer is exactly a major character, but she does very well as a best friend who’s caught up in this monstrous mess. One thing that’s easy to notice is that almost all of these good characters are outsiders in some way, shape, or form. All the while, the main villain is the stereotypical 1960s macho-man American who’d usually be the hero in a 1950s/60s monster movie. It’s a fascinating switch-up to watch and one that only Del Toro could create in such a compelling manner.

As you might expect, SHAPE OF WATER’s visuals look amazing…much like the visuals in pretty much every other Del Toro production. The 1960s era is captured in a way that almost seems foreign…pointing out big problems that existed in the supposedly clean old-fashioned 60s. However, this is never done in a way that seems distractingly excessive or intrusive to the film’s story. Instead, it adds yet another layer to this wonderfully creative cinematic beauty. The effects are also worth praising as the blending of practical effects (in Doug Jones’ monster suit and brief gory bits) and computer-generated imagery (in the underwater sequences and shots that would be impossible to capture practically) is seamless.

Del Toro has done it again! This director has yet to make a bad or even mediocre film as he continues his winning streak in THE SHAPE OF WATER. WATER’s performances are stellar across the board, with especially impressive acting from a soundless Sally Hawkins. Spectacular special effects, a whimsical soundtrack, fantastical atmosphere, well-developed characters, and clever writing that blends a main story with many subplots, all make THE SHAPE OF WATER worth your time. If you want to see an out-of-the-ordinary romance that is romantic but not conventional by any means, then dive into this wondrous cinematic oddity.

Grade: A+

EXTRAORDINARY TALES (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 13 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

ExTales poster

Directed by: Raul Garcia

Written by: Raul Garcia & Stephan Roelants

(based on short stories by Edgar Allan Poe)

Voices of: Roger Corman, Guillermo Del Toro, Cornelia Funke, Stephen Hughes, Christopher Lee, Bela Lugosi & Julian Sands

From live-action anthologies to feature-length thrillers, we’ve seen many interpretations of Edgar Allan Poe’s horror stories brought to the screen. However, I can’t recall many cartoon versions of his stories, let alone an anthology film containing various animated takes on his classic tales. EXTRAORDINARY TALES is an anthology that’s been in the works for a while now and collects five different short films that encapsulate some of Poe’s best known work. The animation styles range from segment to segment as do the quality of the interpretations themselves. As with all anthologies, I will analyze each story on its own merits before getting into the film as a whole…

ExTales 1

Tale #1: THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER: A man visits his old friend (Usher) and uncovers a dark secret lying beneath Usher’s crumbling estate. This first segment is the weakest of the bunch, but this story isn’t exactly one of Poe’s best tales either. Though it oozes with atmosphere, I’ve always found the story of USHER to be all style and no substance. The same can be said for this animated version of the tale, though it does have the late Christopher Lee providing voice work for it. The CG is not too impressive. This looks like a kid’s computer game by the way of Edgar Allan Poe. As childish as the animation may be and as dull as the source material may be, this segment is still watchable. Lee’s narration elevates it from being middle-of-the-road. C+

ExTales 2

Tale #2: THE TELL-TALE HEART: A paranoid man plots an act of murder…only to find out that covering up the evidence isn’t as easy as he expected. One of Poe’s best known stories (you were probably forced to read it in school) comes to life in a most unusual way. Using stark black-and-white computer animation, this segment comes off as the creepiest of the bunch. The narrator is most unusual, seeing that he’s been dead for decades. A recording of Bela Lugosi (Dracula himself) reading the story provides narration for this piece. The audio does have some hiccups seeing that it’s old, but this adds to the otherworldly vibe of this story. Though it’s very cool to watch while it lasts, I couldn’t help but feel that this segment was a tad too rushed by not fully taking advantage of some of the main character’s more insane delusions. B

ExTales 3

Tale #3: THE FACTS IN THE CASE OF M. VALDEMAR: A hypnotist attempts to conquer death by putting his terminally ill friend into a trance. However, this experiment has unexpectedly horrifying consequences. I really loved how this segment was animated. It has the appearance of a living comic book, complete with an opening title that served as a direct homage to the old E.C. horror comics. Julian Sands provides great narration/voice acting for this segment. It also gets surprisingly graphic during the final frames. The funny thing is that this is one of Poe’s lesser works (in my humble opinion) and it’s executed in a way that definitely makes the material into something memorable. A

ExTales 4

Tale #4: THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM: A prisoner, captured by the Spanish Inquisition, is subjected to various methods of torture (both real and imagined). Narrated by Guillermo Del Toro, this story is far bleaker than the other stories being told here. The computer animation essentially looks like one giant cut-scene from ASSASSIN’S CREED, but the attention to detail is admirable and a thick atmosphere breaks through every pixel on the screen. Though the rapid style slows down during the final minutes (when it arguably should have been at its peak), this is a very well-executed interpretation of Poe’s words. A-

ExTales 5

Tale #5: THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH: The best segment comes in this almost dialogue-free version of a Poe classic that lets the visuals speak for itself. A wealthy prince seals himself and his fellow aristocrats within the walls of a grand abbey, whilst a deadly plague wreaks havoc on the peasants stuck outside the walls. He intends to hold a long masquerade ball to wait out the death and suffering, but soon finds that karma has a way of catching up with cowardly nobles. This story has about three lines of dialogue that I can recall (voiced by Roger Corman!) and lets the tale play out in front of the viewers eyes. I loved this segment so much that I actually watched it twice and picked up on little details that I didn’t notice the first time around. Easily, the best short on display here! A+

ExTales 6

Linking these five tales is a sort of weak wraparound featuring Poe (in the form of a Raven) speaking with Death (in the form of various statues) in a cemetery. As a whole, this film is sort of a mixed bag with two weak moments (the wraparound and the first story) and the rest of the tales ranging from good to awesome. The different animation styles keep things interesting and the final segment is fantastic! If you’re a fan of Poe, then EXTRAORDINARY TALES is a great viewing experience! I hope that director Raul Garcia eventually constructs a sequel. After all, there are still many more Poe tales that can be told in this format…

Grade: B+

CRIMSON PEAK (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 59 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Bloody Violence, some Sexual Content and brief Strong Language

CrimsonPeak poster

Directed by: Guillermo Del Toro

Written by: Guillermo Del Toro & Matthew Robbins

Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver, Emily Coutts & Leslie Hope

CRIMSON PEAK is being touted as a scarefest that’s full of ghosts, gore, and ghoulish delights. Marketing has suggested that moviegoers had best prepare themselves for something seriously terrifying. However, that’s slightly misleading seeing as Guillermo Del Toro’s latest film hearkens back to a more classical era of horror. Del Toro himself has described the film as more of a gothic romance than a straight-up horror film. The film is a slow-burning tale of love and bloody secrets. I think the best possible description that I could give CRIMSON PEAK is that this film feels like Edgar Allan Poe and Jane Austen wrote a story together and then Guillermo Del Toro filmed it. That should give you a general idea of what to expect when walking into the theater for this one.

CrimsonPeak 1

Edith Cushing is a young author and a bit of a social outcast among her peers. She’s an outspoken woman with strong opinions, a creative imagination, and the psychic ability to see ghosts. Those first two qualities gain her the admiration of Sir Thomas Sharpe, a businessman visiting from England. One thing leads to another and the two are soon joined together in holy matrimony. Sharpe then whisks Edith away to his isolated crumbling estate. The only other resident of the massive mansion is Sharpe’s strange sister, Lucille. As wonderful as her married life may seem, Edith suspects that Thomas and Lucille are hiding dark secrets. These fears are only strengthened when Edith begins to have run-ins with ghostly apparitions that seem to be stemming from the Sharpe household. Could these spirits have it out for Edith or are they trying to warn her of a greater danger?

CrimsonPeak 2

Guillermo Del Toro sure knows how to shoot a scene and he transforms CRIMSON PEAK into an overall gorgeous film. You could pause any scene of this movie and frame that still image as a work of art. It’s that visually stunning and amazing to look at. Needless to say that spooky atmosphere is at a definite all-time high in this film. The set design is insane and you feel that the Sharpe estate is a very real location, despite it being impossibly large and decrepit. Another addition to the scenery is constant red clay on the ground, which gives the illusion that the characters are walking on fresh blood at various points in the film.

CrimsonPeak 3

Speaking of which, Del Toro has a slow build to his classical screenplay (which hearkens back to an era of Hollywood horror when jump scares weren’t needed every five minutes), but never neglects to embrace his R rating. He fought tooth and nail to get his R-rated horror film and we see evidence of that in some of the bloodier scenes. It’s not as if the movie is a gorefest, far from it, but we do get messy moments that easily earned the rating on violence alone. The ghosts themselves look creepy as hell. I’m usually against the use of CGI for roles that could be filled by actual performers, but I loved how Del Toro created these contorting, decayed spirits. Each ghost had a unique look and there are a number of really scary sequences that got big reactions out of me.

CrimsonPeak 4

As far as the performances go, there are four main cast members to speak of. Mia Wasikowska fills the role of Edith Cushing well. She plays her protagonist as a smart woman with a slightly naïve romantic side. However, she has enough brains to know when something strange might be going on behind her back. Charlie Hunnam is mostly swiped to the sidelines, but makes a strong impression as a doctor with the hots for Edith. Tom Hiddleston (mainly known for playing Loki and being the sexiest man alive for women everywhere) disappears into the charming Thomas Sharpe. Hiddleston plays the character as a charismatic romantic lead with a few skeletons in his closet. He also has really terrific chemistry with Wasikowska, especially during the romantic scenes in the first act. Arguably, the best performance comes out of Jessica Chastain as the mysterious Lucille Sharpe. Chastain’s Lucille comes off like a frightening force to be reckoned with as she can be charming and funny during some moments, while intense and scary during the very next scene.

CrimsonPeak 5

Horror fans who go into CRIMSON PEAK expecting non-stop terror and gore might leave utterly disappointed. However, viewers who dig a slow-burn, old-school approach to their scary stories will find a whole lot to love here. I don’t have a single complaint with this entire film. The imagery is phenomenal, the story is well-written (even when you have a good idea where it might be going), the scares are…well, scary and the film has a gothic horror approach that we rarely see taken in modern horror these days. CRIMSON PEAK isn’t simply a ghost story. As Edith says early on when describing one of her books, it’s a story that happens to have ghosts in it.

Grade: A+

HELLBOY (2004)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 2 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sci-Fi Action Violence and Frightening Images

Hellboy poster

Directed by: Guillermo Del Toro

Written by: Guillermo Del Toro

(based on the HELLBOY comics by Mike Mignola)

Starring: Ron Perlman, John Hurt, Selma Blair, Rupert Evans, Karel Roden, Jeffrey Tambor, Doug Jones, David Hyde Pierce, Brian Steele, Ladislav Beran & Bridget Hodson

The early 2000’s weren’t necessarily a good time for superhero flicks. There were a few exceptions (two X-MEN films and two SPIDER-MAN installments), but for the most part, filmmakers tried too hard to be cool, slick and edgy while pretty much attempting to turn every big superhero into their own franchise…most of which failed miserably. HELLBOY looked to be yet another one of these mediocre comic book movies and didn’t quite attract a huge crowd of filmgoers as a result. Luckily, the film eventually found its audience and garnered enough attention to warrant an outstanding sequel, but this review isn’t of HELLBOY II. It’s of 2004’s HELLBOY (adapted from Dark Horse comics). Skillfully directed by Guillermo Del Toro (in one of his early breaks into mainstream American cinema), HELLBOY is a rockin good time boosted by creepy visuals, tons of creativity, and a sense of humor that embraces the premise’s goofiness instead of flat-out ignoring it.

MCDHELL CO002

The film begins in 1944. Nazis are using insane methods to fight the war. These methods include supernatural forces, otherworldly dimensions, and undead mystics. Luckily, an attempt to unleash Lovecraftian monsters fails and the evil Rasputin (yes, that Rasputin) is killed. Something made its way into our world though: a young demon with a rocky right hand. He’s adopted by a paranormal investigator and grows to become the monster-hunter known as Hellboy. In 2004, the timid John Myers is hired by the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense to be Hellboy’s caretaker. Little do Hellboy, John, or any of the BPRD members (including an aquatic psychic and a pyrokinetic) know that Rasputin has been resurrected and intends on using Hellboy to successfully bring Lovecraftian monsters to our world. Our lives are in danger and the one person that can save them is a demon.

MCDHELL EC014

HELLBOY is a gorgeous-looking film. Guillermo Del Toro was no stranger to filmmaking by 2004 (creating CRONOS, MIMIC and THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE) and lets his creativity shine behind the camera. With a budget of just over 60 million, HELLBOY looks better than most of our modern superhero movies. There’s a slick visual style and attention to detail brings every scene to life. You could pause any frame of this movie and spend a minute studying every detail about that still frame. It’s downright (for lack of a better word) cool. The creativity isn’t just in the visuals as Guillermo Del Toro was clearly having a blast in adapting the comics to the screen. The movie is fast-paced, confident, but not afraid to embrace the goofy cheese that comes with material like this. Even though it has a sense of humor, the movie isn’t too jokey though. That’s a tough tightrope to walk.

MCDHELL EC010

The cast is great, with two exceptions. Ron Perlman is perfect as Hellboy. Though he’s wearing make-up and horns, Perlman sort of has the look that you’d expect Hellboy to have. He has that appearance even without the make-up and nails down the mannerisms of a witty, horned superhero in a way that’s rarely captured in superhero movies. Meanwhile, Selma Blair shines as the emotionally damaged pyrokinetic Liz. For my money, Liz is the best role that Blair has ever had. Karel Roden is great as Rasputin, yes that historical Rasputin, while John Hurt is well cast as Hellboy’s “father.” Doug Jones and the voice talents of David Hyde Pierce are combined to bring Abe Sapien (the psychic fish guy) to life. On the other side of the coin, Rupert Evans is utterly bland as the clean-cut FBI agent. He hadn’t starred in many movies before HELLBOY and hasn’t been in many since. This is probably for a reason. His delivery is unbelievably wooden. It’s a good thing that he’s not a big player in this movie and more of a background character. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Tambor is hit-or-miss as FBI Director Tom Manning. He has a couple of solid scenes, but does get over-the-top.

MCDHELL EC030

Besides being creative and mostly well acted, HELLBOY greatly benefits from a terrifically creepy atmosphere too. The special effects are top-notch and incorporated into their environments with care. The decision to keep this relatively dark for a PG-13 was a ballsy one and there are a couple of images in this film that could potentially be nightmare fuel for young kids. These mainly include shots of giant tentacled beasties and a dual-sword wielding surgery addict (who unmasked has no lips or eyelids).

MCDHELL CO003

Brimming with imagination, great effects, (mostly) good performances, and a tone that manages to be jokey, creepy and cool at the same time, HELLBOY really is among the top-tier of superhero films from the early 2000’s. Though it’s definitely an unconventional superhero flick, it’s made all the better for it. Lucky for fans, the film eventually garnered its audience (I remember watching this on DVD a whole lot) and got enough popularity to warrant HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY (a sequel that manages to be even better than this first installment) as well as rumors of a third movie in the works. In this current situation where Marvel and DC are dominating movie theaters, 2004’s HELLBOY is a movie that deserves far more credit than it gets.

Grade: A-

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY (2012)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 49 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Extended Sequences of Intense Fantasy Action Violence, and Frightening Images

Hobbit poster

Directed by: Peter Jackson

Written by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson & Guillermo Del Toro

Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, Sylvester McCoy, Elijah Wood, Andy Serkis & Ian Holm

Out of Peter Jackson’s recently completed HOBBIT trilogy, I haven’t actively disliked a single film. However, there’s one entry that was clearly padding out its running time to justify a decision to split one relatively short novel into a three long movies. This film would be AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY. Creative decisions and distracting tonal shifts don’t exactly work in this nearly three-hour long beginning to Peter Jackson’s prequel trilogy. Though UNEXPECTED JOURNEY is far from terrible, it’s definitely the lesser film of the entire Middle Earth saga.

MCDHOBB EC010

An unnecessary prologue shows elderly Bilbo Baggins writing down the past adventure that changed him into the hobbit that he is today. Flashback to a younger than he looks 50-year-old Bilbo meeting Gandalf the Grey. This wizard forces him into hosting a dinner party for a ragtag team of 13 dwarves. These dwarves, led by the rightful king Thorin, are headed to a distant place known as the Lonely Mountain to reclaim their kingdom and treasure. Bilbo is recruited as a burglar and their journey begins.

MCDHOBB EC030

The first thing that is distinctly different about UNEXPECTED JOURNEY is its tone. This first film is more whimsical, merrier, and funnier than the rest of the Middle Earth series. Peter Jackson also feels the need to incorporate songs from the text into the film. This decision seems to have been all but abandoned in the sequels, which only goes to make it even more strange in the context of the film. We barely meet the dwarves and haven’t quite developed any of them as characters (other than Thorin), but they’ve already sung two very different tunes in the space of about 10 minutes. Jackson always uses epic scenery when tackling Middle Earth, but UNEXPECTED JOURNEY feels unexpectedly contained. There’s a visit to an elf city, a fight in a field, and encounters in a forest, but the scale is much smaller in this film. That isn’t exactly a positive.

MCDHOBB EC027

There are no major issues with the cast. Martin Freeman excels as the cowardly, but slowly improving Bilbo. After you’ve seen the sequels, it’s nice to revisit this film to see just how far his character has come from the beginning. Ian McKellen slips right back into his role of Gandalf. He’s so good in the part that I don’t even see McKellen, just Gandalf the Grey. Various dwarves are likable enough, though some come off as cartoon characters. Thorin is clearly meant to be the most fleshed-out of the bunch and therefore receives most of the dialogue besides Bilbo and Gandalf. Appearances from Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, and Christopher Lee feel like desperate cameos in order to remind the viewer that this is in the same universe as LORD OF THE RINGS.

MCDHOBB EC036

One character specific to this trilogy is Radagast the Brown and he’s absolutely horrible. This nature-obsessed wizard is the equivalent of Jar-Jar Binks with a beard. It certainly doesn’t help that Peter Jackson devotes damn near 10 minutes to watching this annoying quirky sorcerer as he tries to save the life of a hedgehog of pads the film out even further with a useless flashback. Speaking of useless scenes, the film drags its feet to even get moving. It takes a full hour before Bilbo even decides to leave his home with the dwarves. Adding to the pointless long running time is a prologue that only serves to showcase Ian Holm and Elijah Wood reprising their roles from the original trilogy. Three hours was far too long to stretch this opening film. There’s literally an hour that could have been cut out of the finished movie and released in the eventual Extended Edition that followed soon after.

MCDHOBB EC020

The best parts of UNEXPECTED JOURNEY come in the variety of threats that Bilbo and Thorin’s company encounter. These range from dim-witted trolls and strategic orcs to mountain wrecking giants and underground dwelling goblins. These might seem rather small when compared to the craziness that comes in the later films containing giant spiders and the scariest dragon that I’ve ever seen, but they’re solid here. The riddles in the dark scene between Bilbo and Gollum is also fantastically done with Andy Serkis reprising his signature role for one last time. The attacks and chase scenes are the best parts of this first entry in Peter Jackson’s prequel trilogy, but they don’t cover the majority of this film as they do in the sequels. This wouldn’t be as a big a detraction, if the character development was interesting or fully entertaining.

MCDHOBB EC009

It may sound like I’m hating on THE HOBBIT or completely railing against UNEXPECTED JOURNEY and I don’t dislike it. However, it’s certainly dragging its feet with a running time that’s far too long for its own good. The whimsical tone is a bit off when compared with everything else seen in the Middle Earth saga. I do like the film, but it’s best as a first viewing in a marathon of otherwise great movies. Overall, UNEXPECTED JOURNEY is the most dull of the HOBBIT trilogy, but still enjoyable nonetheless.

Grade: B-

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑