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Fri09252020

Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

Leave it to Guillermo del Toro to make 2017’s weirdest “mainstream” movie.

The maverick director has been merely so-so with his last couple of big-screen offerings: the gorgeous but shallow Crimson Peak, and the goofy but good-looking Pacific Rim. The all-encompassing magic of Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth seemed to be eluding him, and it was looking like he’d perhaps peaked a few films ago.

But The Shape of Water, for which he also co-wrote the screenplay, reminds us that this guy is a genius—a sick and twisted genius, but a genius nonetheless.

This story set in the 1960s is—in a strange, backward way—as close to a Disney movie as del Toro has gotten. It has a lot of violence, interspecies sex, nudity and cussing in it … yet it has a Disney kind of vibe to it. That del Toro—he’s a nut.

Sally Hawkins, in an awesome performance that’s her second-best of 2017 (she was far more powerful in the grossly overlooked Maudie), plays Elisa Esposito. She is a cleaning woman alongside Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer, reminding us how she’s simply one of the best)—and she’s mute. She lives in an old movie theater next to an eccentric artist, Giles (Richard Jenkins), and mostly keeps to herself.

Elisa and Zelda clean a freaky research facility that gets a new arrival: Amphibian Man (Doug Jones, wonderfully obscured in both practical and CGI makeup), who is housed in a water tank. Amphibian Man, who looks an awful lot like the Creature From the Black Lagoon, is accompanied by its keeper, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), a menacing man brandishing a cattle prod. Soon after their arrival, Elisa hears the creature’s tortured screams from the lab where it’s imprisoned.

A mishap leads to Richard losing a couple of fingers, and Elisa gets some alone time with the Amphibian Man. She gives him hard-boiled eggs and plays music for him during what eventually become lunch dates. The two gradually fall in love, and when word comes down that the creature is to be destroyed and dissected for military purposes, an escape is in order.

This leads to the Amphibian Man being housed in Elisa’s apartment, where the interspecies love blossoms in the bathtub. (I know some people draw the line at human characters getting down with alien/god-like/Creature From the Black Lagoon characters, so consider yourself warned. It all happens off screen but, still, there you go.)

The Amphibian Man itself is a wonder of filmmaking, perhaps del Toro’s greatest visual accomplishment. Equally beautiful and fierce, not a second goes by when it isn’t one of the best things put on a screen in 2017.

The Disney-like fairytale quality of the film is further fueled by an authentic 1960s look, with much of it feeling like something you would see on a dark Disneyland ride. Giles’ art has a Norman Rockwell quality, and his obsession with old-timey movies completes the movie’s period spell.

Shannon, representing all that was evil with man in the 1960s, turns in yet another bravura performance, but it’s Jenkins, with his soft and funny performance as Giles, who has garnered awards nominations. He, along with Hawkins and Spencer, received a Golden Globe nod to go along with his and Hawkins’ Screen Actors Guild Awards nominations.

The Shape of Water is a return-to-form triumph for del Toro, who allows his dark side to come out and hold hands with the beautiful things. The film is unlike anything that has come before it. (There are hints of Starman and Splash, but neither of those offer the visual splendor of Shape.) Its success will probably garner del Toro enough juice to get even weirder in the future. That’s something to be excited about.

The Shape of Water is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

There isn’t a single wrong note in Maudie, an alternately heartbreaking and uplifting biography film about the life of Canadian painter Maud Lewis (Sally Hawkins).

After answering an ad seeking a housekeeper in Nova Scotia, Maud, stricken with arthritis since she was a child, winds up in the house of miserable-bastard Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke, delivering yet another monumental performance). The two wind up married, but it’s no fairytale: Everett has some major, major issues that Maud must contend with, and when Maud finds fame with her sweet paintings, Everett becomes an even bigger jerk.

Director Aisling Walsh, working from a script by Sherry White, makes a lot of interesting choices in depicting the couple—and Hawkins and Hawke make them all work.

Hawkins is a true Oscar contender for her work here, and while the role of Maud requires a difficult and strenuous physical performance, the light in her voice gives her Maud an illuminating quality. The humor always shines through, and it’s breathtaking how good she is.

Hawke never gives up on his character’s unrelenting stubbornness; he’s afflicted with a permanent scowl. He could find himself in the Oscar race as well.

If there’s an underlying message to this movie, it’s this: If you love somebody, you’d better damn well act like you mean it before it’s too late.

Maudie is now playing at the Palm Desert 10 Cinemas (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-340-0033). It opens Friday, July 7, at the Camelot Theatres (2300 E. Baristo Road, Palm Springs; 760-325-6565).

Published in Reviews

The release date for Paddington was pushed out of 2014 and into 2015, making me worry that this was a film for the junk heap. Actually, this mix of live action and animation featuring the character created by Michael Bond is actually cute.

Ben Whishaw voices Paddington, a Peruvian bear who travels to England looking for a home. He winds up in the abode of the Browns, where he begins causing major damage, leading to a little marital strife for Mr. and Mrs. Brown (a delightful Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins). Nicole Kidman has a lot of fun as the film’s villain, who is determined to trap and stuff Paddington.

The movie has plenty of British charm, a couple of really good jokes, and work from Kidman, Bonneville and Hawkins in top form. As for Paddington himself, he looks pretty good—a solid animated creation mixed neatly with real actors and actresses.

Paddington is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

There was a time when Woody Allen was consistently making the best movies in the business. Blue Jasmine is that return to form that some of us former Allen fans have been seeking, thanks in large part to a phenomenal central performance by the Oscar-nominated Cate Blanchett.

Blanchett plays Jasmine, the wife of a Bernie Madoff-type financier (Alec Baldwin) who must relocate from New York to San Francisco after she is bankrupted and emotionally destroyed. She gulps martinis, criticizes her helpful sister (Sally Hawkins, also an Oscar nominee) and, quite frighteningly, is prone to bouts of talking to herself.

Allen finds the dark humor in the story, and employs a supporting cast that includes comedians Louis C.K. and, most astonishingly, Andrew Dice Clay—who, doggone it, delivers an amazing performance as Ginger’s financially destroyed ex-husband, Augie.

Above and beyond the humor, though, Allen makes his film a parable about how some deeds are irredeemable, and some folks are simply doomed. It’s as bittersweet as any movie you will see. As far as the Allen film canon goes, it’s a Top 5 installment.

On top of the acting nominations, the film got a nom for Allen’s screenplay. It deserves the nomination. However, the film didn’t get nominations for Best Picture or Best Director—and Blue Jasmine is better than most of the films nominated in those categories. That’s a bit annoying.

This is one of those films in which everything comes together perfectly, with Blanchett at its powerful center. Yeah, Woody Allen is total scum, but he’s still making movies, and this is one of his best.

Special Features: As is usually the case with Allen releases, there’s not much here. You get a press conference and some quickie interviews. 

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

There was a time when Woody Allen was consistently making the best movies in the business—and Blue Jasmine is that return to form that some of us Allen fans have been waiting for, thanks in large part to a phenomenal central performance by Cate Blanchett.

Blanchett—sure to nab an Oscar nomination here—plays Jasmine, the wife of a Bernie Madoff-type financier (Alec Baldwin) who must relocate from New York to San Francisco after she is financially ruined and emotionally destroyed. She gulps martinis, criticizes her helpful sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), and, quite frighteningly, is prone to bouts of talking to herself.

Allen finds the dark humor in the story, and employs a supporting cast that includes Bobby Cannavale, Louis C.K. and, most astonishingly, Andrew Dice Clay, who, doggone it, delivers one amazing performance as Ginger’s financially destroyed ex-husband, Augie.

Above and beyond the humor, Allen makes his film a parable about how some deeds are irredeemable, and some folks are simply doomed. It’s as bittersweet as any movie you will see this year—or any year, for that matter.

As far as the Allen film canon goes, this is in the Top 5. It’s one of those films where everything comes together perfectly, with Blanchett at its powerful center.

Blue Jasmine is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews