The Shape of Water (2017)


Sally Hawkins contemplates a potential Oscar nomination.

(2017) Romantic Fantasy (Fox Searchlight) Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, David Hewlett, Nick Searcy, Stewart Arnott, Nigel Bennett, Lauren Lee Smith, Martin Roach, Allegra Fulton, John Kapelos, Morgan Kelly, Marvin Kaye, Dru Viergever, Wendy Lyon. Directed by Guillermo del Toro

 

A bird may love a fish, the saying goes, but where would they live? Some romances, it is true, face greater obstacles than others.

Eliza Esposito (Hawkins) is a mute woman who lives in a ratty apartment above a movie theater along with gay commercial artist Giles (Jenkins) who is as lonely as Eliza is. She works as a janitor at a top-secret government lab on the outskirts of Baltimore along with her friend Zelda (Spencer) who nags her about being habitually late to work.

Into the lab comes “the most valuable asset” that they’ve ever hosted; an amphibious humanoid creature (Jones) who was discovered in the jungles of the Amazon, worshiped as a god by the natives. Security director Richard Strickland (Shannon) sees the creature as a potential means of putting the U.S. ahead of the Soviets in the space race which to this point in 1963 have been kicking America’s butt.

Strickland is under all kinds of pressure to deliver useful information but his scientists, particularly Dr. Hoffstetler (Stuhlbarg) are a bit hesitant to do the kind of research that Strickland is urging them to do – the kinds of things Dr. Mengele had no problem doing. Strickland becomes further enraged when, during a session when he is using an electric cattle prod on the creature, two of his fingers are cut off. Strickland, always what you might call tightly wound, suddenly finds himself wrapped even closer to absolutely losing it.

But Eliza is drawn to the creature; she finds it to be gentle and non-judgmental and like herself, unable to communicate verbally. The creature is drawn to her kindness – she feeds it hard-boiled eggs and plays jazz on a portable phonograph she smuggles in. However, it has come to the attention of Gen. Hoyt (Searcy) who is in charge of the project that the Russkies are aware of the creature and have designs on it themselves. Eliza overhears the plan – to vivisect the creature and learn as much as they can before the Russians either kidnap the creature or destroy it in such a way that the Americans can learn nothing.

Eliza decides that’s not going to happen and enlists the help of Giles in getting her help. Zelda is reluctantly drawn in and when Dr. Hoffstetler discovers what she’s up to, gives her tacit assistance. Eliza takes the creature home to live in her bathtub, waiting for the right time to release it into a canal that leads to the ocean and can lead the creature back home but the two have begun…umm, mating and saying goodbye is not going to be easy for either of them, particularly since neither one can speak.

This is one of the most beautiful and well-told stories of the year. There is a fairy tale aspect to the film, combined with a kind of classic Hollywood feel (there is a fantasy sequence in which Eliza finds voice and sings and dances with the creature which sounds hokey but when you see it you’ll understand how brilliant and how heartbreaking the sequence is). Add to that bits of horror and cold war-era spy thrillers and you have a movie that could have easily been a mess but in the hands of a great director – and make no mistake, that is exactly what Del Toro is – becomes a tour de force, a masterpiece in shades of green and blue.

Hawkins is one of the frontrunners for an Oscar nod for Best Actress this year and with good reason. She has to perform almost entirely with body language and facial expressions. She wears her emotions plain to see throughout, engaging in an impromptu tap dance when she’s feeling playful, or resting her head against a bus window when she is contemplative. She hunches over as a person who doesn’t want to be noticed does, as someone who has been ridiculed and disregarded her entire life does. I don’t pretend to understand the Academy’s mindset but if it were me, I’d just hand Hawkins the statuette right now and save everyone the bother but that’s just me.

The fantastic supporting cast doesn’t let Hawkins down either. Jones gets a complicated and believable costume to create his character; Jenkins shows his most compassionate and frazzled sides as Eliza’s quirky and often incompetent friend. Spencer gets a role on par with her Oscar-winning performance in The Help and Stuhlbarg who has an Oscar nomination under his belt already takes a giant leap forward in proving that wasn’t a fluke.

The production design is near perfect. The lighting and color scheme emphasizes shimmering greens and blues, giving the entire film a kind of underwater look even when the action takes place above the surface. The industrial look of the lab has almost an art deco look to it; the space age sheen of futuristic buildings recalling the 1965 World’s Fair are absent here. This lab is a dreary place where people go to do repetitive, dehumanizing tasks and lose just a little bit more of their souls every time they clock in. I think we’ve all had jobs like that.

There is an awful lot of sexuality and nudity in the film as the romantic relationship between Eliza and the amphibian becomes physical. While it is handled in my opinion with dignity and restraint, some might find even the hinting of interspecies sex to be completely beyond the pale. I can understand that, truly, but it would be a shame to cheat yourself out of one of the year’s best movies – if not THE best – because of a little fantasy sex.

Some might find the ending hokey but I took a different tack with it. Jenkins delivers bookending voiceover narration at the beginning and end of the movie; my take is that we are seeing events as Giles imagined they occurred; what really happened once the amphibian exits from view is up to conjecture and Giles admits as much. I kind of hope that’s what “really” happened to although life rarely has that kind of grace. Thank goodness that filmmakers like Del Toro do.

REASONS TO GO: Hawkins has a very good shot at an Oscar nomination. The story is touching and beautifully told. This is a godsend for the discerning moviegoer. Great supporting performances all around and wonderful set design enhance the film.
REASONS TO STAY: The sexuality may be more than some can handle.
FAMILY VALUES: There is graphic sexuality and nudity as well as some profanity and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Del Toro turned down Pacific Rim: Uprising to direct this.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lady in the Water
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
The Dark Tower

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Crimson Peak


Exploring Allerdale Hall can be hazardous to one's health.

Exploring Allerdale Hall can be hazardous to one’s health.

(2015) Gothic Horror (Universal) Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver, Burn Gorman, Leslie Hope, Doug Jones, Jonathan Hyde, Bruce Gray, Emily Coutts, Alec Stockwell, Brigitte Robinson, Gillian Ferrier, Tamara Hope, Kimberly-Sue Murray, Sofia Wells, Peter Spence, Bill Lake, Jim Watson, Joanna Douglas. Directed by Guillermo del Toro

6 Days of Darkness 2015

Some see ghosts as echoes of memories; people who left behind some of themselves when they die. Others see it as a transitory period between this life and the next. Regardless of how you see ghosts, they can be terrifying.

Edith Cushing (Wasikowska) – likely named for the veteran Hammer horror star Peter Cushing – knows all about ghosts. As a child, the specter of her recently deceased mother came to her to warn her “Beware of the crimson peak.” Clearly a message from your dead mother is one that will stay with you for your entire life.

She lives in Buffalo at the turn of the 20th century with her industrialist father (Beaver). She has aspirations to be a writer, sort of a distaff Edgar Allan Poe and she has no time for men, although ophthalmologist Dr. Alan McMichael (Hunnam) would love to catch her eye.

However, her eye is caught by Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston), a down-on-his-luck baronet who has come to Buffalo with his sister Lucille (Chastain) to convince her father to fund the construction of his experimental mining machine which he is using to mine a rare ore that exists on his estate. Her father is suspicious and hires a detective (Gorman) to check out the siblings.

However, despite her father’s misgivings, Edith falls deeply in love with the handsome young noble and eventually marries him, leaving Buffalo for his crumbling estate in Cumberland and by crumbling we mean it; the roof has a gigantic hole, letting the weather in. Red clay seeps up through the floorboards and walls, looking uncannily like blood. Electricity works intermittently so candle power and fireplaces provide heat and light. Edith is warned not to go below the main level as it is dangerous. And to make matters worse, she almost immediately begins seeing ghosts, angry ones which reflect her relationship with Lucille which is cold at best and hostile at worst.

The ghosts that Edith is seeing aren’t even the worst thing; she begins to suspect that her new husband and sister-in-law are not whom they seem to be. Her investigations further exacerbate her doubts and she soon realizes that if she can’t unravel the secrets of Allerdale Hall, she might just become a ghost herself and I can’t think of any hell worse than spending eternity in Allerdale Hall.

Del Toro has been one of the fan favorites of horror since beginning his career with movies like Cronos, Mimic, The Devil’s Backbone and of course the Hellboy movies. This is something of a passion project for him, one that has been in gestation for years. It is a grand vista that he has painted with, one not unlike that which he created in Pan’s Labyrinth. Allerdale Hall is a magnificent set, as Gothic a look as ever brought to the silver screen. It is a place made for ghosts and ghost stories.

Del Toro has assembled a stellar cast but curiously, two of the main performances leave something to be desired. Wasikowska who can be compelling underplays her role to the point of somnolence while Chastain, one of the best young actresses in Hollywood is shrill and overplays her role in an eyebrow-arching silent film villainess portrayal that seems archaic to my 21st century sensibilities.

The story is straight out of the annals of Shelley and Poe – A.O. Scott of the New York Times correctly described it as “Henry James …filtered through the lurid sensibilities of Mario Bava –  overset with a deep melancholy that pervades every nook and cranny of Allerdale Hall, stained red with the clay that is everywhere, even coloring the snow crimson. Ghosts creep and crawl, their eyes black and empty as the night, their mouths open in tortured expressions of sorrow. A florid description yes, but the movie lends itself to such language.

Some have complained that this isn’t strictly speaking a horror film and I can see their point although I disagree with it. There are plenty of images that will haunt your nightmares but there are certainly elements of Hitchcockian suspense, particularly in the tale of the Sharpe siblings who could easily have been characters in a black and white opus of the Master in the 1930s. While this is set in an earlier period, there is definitely a tension throughout that Hitchcock would have appreciated.

Not everyone likes this movie; some have felt misled by the marketing which emphasizes the horror aspects (in fact the movie was completed in January but held back because Universal wanted it to be their tentpole Halloween release). This is definitely not like modern horror movies which emphasize murder and mayhem and depends largely on atmosphere; those who don’t appreciate old school horror had best give this one a miss. However, if you’re like me and love those brooding old haunted mansions full of things that go bump in the night, this is right up your alley.

REASONS TO GO: Gothic atmosphere. Some genuinely creepy disturbing images. Great set design.
REASONS TO STAY: Wasikowska a bit bland. Chastain a bit over-the-top.
FAMILY VALUES: Bloody violence, gruesome images, scenes of terror, some sexual content and a little bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kingston, Ontario doubled for Buffalo in the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/23/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rose Red
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness concludes!

New Releases for the Week of October 16, 2015


Crimson PeakCRIMSON PEAK

(Universal) Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver, Burn Gorman, Leslie Hope, Doug Jones. Directed by Guillermo del Toro

After a family tragedy, an aspiring author in Victorian England is torn between a childhood friend and a dashing mysterious stranger. Needing a fresh start in a new environment and to escape the ghosts of her past, she is transported to Allerdale Hall, a home with ghosts of its own. In fact it is a home that has a life of its own – and may want her to stay permanently. This much anticipated horror movie from del Toro is the must-see Halloween movie this year.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard, IMAX
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for bloody violence, some sexual content and brief strong language)

Bridge of Spies

(DreamWorks) Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Alan Alda, Amy Ryan. A Brooklyn lawyer is called upon to defend a Soviet spy at the height of the Cold War. That task turns into a negotiation with Moscow to exchange the spy for the pilot of an American spy plane that was shot down over the Soviet Union. Director Steven Spielberg and writers Joel and Ethan Coen based this story on actual events and an actual guy who struggled to maintain his integrity and ideals in a dangerous political situation.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: True Life Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG-13 (for some violence and brief strong language)

Freeheld

(Summit) Julianne Moore, Ellen Page, Michael Shannon, Steve Carell. When decorated police officer Laurel Hester is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, she wants to leave her pension to her domestic partner. Simple enough for most cops, right? However, Laurel’s partner is another woman which city officials won’t allow. With her hard-nosed straight partner and a gay rights activist uniting behind her, she would turn this into a national cause and what would become a watershed moment in the fight for LGBT rights.

See the trailer, interviews, a clip and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: True Life Drama
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: PG-13 (for some thematic elements, language and sexuality)

Goosebumps

(Columbia) Jack Black, Dylan Minnette, Odeya Rush, Amy Ryan. After moving into a new neighborhood, a young teen boy discovers the girl next door is super hot. However, her father happens to be none other than the prolific author R.L. Stine. Stine has a terrifying secret; the monsters in his books are real and he protects the world by keeping them locked up in his manuscripts. However when they are accidentally released by the new kid on the block, he’ll have to team up with Stine, his daughter and a plucky friend to protect the town and return the monsters for safe-keeping.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Family Horror Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG (for scary and intense creature action and images, and for some rude humor)

Heart Like a Hand Grenade

(Abramorama) Billy Joe Armstrong, Tre Cool, Mike Dirnt, Jason White. The recording of Green Day’s classic American Idiot album is revisited with archival footage, contemporary interviews and more. Fans of America’s favorite pop punk band won’t want to miss this!

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater (Tuesday only)
Rating: NR

Thao’s Library

(ARC Entertainment) Thanh Thao Huynh, Elizabeth van Meter, Stephen Katz, Vicki van Meter. In Vietnam, a woman severely deformed by the effects of Agent Orange puts together a makeshift library in her fertilizer shed. In New York, a woman grieving over the death of her famous sister struggles to cope. Both women are brought together by a single photograph, a simple request and a shared compassion, which leads them to help heal one another.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs
Rating: NR

Woodlawn

(Pure Flix) Sean Astin, Caleb Castille,  Sherri Shepherd, Jon Voight. In the racially divided environment of Birmingham, Alabama in 1973, a high school football team undergoes a spiritual awakening from the water boy up to the head coach. In a school torn by racial hatreds, the team unites and serves as an example for the entire student body. The team goes on to play the largest football game ever played in that city and produce one of the biggest African-American stars of his time in the game.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Faith-Based Sports Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG (for thematic elements including some racial tension/violence)

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010)


Abandon all hope.

Abandon all hope.

(2010) Horror (FilmDistrict) Katie Holmes, Guy Pearce, Bailee Madison, Jack Thompson, Garry McDonald, Alan Dale, Julia Blake, Bruce Gleeson, Edwina Richard, Carolyn Shakespeare-Allen, David Tocci, Lance Drisdale, Nicholas Bell, Libby Gott, James Mackay, Emilia Burns, Trudy Hellier, Terry Kenwick, Guillermo del Toro, Dylan Young (voice), Lisa N. Edwards, Kim Ross. Directed by Troy Nixey

Occasionally as children we see a movie that moves us in such a way that it inspires us to take our lives in a direction that might seem unexpected upon the surface. For Mexican horror maestro Guillermo del Toro, that movie was the 1973 TV scarefest Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark in which a troubled young woman moves in a creepy old house and begins to hear voices, see figures scurrying in the shadows and can’t get anyone to believe her that there are creatures living in the house. He was so taken by this movie that he resolved to make these sorts of movies when he grew up. Once he became an in-demand director, remaking the movie that started it all for him became a priority.

Strangely, when the opportunity came to make the movie, he didn’t direct it. Instead, he turned the reigns over to second-time director Nixey. Del Toro also changed the young woman into a little girl and set her and her family loose in a crazy creepy Australian mansion.

Little Sally Hurst (Madison) is shuttled by her somewhat distant mother to live with her father, Alex (Pearce) who is in the midst of renovating a sprawling Rhode Island mansion for a client which would then be sold at an immense profit. Sally is sullen and not at all happy about things, particularly since Alex is completely absorbed by the project which if he can’t pull off would mean financial ruin. It is then his girlfriend Kim (Holmes) who spends the most time with Sally. Sally, who doesn’t like Kim, makes her dissatisfaction known.

Unknown to all three of them, renowned wildlife painter Emerson Blackwood (McDonald) disappeared from the house years earlier. When Sally discovers a hidden ash pit in the basement, she releases a tribe of fairy creatures who turn out to be quite malevolent. They torment Sally and when she tries to explain that the awful things going on to her father, he doesn’t believe her. At first, neither does Kim; in fact, the only person who does is the caretaker, Harris (Thompson) who only wants the three of them to leave.

Eventually the creatures make their hideous plans known to Sally and despite the disbelief of her father, she manages to get Kim to come around. However, can they stand up against a race of creatures that is immeasurably old and have all of time on their side?

Del Toro has a history of putting children in the lead of his horror movies (The Orphanage, Pan’s Labyrinth) and so it’s no surprise that he does so again here. It’s quite natural for adults to disbelieve the wild stories children sometimes tell. However, it then becomes harder to put children in jeopardy, particularly in an American major studio production. Studios are a bit squeamish about that, Jurassic Park notwithstanding. For the most part, we never get a sense that Sally is in any real danger; the creatures, which look like Gollum with anorexia, aren’t really all that scary.

The movie was slapped with an R rating, precisely because the child had the appearance of being endangered but don’t let that fool you; this is definitely more of a PG-13 experience. Pearce and Holmes do a decent job, but they’re not really the focus here; Sally is and while Bailee Madison is a competent child actor, she never really was one that I cared for too much. She’s always seemed a bit insufferable in her performances and Sally certainly is that.

Nixey and del Toro are experts at creating a mood and with the marvelous location and truly creep-worthy sets definitely accomplish the task but again, the lack of feeling of imminent jeopardy kind of wastes all that effort. This is one of those movies that’s all atmosphere and essentially no payoff. It’s surprising because normally del Toro is such a reliable writer. Maybe if he’d made this one independently in Mexico, this might have been a better film. Or maybe if he left the lead character as a troubled young woman instead of a grumpy little girl. This isn’t bad, but it isn’t particularly praiseworthy either.

WHY RENT THIS: Definitely the right location for a haunted house movie. Solid performances by Pearce and Holmes.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Converting Sally to a child was a tactical error. Lacks a sense of dread or jeopardy.
FAMILY VALUES: Horror violence and scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the TV movie that this is based on, Sally was the name of Alex’s wife, not daughter. Here, Alex’s girlfriend is named Kim – and Sally was played by Kim Darby in the original.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a gallery of concept art here.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $37.0M on a $25M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Insidious
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The Killer

The Book of Life


Viva Mexico!

Viva Mexico!

(2014) Animated Feature (20th Century Fox) Starring the voices of Diego Luna, Channing Tatum, Zoe Saldana, Ice Cube, Christina Applegate, Ron Perlman, Kate del Castillo, Hector Elizondo, Danny Trejo, Carlos Alazraqui, Ana de la Reguera, Emil-Bastien Bouffard, Elias Garza, Genesis Ochoa, Placido Domingo, Gabriel Iglesias, Miguel Sandoval, Grey deLisle, Dan Navarro, Sandra Echeverria. Directed by Jorge R. Gutierrez

They say the only two sure things in life are death and taxes. That’s not strictly true; there is one other sure thing – that love wins out over everything. All three of those items however are sure things in all cultures although they tend to put their own spins on everything. Take Mexico, for example.

At a museum a group of snot-nosed little brats are given a museum tour by the bemused Mary Beth (Applegate). She brings them into an as-of-yet unopened exhibit on Mexico and presents to them the Book of Life, an amazing magical book that contains all the stories ever written and proceeds to present to them a story from San Angel, a small village in Mexico. The town lives constantly in fear of the reprehensible bandit Chakal (Navarro).

There Manolo (Luna) comes from a long line of heroic bull fighters including his prideful father Carlos (Elizondo) and an acerbic grandmother (deLisle). His closest friend is Joaquin (Tatum) whose father died a hero. Joaquin wants nothing more than to be the hero his father was, if not greater. With them is Maria (Saldana), a headstrong little charmer whose father General Posada (Alazraqui) is alcalde of the village of San Angel. Both boys vie for the hand of Maria, who is sent away to Europe to learn manners.

When she returns, she is a beautiful young woman. Joaquin has become a heroic soldier in defense of the town and in fact, all of Mexico. Manolo shows potential to be the greatest Sanchez of them all but longs to be a troubadour, guitar in hand and spends most of his free time playing mariachi music with Pepe (Iglesias) much to the disapproval of his father. The two young men resume their rivalry although they continue to be the best of friends.

Unbeknownst to anyone in the village, two rulers of the underworld – La Muerte (del Castillo), ruler of the Land of the Remembered and Xibalba (Perlman), ruler of the Land of the Forgotten – have taken interest in the situation with Manolo, Joaquin and Maria and have enacted a little wager. If Xibalba wins, he gets to rule the vibrant Land of the Remembered which is an eternal fiesta. Given that the Land of the Forgotten is a depressing wasteland, he will do whatever it takes to win the wager – including to cheat. He makes sure that not only does Manolo lose the wager but that he is bitten by a particularly venomous snake in the bargain.

Manolo awakens in the Land of the Remembered where souls who are remembered and loved by someone in world of the living, a colorful land that gets even more festive on the Day of the Dead (which is when I happened to see the movie – how is that for smart planning?) when the fiesta turns epic. Manolo meets his mother (de la Reguera) as well as other deceased members of the Sanchez family including the opera singer wannabe Jorge (Domingo). However, Manolo doesn’t want to be dead. He wants to return because his love for Maria is so strong.

Realizing that Xibalba had a hand in Monolo’s premature demise, Monolo’s family agree to help him go see The Candle Maker (Cube), a jovial god who is in charge of maintaining balance in the universe.  But the way to his domain is a perilous one and in Monolo’s absence San Angel is in mortal danger. Can Manolo save the day after he’s already dead?

The visuals here are charming and inventive, colorful and arresting. Based on Mexican folk art particularly the work of Jose Guadalupe Posada, the characters resemble wooden marionettes with a curiously human overlay. You’ve never seen anything quite like this.

While most animated features are fairy tales, this is folklore (there is quite a difference) even though the story is essentially an original one, it’s roots are in characters and symbols that exist in Mexican folklore traditions. Although a bit sugar coated and watered down, there is still some kernels of Mexico here and carry a flavor of that country that is as real and vibrant as a properly made guacamole.

Gutierrez wisely casts actors with distinctive voices that make their roles personable and memorable. He also casts a good deal of Hispanic actors in the role some of whom might be unfamiliar to you but are stars in Mexico, like telenovela heroine del Castillo, leading man Luna (who has appeared in a number of Hollywood films as well), action hero Trejo and comedians Iglesias and Cheech Marin.

There are also several gringos in the cast – Tatum, Elizondo (who is of Portuguese descent), Saldana, Ice Cube and Applegate. All of the cast, Hispanic and otherwise, perform admirably. The plot may be paper-thin and resemble typical animated plots in construction, but the visuals and Mexican cultural overlay elevate the movie from the typical.

Now there may be a few who take offense at some of the images – a giant mustache on Mexico as the center of a universe that looks uncannily like a sombrero and the characters who nearly all look like something out of a theme park version of Mexico with serapes, sombreros and facial hair adorning nearly every character. There is also the old trope of a woman being fought over like she’s the Publisher’s Clearing House prize. However, I suspect that this is not done so much as perpetuating stereotypes as it is making gentle fun of them as the filmmakers treat these things with affection. It is part of the Mexican culture to be humorously self-effacing.

It is nice to see an animated feature that isn’t largely just like all the others. Even Pixar has put out one or two of these lately. In a year where family audiences have been under-served, this comes as a breath of fresh air. Hopefully families will embrace this movie rather than reject it because of its cultural element; the soft box office it has had leads me to suspect that there are some families who are choosing not to see it because they aren’t interested in the Mexican culture at all. I hope not, but I do have to wonder in a country that has not grown out of its racist tendencies yet (as evidenced by draconian laws in Arizona and a refusal to overhaul its immigration policies aimed squarely at keeping Mexicans out) that this beautifully made feature hasn’t been a bigger hit than it is – or deserves to be.

REASONS TO GO: Wonderfully inventive and beautiful animation. All the voices have character.
REASONS TO STAY: Not sure if its making fun of racial and gender stereotypes or perpetuating them.
FAMILY VALUES: Some rude humor and mildly scary images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Paul Williams was approached to co-write a pair of songs on the soundtrack because director Jorge R. Gutierrez was a fan of his work in Phantom of the Paradise.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/5/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Corpse Bride
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Ouija

Pacific Rim


Why does this giant robot have a trash bucket on its head?

Why does this giant robot have a trash bucket on its head?

(2013) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi, Idris Elba, Charlie Day, Ron Perlman, Robert Kazinski, Burn Gorman, Max Martini, Clifton Collins Jr., Diego Klattenhoff, Brad William Henke, Larry Joe Campbell, Mana Ashida, Santiago Segura, Joe Pingue, Milton Barnes, Ellen McLain (voice), Robert Maillet, Heather Doerksen. Directed by Guillermo del Toro

When I was a boy, I used to love Japanese monster movies – men in rubber lizard suits smashing Tokyo to smithereens. My Dad and I loved the kind of cheesy earnestness of the movies and while we both moved on to other genres, we did share that one thing.

For my own son, it was giant robots. Transformers, dude. Things that turned into other things that grew huge and took on other huge things. That was what kids a generation removed from myself cut their teeth on. Now what about combining the two together?

That’s just what Guillermo del Toro, visionary director of Pan’s Labyrinth did. In the near future, Earth has been invaded by gigantic beasts that came out of the ocean – or more accurately through a dimensional portal that manifested at the bottom of the Pacific. These creatures wreaked havoc on the coastal cities of Asia and Australia as well as the West Coast of the United States. Conventional warfare doesn’t work on these Kaiju which is Japanese for “strange creature” but over time has come to assume gigantic size as well. In order to fight these creatures, giant robotic creatures – called Jaegers which is German for “hunters” – have been created. These machines are piloted by humans and are so intricate and complex that it requires to human brains, which are psychically linked by a “drift” which allows both pilots to share memories while operating both sides of the robotic brain. At first, these robots are successful.

However as time goes on, more and more creatures pour out of the portal growing larger and more deadly as they do. Raleigh Becket (Hunnam) is a pilot along with his brother Yancy (Klattenhoff) but in a battle with a Kaiju Yancy is killed while connected to Raleigh who experiences his brother’s death. Raleigh leaves the program and becomes a construction worker on a gigantic wall protecting the coastline which the government feels will adequately protect the people and cities of the coast.

Of course, that doesn’t work and the general of the Jaeger program, Stacker Pentecost (Elba) finds himself in need of pilots as the Kaiju have begun a counter-offensive that has pushed humanity to the brink of extinction. Stacker knows the only way for humanity to survive is to find a way to close that portal; he has scientists Newton Geiszler (Day) and Helmut Gottleib (Gorman) trying to find ways to do just that. But they’ll need pilots too, even burned out ones and Raleigh is recruited. Japanese scientist Mako Mori (Kikuchi) is his handler; her family died in a Kaiju attack and she yearns to pilot a Jaeger and get some payback. Raleigh might be her best bet for it – but both will have to get over their issues from the past and face gigantic odds because the creatures coming at them from the portal are like nothing they’ve ever seen before.

This might well be the most visually amazing movie of the summer – the battle sequences are worth their weight in gold all by themselves. This is high-tech stuff, even more so than the anime you might remember that featured the giant robots. Del Toro does himself the favor of creating characters with some meat to them, giving the audience a rooting interest which is more than a lot of summer films have been able to accomplish this year.

Hunnam, known to most audiences from his work on Sons of Anarchy is turning out to be quite a promising leading man. Here he has some pretty good cast members to work with, particularly Elba who is one of the best in the business. So too is Perlman (playing a black market Kaiju organ seller) but he has no scenes with Hunnam. Kikuchi is riveting when she’s onscreen; at a very young age she’s become one of the best actresses in the world.

Following a trend that has puzzled me all summer long, the film is a good 20-40 minutes too long; quite frankly the entire subplot with Perlman could have been eliminated or at least saved for a Premium Home Video release. At least however even if the movie drags near the end the eye candy you’re given makes it worthwhile and for geeks of all ages this is manna from heaven, ready to be gorged.

REASONS TO GO: Amazing visuals. Elba and Perlman always interesting; Hunnam is getting to be quite a leading man.

REASONS TO STAY: Way too long. Too much chest-busting.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of action, plenty of violence and  a bit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tom Cruise was originally considered for the role in which Idris Elba was eventually cast in.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/24/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100; the critics are pretty solidly behind this one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Space Battleship Yamato

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: I Melt With You

Mama


So put another dime in the jukebox baby.

So put another dime in the jukebox baby.

(2013) Supernatural Horror (Universal) Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nelisse, Daniel Kash, Javier Botet, Jane Moffat, Morgan McGarry, David Fox, Dominic Cuzzocrea, Christopher Marren, Ray Kahnert, Hannah Cheesman, Julia Chantrey. Directed by Andres Muschietti

The bond between a mother and her child is something that simply can’t be broken. It is stronger than diamonds and carries its own gravitational pull that makes a black hole look like a refrigerator magnet. That bond is there for life – and some say, beyond.

This story starts with murder, of a man who loses it and kills his estranged wife and ex-partner and kidnaps his two children. He takes them, not quite intentionally, to a dilapidated cabin in the remote woods of Virginia called oddly enough Helvetia (with Mad Men-era retro furniture) where he intends to shoot them, and then himself. However fate – in the guise of a malevolent presence – intervenes.

Five years later, the two girls are still missing and their Uncle Lucas (Coster-Waldau) is still looking for them although his funds are running low – he’s been utilizing the inheritance from his successful brother. Lucas apparently “draws things” although it’s never really established whether he draws paintings or cartoons or whatnot. Anyway his girlfriend Annabel (Chastain), a rocker chick who plays bass in a punk-edged indie rock band, is a little put off by her boyfriend’s obsession especially since she can’t get pregnant herself.

However quite accidentally Burnsie (Fox), the tracker that Lucas has hired for the task, stumbles on the cabin and finds the girls – Victoria (Charpentier), now eight and her sister Lilly (Nelisse) who is six. The two girls are nearly feral although Victoria seems to be recovering her ability to speak. Lilly, in particular, is nearly mute, moving in an eerie spider-like motion.

It’s nothing short of a miracle that two such young children could survive in an isolated cabin on their own for so long but nobody seems to be questioning that. In fact, their psychiatrist Dr. Dreyfus (Kash) thinks that in a stable home environment that the girls might achieve some normalcy. While Lucas’ Aunt Jean (Moffat) is anxious to get custody, Lucas is actually much closer to the girls and with some help from Dr. Dreyfus gets the judge (Kahnert) to agree once the University arranges for a nice suburban home for Lucas and Annabel to move into.

But things aren’t all My Little Pony in suburban Virginia. The girls are both extremely traumatized and look at Lucas and particularly Annabel with some wariness. They refer to an invisible entity they call Mama who looks after her – and apparently she’s dropped by the ‘burbs to keep an eye on her girls. And after Lucas is removed from the picture, it is up to Annabel – who neither wants the job nor thinks herself able to do it – to take care of two very difficult children.

But a funny thing happens on the way to the horror film. Annabel begins to bond with the two girls (in particular with Victoria) and this Mama doesn’t like at all, not in the slightest. Dr. Dreyfus isn’t much of a help – he has his own agenda which isn’t necessarily in the best interests of the girls. And Mama isn’t recognizing any agenda but her own which isn’t good news for Annabel or  the girls.

This is based on a short previously directed by Muschietti and was produced by fan favorite and all-around good guy Guillermo del Toro. Spanish horror tends to be really atmospheric and Muschietti has a flair for it, making the cabin look anachronistic and genuinely creepy. Everything from the movement of the actors which isn’t quite natural to the suburban setting which is deceptively ordinary contributes to the overall vibe that things aren’t right a’tall.

Enjoy Chastain in this role folks, because you won’t see her in this kind of movie ever again – or at least it’s very unlikely you will. Right now if I had to name the best actress working in Hollywood right now, today, this moment, it would be Jessica Chastain. She has that chameleon-like quality that Meryl Streep possesses that allows her to take on virtually any kind of role and not just make it hers but make it unique as well. Here she’s channeling her inner Joan Jett and gives Annabel a gamine like quality that is endearing with the immature feel of a teenage boy who hasn’t quite grown up yet. Annabel grows up a great deal during the course of the movie and Chastain makes those changes organic. You don’t often go to see a horror movie for the acting performances but this is one of those exceptions where you should.

Coster-Waldau, so excellent as Jamie Lannister in Game of Thrones on HBO is solid here, reminding me a little bit of Viggo Mortensen. He plays the dual role of Luke and his doomed brother and wisely lets Chastain take center stage. He’s a terrific actor in his own right and has all sorts of leading man potential. In addition, the two young juvenile actresses do extremely well – Charpentier as the emotional center reaching for the mundane and Nelisse as Lilly who has one foot in the spirit world wherein Mama dwells.

Mama’s backstory is nothing to write home about and when she is revealed she isn’t all that impressive but when she moves through the floor or ceiling it’s chillingly effective. Mama needs to elicit a certain amount of sympathy from the audience but in this case she doesn’t really inspire enough which is a hard feat I know but it would have made the movie exponentially more effective. As it is given Chastain’s performance this is a horror movie mainstream audiences should go see.

REASONS TO GO: Creepy in all the right places. Jessica Chastain is the best actress in Hollywood right now period. Nice ghostly effects.

REASONS TO STAY: Story a little bit convoluted. Final look of Mama is a bit of a letdown.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some pretty scary images some of which are pretty disturbing, some thematic issues and a few nasty scares.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally scheduled for a Halloween 2012 release, the movie got bumped up to January which proved to be a smart move as it recouped its entire production and marketing cost in its opening weekend, debuting at number one at the box office.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/9/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100. Although the reviews are somewhat mixed, there are more positive than negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Woman in Black

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Sorcerer and the White Snake