Posts Tagged ‘cold war’

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A common thread in the filmography of director Guillermo del Toro is the focus on underdogs and outsiders. Think of Hellboy, with the titular hero longing for inclusion in the human world. Or in in the seminal Pan’s Labrynth, with the young Ofelia as a modern Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole. It’s there again in Crimson Peak, Blade II and, to a lesser-but-still-present-extent, in Pacific Rim.

While those films make subtext of the outsider’s plight, it’s the driving force of del Toro’s latest film, the beautifully-shot and endearingly-romantic “The Shape of Water,” which sees a mute janitorial worker fall for an aquatic, non-human creature. It’s a relatively standard plot of star-crossed lovers, but infused with Del Toro’s penchant for fantasy storytelling and a delightful Cold War backdrop that combines like alchemy.

Sally Hawkins stars as Elisa, who was rendered voiceless by an ambiguous childhood trauma and whose quiet life largely consists of spending her days socializing with a closeted neighbor (the always incredible Richard Jenkins) and her nights working the graveyard sanitation shift at a government research facility. It’s the latter setting where she, along with her coworker and confidant Zelda (Octavia Spencer) encounter “the asset,” a nameless, amphibious being kept in captivity for study by the scientists and forced to bear the hostilities of a sadistic government officer (Michael Shannon) tasked with overseeing the operation.

Elisa sees a kindred spirit in the misunderstood creature, finding time to slip into his confines for the occasional lunch break that eventually blossoms into mutual affection. Of an there’s a subplot involving Russian spies, naturally, and a thrilling heist, but I don’t want to give too much away.

Not enough can be said about Doug Jones, a prodigious but often unseen character actor who plays the creature under what can only be an ungodly amount of prosthetics. Jones is a frequent collaborator of Del Toro’s, the unseen puppeteer behind the director’s most memorable creations, and the emotion and feeling that he is able to squeeze out of a wordless and heavily-obscured performance in the film is remarkable.

As is the similarly wordless acting of Hawkins, who communicates only through sign language and defines her character largely by listening and physical communication. That the central couple in the film never share a single spoken conversation is a feat unto itself, deftly handled by the actors and their director.

Where the film lacks is in the big picture. There’s a certain convenience to the plot as characters make prescribed decisions in service of the story. Certain inevitabilities arrive on cue, and the characters are pulled together in the final moments as if by gravity.

It’s a minor complaint, as the world Del Toro creates and the story he tells is rich enough to not be forced to rely on twists and gimmicks. The fairy tale aesthetic works to the films benefits, resulting in a refreshingly sincere film for a cynical age.

Grade: A-

*The Shape of Water opens in Salt Lake City on Friday, December 15.

 

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When an atomic weapon falls into the wrong hands, two elite intelligence agents from the United States and Russia are forced to set aside their Cold War differences and work together to bring down a Nazi-influenced criminal organization.

That’s the set-up for ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” the latest from ‘Sherlock Holmes’ and ‘Snatch’ director Guy Ritchie. It stars current Superman Henry Cavill as Napoleon Solo – a gentleman thief turned CIA master spy – and erstwhile Lone Ranger Armie Hammer as Illya Kuryakin, an emotionally disturbed and volatile KGB operative.

One part Scotch-swilling period piece and one part buddy cop comedy, U.N.C.L.E. is a globe-trotting romp that keeps one eye firmly winked, evoking the memory of the classic James Bond films with all the befits of modern cinematic technology

The presence of Henry Cavill is a particular coup by Ritchie, who creates a world in U.N.C.L.E. that is the functional antithesis of Zach Snyder’s dour, monochromatic Man Of Steel. Ritchie’s spy-vs-spy tale is practically drowning in bright colors, jazzy soundtracks, double entendres and the gleaming white smiles of its leading men, who it turns out are quite winning when their actually allowed to enjoy themselves.

Hammer, lately adrift in the forgettable streak of Lone Ranger, J. Edgar and Mirror Mirror, takes a slight backseat to his costars, including Ex Machina’s Alicia Vikander. But he’s also given plenty of screen time to chew on his faux-accent as a Russian volcano perpetually on the verge of eruption.

It’s easy to imagine studio heads pushing for a “gritty modern” remake of the Cold War-set property, but luckily the screenwriters resisted that urge. As intriguing as a forced U.S.-Russia team up in the modern era could be from a thematic standpoint, there’s no trading the bouncy charm of U.N.C.L.E.’s period details unencumbered by realism.

The bubble of style over substance threatens to pop in the film’s third act, when the action shifts to a frenetic car chase that – one signature stunt notwithstanding – plays jarringly generic after two hours of sizzle. And the ultimate resolution is as tidy one of Napolean Solo’s tailored suits.

But that breezy finish is also earned, and a late entrance by Hugh Grant provides an energy jolt for a sequel that Hollywood could – and has done – significantly worse than greenlight. At worst, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is guilty of being too enamored with its own sense of fun, which is hard to hold against it.

Grade: B

*The Man From U.N.C.L.E. opens nationwide on Friday, August 11.

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