Tag Archives | monster movies

Movie Review: The Shape of Water

The Shape of Water by director Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy, Crimson PeakPan’s Labyrinth) stylizes horror, mixes it with romance and comedy and wraps it with anti-Americanism. For all the visual flourishes, fancy trappings and stylization, however, Fox Searchlight’s film is distinctly repetitive, dull and predictable. This amounts to a lavish diatribe against America, humanity and life.

The highly praised Del Toro’s as gory, lush and death-obsessed as ever and his hybrid of a sequel to and remake of the Fifties’ B-movie horror classic Creature from the Black Lagoon knits too many sections and themes and comes up dry. In another fine performance, this time as a villain, for a change, Michael Shannon (Midnight Special, Mud, Take Shelter) is the heavy-handed movie’s only major conflict, portraying a racist, sexist boor who reels in a gill-man from an Amazonian river in 1962 and proceeds to torture, taunt and house the water-man or fish-man (Shape never explains what it is). With so many reasons to hate this monster, the blatant metaphor Shape keeps hitting the audience with, you almost want to look deeper for what motivates Shannon’s evil Mad Men-type, a white male sexual predator in case you miss that he’s evil. But The Shape of Water keeps characters plain, simple and obvious. Like Call Me By Your Name and Moonlight, sensory immersion trumps character, plot and theme.

Shannon’s skill, gorgeous photography, production design and Alexandre Desplat‘s ethereal musical score are almost enough to divert attention from the fact that this slow-moving episode hasn’t much to say or show other than that ignorance is bliss, men are monsters and America was never great, let alone the greatest. Sally Hawkins (Godzilla) plays a mysterious facility’s custodian, Eliza Esposito, an absent-minded woman with a disability who falls in love with the gill-man for no apparent reason, except that she’s terribly lonely. This piece of condescending character development, is, if you think about it, ignorant in its own way.

The mute woman lives alone above a grand Baltimore movie palace in an equally grand apartment next door to her best friend, an unemployed artist who’s homosexual (Richard Jenkins, trying not to be a stereotype with some success). That a cleaning woman or an out-of-work painter can afford such a pad in 1962 tips that this is an absurdist or surrealistic story, pure fantasy, further established by the fact that the custodian’s such an other-worldly person as to barely be functional. She chronically shows up late for work, at other workers’ expense, hardly does her job and listens to co-worker and pal Zelda (Octavia Spencer, Gifted, Black or White, Hidden Figures) kvetch about her husband. All you know about this plain woman is that she masturbates, rides the bus and feels separate from the rest of the world. Yet she never really makes an attempt to connect or align with it.

And she was orphaned and left by the river as a child, one of several water signs that run incessantly throughout The Shape of Water. If there were some sense of how the janitor Esposito ended up as kind and non-compliant, this film might have been more involving. Doug Jones as the creature is mostly a computer-generated, performance captured role, without the technical touches of, say, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, so fish-man is confined to reactions, instincts and urges.

This appears to be central to The Shape of Water‘s point that humans are ultimately most human in the silence of dreams and underwater, the sort of detachment from this world, un-reality or anti-reality that Del Toro depicts as a matter of course. Sure, he includes a clip of Shirley Temple tap dancing with Bill Robinson, puts on old records for romance and makes sure that the silent, lonely woman is surrounded by nice things in her home. But The Shape of Water, like Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, always comes back to blood, water and body parts. It exists to horrify.

What’s intended to pull this horror off is the straight, white, American male villain, the most hackneyed, predictable Hollywood villain besides the businessman, minus the mustache-twirling. The character’s a stand-in for the vulgar, uncouth president. Shannon’s villain even uses the word pussy.

In a deeper sense, Del Toro’s movie’s a preachy visual critique of America, complete with the tidbit that Kellogg’s Corn Flakes was created as an antidote to masturbation. The only nuclear family is depicted as cartoonish. They even watch cartoons, such as Mr. Magoo. Everything American circa 1962, from missionary position sex and a happy, middle class family to the U.S. military, is portrayed as meaningless, malicious or worse. Every presumably straight, white, American male character is depicted as daft, incompetent, sadistic, racist or monstrous.

The character that comes closest to meeting that description who isn’t undignified or malignant is a devoted Soviet spy (Michael Stuhlbarg, Call Me By Your Name). Depicting Soviet Russians as capable of humanism is certainly one way to acknowledge the centenary of the bloodiest dictatorship on earth.

Besides the creature, The Shape of Water‘s angelic character is Hawkins’ lonely, lustful custodian, who tempts the gill-man Eve-like with an egg, fantasizing before teaching him sign language, Benny Goodman and sex (again, without regard for others). The Shape of Water is a polished jumble of themes and genres which deliberately never takes, let alone holds, a shape.

Movie Review: The Mummy (2017)

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Tom Cruise stars in Universal’s The Mummy, which looked like it might be a throwback to classic horror movies. In spite of Cruise, whose movies are often almost as formulaic as his acting, I wanted to like The Mummy. With David Koepp, whose cinematic adventure stories (Jurassic Park and Spider-Man, and also the underrated Zathura) can be enjoyably childlike, as a credited screenwriter, I knew it might be fun (and, to some extent, it is).

There’s more to The Mummy than Koepp’s storytelling and Cruise’s appeal, however. The more that’s piled on, the less engaging it gets. Russell Crowe (Man of Steel) as a mysterious Dr. Jekyll and steampunk atmospherics might have infused The Mummy with psychological subtext. But the movie is diminished by bad acting (not Crowe’s), flat directing and poorly written lines.

“You have been selected as the vessel of the ultimate evil.” Audiences might have reason to expect such a line in a comic book-based movie and Crowe’s Dr. Jekyll as the default narrator of this retelling of the mummy as monster delivers it as best as he can. As with so much of The Mummy, it stands out for its silliness, exacerbated by the unevenness of the whole movie. Corpses from the Crusades, a plot point which starts things off, might also have been developed into an interesting subplot. But, they, too, are depleted and reappear predictably and without finesse. This tale from the crypt of a power-lusting, tattooed, erotic zombie (Sofia Boutella) in black-haired bangs borders on camp.

With an Egyptian backstory, the plot about this bloodthirsty monster being “mummified alive” sticks to its pretzel-twisted logic. Wasting Courtney B. Vance as a military leader, Cruise and sidekick roam Iraq with the U.S. military while searching for treasure to loot. Indeed, Cruise for the first half is like a sobered, showered and shaved cousin of Captain Jack Sparrow. He’s a scoundrel, a thief and a looter, as when he forces his partner to join him on a dangerous mission, which turns out badly for the sidekick. Cruise’s character is as lovable a wreck as Sparrow, which is not meant as a compliment.

None of the characters in The Mummy are sympathetic, which derives from the picture’s theme that everyone, including Jenny the archaeologist (milquetoast Annabelle Wallis) is flawed and that life’s a grand trick to redeem oneself. Again, it might have all clicked into place on its own terms—opposing views aside and despite the generics and histrionics—had the parts been affixed rather than discarded amid silly distractions. For example, following a harrowing plane crash, Jenny and Cruise’s character stop for a beer. This after he went down with the plane and miraculously survived; no scars, no serious shock, no blood, bandages or medical treatment, just bar banter.

Add a sandstorm, corpse close-ups, spiders, parasitism and necrophilia and The Mummy tops implausibility with effects over essence. It may look exotic, but it starts to get incomprehensible. An Arab terrorizing London with a looming threat of mass death heightens the ghoulishness (now that’s bad timing). Cruise’s character is drawn to the berserk mummy as to a siren which is more puzzling than involving until you realize that it sets up The Mummy‘s point that one must “sacrifice for the greater good”.

In short, it’s a newly rearranged blend of stuff you’ve seen and heard before. This includes overstylized films such as Pirates of the Caribbean, Harry Potter, the atrocious War of the Worlds (complete with Cruise’s character running with the apocalypse) and Cruise’s own immortal ghoul vehicle, Interview with a Vampire, only with milder homoeroticism, and, of course, the superior World War Z. The Mummy is not awful. It’s merely mediocre. It might have been better.

Movie Review: Kong: Skull Island

A new adaptation of King Kong, a Warner Bros. picture titled Kong: Skull Island which debuts in theaters this week, is better than expected.

That’s not saying much. The 1933 original was spellbinding to me as a kid when I first saw it on TV, but I think it’s overestimated at the expense of other great adventure-themed classic movies, such as Wings, Red Dust and Gunga Din. The effects-heavy 1976 film is mediocre. The Peter Jackson version, which included characters running with dinosaurs (years before the godawful Jurassic World), is one of the worst movies I’ve seen. To be clear, Kong: Skull Island is a monster movie.

That is its best asset. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, working from a story by John Gatins (Coach Carter) with a script by a few writers including writers partly responsible for a Godzilla movie and that godawful Jurassic film, shrewdly downplays everything that Peter Jackson overplayed, such as the giant gorilla’s affection for the human female, in favor of a wider and deeper cultural framework. This keeps Kong from getting too campy, though camp comes with the package. Still, while it is not as clever as its makers apparently think, Kong works several angles—America’s slide toward military statism, hollowing out from the irrational Vietnam War, the fall of man—into its loss recovery theme that mind trumps muscle.

After a prelude in the South Pacific in 1944, the journey starts in Washington and Da Nang, South Vietnam in 1973, as Kong leads with exotic voyage pitchman John Goodman (The Artist) and his more rational right-hand man (Corey Hawkins) to sell a key politician on funding the trip to a “place where myth and science meet”. First, they tap a military leader played by Samuel L. Jackson (overacting and no stranger to fighting ferocious jungle apes as he recently did in The Legend of Tarzan). Jackson’s gung-ho type mulls over war medals with a Budweiser within reach.

Rain falls, things get slippery and, passing a sign that warns to “Think Safety”, it’s off to Saigon where Tom Hiddleston (outstanding in I Saw the Light and Thor‘s Loki no more) is hired as the rogue to lead the way. In Bangkok, Brie Larson (Room) comes on board for the modernized Fay Wray role, happily neither as a hyper-butch kickboxer like most female characters in action movies nor as a hyper-feminized vixen like many of today’s female characters—she’s a competent war or, as she puts it in one of the better exchanges, anti-war, photographer—and the cast is capable, notably leads Larson and Hiddleston but also actors in smaller roles such as John Ortiz (A Dog’s Purpose) as a quiet soldier and John C. Reilly (Chicago) as a lost soldier. Add period songs including a David Bowie ditty, crisp lines of dialogue and excellent graphics, sound and visual effects and clarity in exposition and Kong, sufficiently scored by Henry Jackman, keeps the plot moving.

Kong looks as realistic as one can expect from a computerized depiction of a gigantic gorilla.

With references to John Wayne, Chicago’s Cubs and a classic Forties tune hinting (with an after-credits scene) at a series, the director seems to be striving for American cultural commentary. With noble savages in a habitat hailed as being free from “crime and personal property” (except apparently for treasured private property such as a camera, cigarette lighter and a soldier’s wartime letter to his faraway child) and an overly arranged multiracial cast, results are mixed. Certain parts are too broad or obvious, such as 1973 Vietnam War soldiers posing for pictures like they’re on Facebook in 2013, a dragonfly shot with a helicopter, a Nixon bobblehead, Apocalypse Now imagery and a killing field, all of which are exaggerated but not as poorly as a near-drowning which exceeds plausibility. But Kong, amid other plus-sized island monsters, convincingly beats his chest, saves the girl and reaches down like his is the hand of God, which makes his breaking of chains in favor of using his brains an interesting proposition and, in any case, entertaining enough for a matinee monster movie. Comparable to The Hunchback of Notre Dame this is not, but don’t be surprised if you notice who is more like a monster and who is more like a man.