Maleficent: Mistress of Evil review

MALEFICENT: MISTRESS OF EVIL

Director: Joachim Rønning
Cast : Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Michelle Pfeiffer, Harris Dickinson, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sam Riley, Robert Lindsay, Ed Skrein, Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, Juno Temple
Genre : Fantasy/Adventure
Run Time : 1 h 58 mins
Opens : 17 October 2019
Rating : PG

In 2014, audiences learnt the back-story behind Maleficent, the villainess of Disney’s 1959 animated film Sleeping Beauty. Beyond being a cackling sorceress/sometimes-dragon, Maleficent painted its title character as someone who rose from tragedy and betrayal to form a complex bond with the young Princess Aurora. Directed by Joachim Rønning (Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge), this sequel continues that story, pitting Maleficent against a conniving, ruthless new foe.

Aurora (Elle Fanning), Queen of the Moors, is about to marry Prince Philip (Harris Dickinson) of Alstead. Aurora’s godmother Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) is resistant to this union. Despite her heroic actions, she has been cast as a villain in stories spread by the humans. Philip’s father King John (Robert Lindsay) thinks the wedding could help to unite the two kingdoms, but his mother Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer) harbours hatred towards Maleficent and the magical creatures with whom she is aligned. Maleficent discovers a hidden society of faes, including the wise Connall (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the fiery warrior Borra (Ed Skrein). Queen Ingrith foments a war between the humans and the faes, with the young couple caught in between.

Angelina Jolie continues to be all sharp-cheekboned perfection as Maleficent. We were afraid that she might phone in it given that this is a sequel, but she still appears to relish the role. Not only does she get numerous fabulous costume changes, Maleficent goes on a journey of discovery, getting acquainted with her people and learning about their customs and beliefs. There is a conflict between her allegiance to her fae kin and to Aurora, which gives the powerful character something to struggle with.


Much of the film works because of Michelle Pfeiffer. Casting her opposite Jolie was an inspired move. The early promotional materials tried to hide it, but there’s no point beating about the bush now – Queen Ingrith is the “Mistress of Evil” of the title. Pfeiffer plays the villain with sneer and swagger hidden beneath a regal façade, with shades of her witch character from Stardust sometimes visible. Coming off like a PG-rated Cersei Lannister, it’s an absolute hoot.

There’s a lot going on in the plot of the movie, so it is to writers Linda Woolverton, Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue’s credit that the movie never loses sight of its emotional core: the relationship between Maleficent and Aurora. They might not be on the same page for much of the film, but it cannot be questioned that Maleficent deeply loves and cares for Aurora, something Ingrith winds up exploiting.

Just as in the first film, the show is stolen by Sam Riley as Diaval, Maleficent’s shape-shifting sidekick. Riley manages to be both cool and endearing. Queen Ingrith’s sadistic henchwoman Gerda (Jenn Murray) is also a fun, arch character.

While the visuals are often mesmerising and transporting, the film does lean very heavily on computer-generated imagery. This is expected of a fantasy adventure film, but some of the characters do seem unnatural. The Fairy Godmothers Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), Thistlewit (Juno Temple) and Flittle (Lesley Manville) return from the first film, and their almost-human facial features sometimes cross over into the dreaded uncanny valley.

Prince Philip is boring, but then again, this is something inherent in the source material. Brenton Thwaites, who was busy filming Season 2 of Titans, is replaced by Harris Dickinson, who constantly seems a little bit confused and flat. However, this is also a sign that the film understands that Philip is not the main character, and that he does not have to be the hero to save the day.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is almost completely wasted in a relatively small supporting role.

The action sequences in Maleficent: Mistress of Evil are grand and expansive. Like most big-budget high fantasy projects these days, it seems more than a little derivative of Game of Thrones, but the big battle scenes are dynamic and lively. The movie gets surprisingly dark, with the villain’s plot involving genocide by way of biological warfare. However, the movie still has a bounce and a sense of humour to it and is never too self-serious the way something like Snow White and the Huntsman and its sequel The Huntsman: Winter’s War sometimes were. The big climactic battle takes place in broad daylight, which is a relative rarity in films of this type.

This film has a completely different design team than the first but maintains a sense of visual continuity while also giving us something new. The costumes by Ellen Mirojnick are stunning, especially Maleficent’s battle outfit, which is a sexy, elegant body paint-style number. Production designer Patrick Tatopolous creates some gorgeous fantasy environments, chief of which is the hidden fae sanctuary comprising mini-environments which have different climates.

Summary: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil sometimes transcends its fantasy adventure genre trappings thanks to strong performances by Angelina Jolie and Michelle Pfeiffer, putting more of a spin on its source material than many of the live-action remakes Disney has given us lately.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Rocketman review

ROCKETMAN

Director: Dexter Fletcher
Cast : Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard, Stephen Graham, Gemma Jones, Charlie Rowe, Steven Mackintosh
Genre : Biography/Fantasy/Musical
Run Time : 2 h 1 mins
Opens : 13 June 2019
Rating : R21

           After Bohemian Rhapsody took home multiple Oscars, including one for Best Picture, all eyes were on the next high-profile rock star biopic on the slate, Rocketman. The film tells the story of one Sir Elton John, offering up a flight of fancy rather than a grounded documentary-style take, and is all the better for it.

Elton John (Taron Egerton, Kit Connor and Matthew Illesley at different ages), born Reginald Dwight, was raised in suburban 1950s England by his indifferent mother Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and his kindly grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones). Reggie, as he is known, doesn’t have much of a relationship with his father Stanley (Steven Mackintosh), who serves in the Royal Air Force.

The film tracks young Reggie’s journey from his time as a student in the Royal Academy of Music to his gigs playing in a backing band for touring American jazz musicians. Reggie changes his name to ‘Elton John’, and is signed on to a music publishing company as a songwriter. Soon afterwards, he is introduced to lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), who will go on to become a long-time collaborator. Elton attains stratospheric success after a stunning American debut, but his personal life is in shambles. He is approached by music manager John Reid (Richard Madden) who pursues a relationship with him, but Elton finds little fulfilment, eventually becoming addicted to alcohol and drugs. It is up to Elton and those who care for him to turn his life around and ensure his talent doesn’t go to waste.

The rock star redemption tale told in Rocketman is a familiar one, and it hits all the beats one would expect: the initial struggle to get noticed, the breakthrough, a rocky personal life with relationship problems and substance abuse, and then a triumphant comeback. However, Rocketman turns this sense of familiarity into a strength, and benefits from its fantastical approach. Instead of being a staid biopic, the film is punctuated with fantasy sequences and musical numbers, and that’s where it’s able to become more than the sum of its parts.

While there are moments of Rocketman that are necessarily dark, director Dexter Fletcher infuses the whole movie with an unmistakable, almost childlike joy. Fletcher took over from Bryan Singer as director of Bohemian Rhapsody and being able to see the development of Rocketman from the ground up allows him to put more of his stamp on this movie. The film’s use of music and its placement of songs is impeccable. Because of the fantasy element, it’s not tied down to a strict timeline, allowing songs that were written later to appear earlier in the story. For example, “I Want Love” becomes a song about Elton’s childhood, and the yearnings of each member of his family.

Elton John is known for being outlandish and over the top, and the film embraces that while always emphasising his humanity. The film is produced by John himself and his husband David Furnish, and there was every danger that it could feel like a self-aggrandizing vanity project, but it’s clear that Elton John has a sense of humour. The film is an invitation to look at his life through his eyes, and while artistic license has been taken, there’s a moving honesty that flows through the movie.

At one point, Justin Timberlake was rumoured to be the frontrunner for the lead role, with Tom Hardy later attached to the part. Taron Egerton more than proves he was the right choice for the role. The Kingsman star showcases an impressive singing voice and inhabiting both the swagger and the secret insecurity that is key to bringing a part like this to life. In both his singing and mannerisms, Egerton doesn’t do a mere imitation of John and constantly seems dedicated to portraying all the facets of the singer, beyond the ones the public is familiar with.

Some of the film’s best moments are in its depiction of the friendship between John and Bernie Taupin. Jamie Bell’s portrayal of Taupin is sweet, earnest and withdrawn: John is the one in the limelight, with Taupin remaining behind the scenes, but there’s no denying the significance of his contribution to John’s music. The scene in which the two first meet and bond over their love of the country song “Streets of Laredo” is genuinely heart-warming, and the depiction of their major falling out is equally heart-breaking. “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” is reimagined as a duet between John and Taupin and is one of the film’s most effective emotional beats.

Rocketman doesn’t purport to be a balanced take on events, it purports to be John’s take on them. As such, several characters are portrayed as one-dimensionally nasty. Both of his parents come out of this looking bad, and Bryce Dallas Howard has fun with the role of John’s uncaring mother. One almost wants to reach into the screen and shake her, yelling “your son deserves your love!”

Richard Madden is supremely slimy as John Reid, who is depicted as heartless, manipulative and promiscuous. The same character also appeared in Bohemian Rhapsody, played in that film by Aidan Gillen. It is in the portrayal of Reid as an outright cartoon supervillain that Rocketman runs the risk of having its credibility questioned, but the movie has a built-in defence of all this being from John’s point of view.

Rocketman ends relatively early in John’s career, so events like John’s friendship with Princess Diana and his writing music for The Lion King are not shown – perhaps there might be room for a sequel. There are moments of Rocketman that are awkward and cheesy, but thanks to Fletcher’s palpable love for John’s music and Egerton’s stirring performance, its charm is irresistible. It’s a movie that tells John’s truth in the purest way, cheesiness and all.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Aladdin (2019) movie review

ALADDIN (2019)

Director: Guy Ritchie
Cast : Will Smith, Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad, Billy Magnussen, Frank Welker, Alan Tudyk
Genre : Fantasy/Adventure/Musical
Run Time : 2 h 8 mins
Opens : 23 May 2019
Rating : PG

            The Disney live-action remake train keeps chugging along with Aladdin, based on the beloved 1992 film of the same name. Next stop: Agrabah.

Aladdin (Mena Massoud) is a street urchin eking out a hardscrabble existence as a thief on the streets of Agrabah. He meets Jasmine (Naomi Scott), the Princess of Agrabah, in the market, and immediately falls for her. Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), the Grand Vizier, tasks Aladdin with entering the mythical Cave of Wonders to retrieve a lamp for him – only a “diamond in the rough” will be allowed passage into the cave.

The lamp contains the Genie (Will Smith), a magical being who will grant whoever is in possession of the lamp three wishes. Aladdin transforms into Prince Ali in a bid to win Jasmine’s affection, as the law demands that she only marry a prince. Aladdin and the Genie are caught in Jafar’s scheme to usurp the throne from the Sultan (Navid Negahban), with the future of Agrabah in the hands of a humble ‘street rat’.

There seems to be a general backlash against Disney’s recent spate of live-action remakes of their animated movies, not because the movies are all that bad, but that they’re unnecessary. A change in context or setting can sometimes justify a remake – this reviewer feels the 2016 Pete’s Dragon movie is an underrated gem. A shift in genre sometimes makes the remake worthwhile – the 2016 Jungle Book movie played up the action and adventure elements and played down the ‘50s variety show’ feel of the 1967 film.

However, 2017’s Beauty and the Beast was a remake that was driven purely by nostalgia – while generally competent in and of itself, it didn’t add anything significant to the animated film on which is was based, and was a movie that spent most of its time glancing at the floor, trying to hit its marks.

Aladdin has many of the problems that the Beauty and the Beast remake had, with some new ones too. First off, Guy Ritchie seems like a curious choice to helm a fantasy musical, since he is best known for his street-level crime comedies. It’s hard to know how much of the blame to assign to Ritchie, because Aladdin is a movie that feels made by committee. Like Beauty and the Beast before it, it is obligated to hit its marks and deliver the imagery that audiences remember from the animated film.

As a result, Aladdin often feels weirdly stilted. There is beauty to the design elements in the film, with the Palace of Agrabah looking like a cross between the Hagia Sophia in Turkey and the Alcázar of Seville in Spain. Unfortunately, Agrabah never registers as a living breathing place. Instead of a movie that’s vibrant, energetic and spilling off the screen, Aladdin feels flat. Agrabah is reminiscent of Disney’s Epcot theme park – this is most obvious during the “Prince Ali” number, which despite containing a thousand extras, is markedly underwhelming. While Aladdin serves up several grand tableaus, nothing is truly awe-inspiring. “A Whole New World” lacks the “soaring, tumbling, freewheeling” that the lyrics promise.

There is still a fair amount to appreciate: the photo-realistic CGI incarnations of Abu, Rajah, and Iago (voiced by Disney good luck charm Alan Tudyk) all work well, and Alan Menken’s songs continue to be magical. Plenty of the jokes land, and the film benefits from its humour being less self-referential and pop culture-centric than that of the animated film.

Integral to Aladdin’s appeal is the Genie, Robin Williams’ portrayal of the character being inextricably linked with the animated film. Williams’ genie was mercurial, manifesting in multiple forms and being a showcase for Williams’ skills as an impressionist.

The problem with getting a big name like Will Smith in a live-action movie is that Will Smith has to be recognisable as himself. In blue CGI form, the Genie looks like Will Smith, but just a little off such that it seems not quite right. The Genie’s penchant for changing forms is heavily downplayed, and while Smith is typically charming and charismatic as the Genie, the movie practically forces audiences to compare him to the animated incarnation. In the stage musical adaptation, the Genie is reimagined as a gadabout lounge singer-type, which fits the medium of a stage musical. There isn’t enough done conceptually to optimise Will Smith’s Genie for the medium of a live-action film, but the movie’s emphasis on the Genie’s desire not just to be free but to become mortal has the beginnings of an interesting idea.

Mena Massoud does fine work as Aladdin – he has a winsome smile and projects the innate decency that is key to the character. Aladdin is a good person who has been forced into difficult circumstances, and Massoud gives the character a good mix of sweetness and street smarts. Aladdin also does lots and lots of parkour; it’s clear that these scenes are much more in Ritchie’s wheelhouse than the musical numbers are.

Naomi Scott’s Jasmine is defiant but far from petulant, and the film places more emphasis on Jasmine’s desire to become Sultan herself and reshape Agrabah for its citizens. The changes to the Jasmine character to make her more of a leader are interesting, but not fully explored. Jasmine gets the film’s one new song “Speechless” – while Scott’s singing voice is impressive, the song doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the music and isn’t as good as “These Palace Walls” from the musical, which fulfils a similar purpose.

Marwan Kenzari’s Jafar is markedly disappointing. The film plays up Jafar’s hawkish interventionist tendencies; he is pushing the Sultan to declare war on neighbouring kingdoms. Jafar is a one-dimensional villain in the animated film, but Kenzari seems a little too restrained, never visibly taking pleasure in playing a sneering, moustache-twirling villain. Jafar as a politicking manipulator is an idea that’s touched on but never actually developed – he still becomes a cackling sorcerer at the end of the film, but Kenzari never revels in the evil.

Navid Negahban’s Sultan is much more dignified than the bumbling, easily misled old man of the cartoon. Nasim Pedrad handily steals the show as Dalia, a new character created for this version. One of the film’s funniest moments is when Pedrad exclaims “spoons!” Her interactions with the Genie seem more compelling than the love story between Aladdin and Jasmine.

Billy Magnussen also plays a new character, Prince Anders from Skånland. He’s merely there as an example of what Aladdin is up against in vying for Jasmine’s hand in marriage and is a largely superfluous character, but his presence does establish Agrabah as being part of a much larger world.

Aladdin is stuck being a live-action remake that serves mostly to remind viewers of its animated forebear. Especially when the source material is as popular as the 1992 Aladdin film, a remake actively invites comparisons. The film doesn’t adapt the source material well-enough to fit the different medium. While some might involuntarily gravitate towards the film’s packaged nostalgia, Aladdin cannot rise above being a shadow of the animated film.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Pokémon: Detective Pikachu review

POKÉMON: DETECTIVE PIKACHU

Director: Rob Letterman
Cast : Ryan Reynolds, Justice Smith, Kathryn Newton, Omar Chaparro, Chris Geere, Ken Watanabe, Bill Nighy, Rita Ora
Genre : Adventure/Comedy/Fantasy
Run Time : 1 h 45 mins
Opens : 9 May 2019
Rating : PG

            The hugely popular Pokémon multimedia franchise gets its first live-action movie in the form of Pokémon: Detective Pikachu, based on the 2016 spin-off video game.

The story follows Tim Goodman (Justice Smith), who has abandoned his childhood dreams of becoming a Pokémon trainer to work in an insurance firm. After the disappearance of his father, a police detective in Ryme City, Tim meets the Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds) who once belonged to his father. Together with Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton), an intern at a news network, Tim and Detective Pikachu attempt to solve the mystery of Harry’s disappearance.

They uncover a conspiracy that seems to implicate the wealthy Clifford family – Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy) is the benevolent visionary who built Ryme City, while his son Roger (Chris Geere) has wrested control of Clifford Enterprises from his father. Also figuring into the mystery is a serum that turns normally-friendly Pokémon into savage monsters. Tim, Detective Pikachu, Lucy and her Psyduck must prevent the enactment of a dastardly scheme that endangers the human and Pokémon residents of Ryme City alike.

There’s a fair amount of risk in making a movie like Pokémon: Detective Pikachu – video game movies haven’t exactly had the best track record, and Pokémon is such a sprawling, beloved franchise that a poorly-received live-action movie would be a significant misstep. The momentum behind this movie getting made owes mostly to the Pokémon Go augmented reality mobile game, which held the world in its thrall.

It’s a clever move to make a live-action movie based on one of the more obscure entries in the Pokémon oeuvre as opposed to making a movie about the characters featured in the Pokémon anime series. There’s a bit more room to experiment, and while Detective Pikachu does have an experimental feel to it, it also can’t help but feel like a corporate product. Director Rob Letterman, whose background is in animation, and who also directed Goosebumps, handles the integration of live-action and animated characters well.

The film’s plot is straightforward, its underlying mystery not exactly involving, and it often feels derivative of many movies that came before it. However, it’s also a movie that’s clearly made by people who care about and love the Pokémon franchise. The movie brims with texture and seems designed for audiences to point excitedly at the screen as they recognise various types of Pokémon. The film’s design is its strong suit: Ryme City feels like a hybrid of London and Tokyo, with a dash of Blade Runner neon-noir to its aesthetic. Some of the Pokémon redesigns work better than others. While plenty are still cute, Mewtwo suffers from what seems like a lack of texture, thus feeling more like a video game character than the other Pokémon who populate the film.

There’s a delightful incongruity in hearing Ryan Reynolds’ voice emanate from an exceedingly cuddly Pikachu. The character animation on the titular character is marvellous, incorporating some motion capture performed by Reynolds. While the Detective Pikachu of the video game had a gruff voice, Ryan Reynolds sounds like Ryan Reynolds, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s a mix of optimism and mischief that the character animation in combination with Reynolds’ voice work captures. There’s also the great device of giving Detective Pikachu an extreme fondness for coffee, as kind of a replacement for the cigarettes which detectives in noir movies would chain-smoke.

There is not very much to the human characters, but Justice Smith gives this his best shot. The character has left behind the dreams of his youth and has accepted a dreary existence, with the sudden entry of Detective Pikachu into his life reigniting his imagination. The Tim character is a cipher for viewers who grew up with Pokémon but may have moved on from the games, toys and cartoons as they’ve entered adulthood.

Kathryn Newton’s Lucy character is every bit the intrepid reporter archetype, combined with the giddy energy of a girlish anime protagonist. Her character is more heightened than Tim, and Newton and Smith don’t have great chemistry, but thankfully the film does not focus on a romantic subplot.

Ken Watanabe turns in a respectable supporting turn as Ryme City Police Lieutenant Hideo Yoshida, Harry’s boss, but the show is stolen by Bill Nighy. Nighy is a distinguished actor who has been in a fair number of silly movies but hearing him utter words like “Pokémon” and “Mewtwo” with a straight face is a thing of sheer joy.

Grading on the curve of video game movies, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is an achievement. It does sometimes feel like a corporate, impersonal product, made to further expand an already-big brand, but there’s also an earnestness to it and a level of craftsmanship behind it that keep it a safe distance from being wholly soulless. There’s a cheery nostalgia that underpins this and a welcome familiarity to the elements that hark back to 80s movies. It’s not the most ground-breaking example of what it could’ve been, but there’s still plenty to like about Pokémon: Detective Pikachu.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Shazam! review

SHAZAM!

Director: David F. Sandberg
Cast : Zachary Levi, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Mark Strong, Djimon Hounsou, Grace Fulton, Faithe Herman, Jovan Armand, Ian Chen
Genre : Action/Adventure/Fantasy
Run Time : 2 h 12 mins
Opens : 4 April 2019
Rating : PG

Created in 1939 by Artist C. C. Beck and writer Bill Parker, Captain Marvel, later known as Shazam, was the first superhero to make it to the big screen with 1941’s Republic Serial named Adventures of Captain Marvel. The character returns to cinemas 78 years later in Shazam!

            Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a 14-year-old orphan whom the ancient wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) endows with his powers. Billy now can transform into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi) when he shouts the magic word “Shazam!”. Billy’s foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) is a superhero aficionado who helps Billy gain mastery over his powers and develop his superhero identity.

In the meantime, physicist Dr Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) hunts down Shazam, wielding the power of the Seven Deadly Sins. Sivana believes he was the wizard’s rightful champion. Billy must adjust to both his existence as Shazam and life in the group home alongside Freddy and his other foster siblings, Mary (Grace Fulton), Eugene (Ian Chen), Pedro (Jovan Armand) and Darla (Faithe Herman).

Let’s get the naming thing out of the way: Captain Marvel was originally published by Fawcett Comics and was a top-selling superhero comic, even outselling Superman. DC Comics sued Fawcett for copyright infringement, alleging the character was a copy of Superman. Fawcett stopped publishing Captain Marvel comics in 1953, then in 1972, DC licensed Captain Marvel and related characters from Fawcett, fully integrating the characters into the DC universe by 1991. The name “Captain Marvel” had been copyrighted by Marvel Comics, who introduced their version of Captain Marvel in 1967. When DC relaunched with the New 52 in 2011, the character was renamed Shazam. Long story short, the rivalry between the Captain Marvel movie and the Shazam! movie is completely pointless and doesn’t need to exist.

A Shazam! movie has been in development since the early 2000s, with the production of other DC Comics movies throwing various spanners in the works. In this final form, directed by David F. Sandberg from a screenplay by Henry Gayden, Shazam! is a movie that remembers superheroes were originally created for children. This doesn’t mean that the film is an overly cuddly, toothless affair, and there still are scenes that might frighten younger viewers, but Shazam! takes the concept that its titular hero is a kid in an adult superhero’s body and runs with it.

It’s no secret that the DC Extended Universe had stumbled multiple times, and Shazam! marks the franchise’s firmest rejection of the tone it exhibited in its earlier entries. This reviewer still enjoys Man of Steel, Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad to varying degrees despite the overall criticism those films received, but it became clear that what general audiences perceived as an enforced grimness had become an albatross around the franchise’s neck. Justice League adopted the Avengers formula but came off as hastily reassembled and half-baked. Shazam! is light-hearted, affably goofy and zany without coming off as manic. It’s not exactly a superhero epic and is often more amiable than awe-inspiring, but the approach works well for the character.

Shazam is a character who’s been nicknamed “the Big Red Cheese”, and Zachary Levi embodies a kid’s sense of wonderment and being overwhelmed, having an enormous amount of fun in the role. Levi is a champion of geek culture, having created the Nerd Machine lifestyle brand and starred in the TV series Chuck. He also played Fandral in two Thor films, though it’s easy to forget that. As Shazam, Levi has eagerness to spare and lights up the screen whenever he’s on it.

Asher Angel and Jack Dylan Grazer share plenty of chemistry as bickering foster brothers. As Billy Batson, there’s a sadness that Angel carries around, a sadness Billy sheds when he transforms into Shazam. Grazer plays a fanboy, and in an age when fanboys can be annoying and often actively toxic, such that ‘fanboy’ is often a pejorative, it’s nice to see an endearing fanboy portrayed in a superhero movie.

Mark Strong’s Sinestro was one of the best parts of 2011’s Green Lantern movie, and he plays another DC villain here. He plays it completely straight – Sivana is ruthless and powerful and commands the terrifying and grotesque demons who personify the Seven Deadly Sins. The character is strictly one-dimensional even when given bits of back-story, but an archetypical superhero needs an archetypical supervillain and Strong is the best man for the job.

Shazam! is very much a movie about family, and there’s a warmth to the scenes of a foster family that carries on DC’s lineage of superheroes being adopted as children. This element of the story is taken straight from the New 52 Shazam! run. The movie’s feel-good moments might come off as a bit too pat, but there’s enough sincerity to paper over that. Grace Fulton and Faithe Herman are the standouts as the big sister of the bunch and the slightly hyper little sister respectively.

Shazam! is much more modest in scale than Wonder Woman and Aquaman, the two DCEU films generally considered good (the former more so than the latter), are. It is pretty much Big as a superhero movie – there’s even an homage to the classic floor piano scene. Shazam! fully embraces the outre elements of the comics, going all in on the magic and never straining to make things ‘grounded’ or ‘realistic’. It remains to be seen just how cohesive the DCEU will be or even needs to be going forward, but it’s good to know that while the darker stories have their place, there’s room for movies like Shazam! too.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Dumbo (2019) review

DUMBO

Director: Tim Burton
Cast : Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Alan Arkin, Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins, Roshan Seth, DeObia Oparei
Genre : Adventure/Family/Fantasy
Run Time : 1 h 52 mins
Opens : 28 March 2019
Rating : PG

           This year, we’ll be getting several live-action remakes of Disney animated features – or, to be pedantic, a photo-realistic CGI remake with The Lion King. The House of Mouse kicks off the 2019 slate of remakes with Dumbo.

It is 1919 and Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) has returned from World War I, having lost his left arm in the battle. Holt and his late wife Annie were trick riders in the circus. Holt returns to the circus, run by Max Medici (Danny DeVito), to find they have run into hard times. An elephant acquired by Medici gives birth to a baby elephant with abnormally large ears. The baby, named Jumbo Jr. and nicknamed Dumbo, is forcefully separated from his mother. Holt’s young children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) discover Dumbo can fly.

The story of the amazing flying elephant attracts the attention of entrepreneur V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), who buys out Medici’s circus. The circus performers, including Dumbo, relocate to Vandevere’s sprawling theme park Dreamland. Vandevere has Dumbo perform alongside trapeze artist Colette Marchant (Eva Green). While Medici is initially swayed by Vandevere, he and the other circus performers eventually discover that Vandevere is exploiting them and is exploiting Dumbo in particular. Holt, Milly and Joe hatch a plan to free Dumbo and reunite him with his mother.

Disney’s live-action remakes have sometimes been criticised for being too literal – 2017’s Beauty and the Beast comes to mind. A remake should put enough of a spin on the original such that it doesn’t lose its spirit, but still feels transformative enough to be worthwhile. Dumbo largely achieves this with its story focusing on new human characters, while keeping the titular baby elephant as its emotional centre. Thankfully, elements from the original such as the racist crows are jettisoned, and this film’s message of inclusivity feels more genuine than that espoused by fellow circus movie The Greatest Showman.

Tim Burton’s sensibilities might not seem like the best fit for a family-friendly Disney film, and his attempts at family-aimed movies do tend to be inadvertently horrifying. However, Dumbo benefits from the distinct visual stylisation that Burton brings to it, and is also very much a story about outsiders, which is familiar territory for the director. Dumbo’s big ears, the thing for which he is mocked, are also the source of his special abilities. It’s not quite Edward Scissorhands, but one can see the connection there. There are times when it feels like this isn’t exactly a passion project for Burton and that he’s very much a hired gun, but then again, it’s easy to overdose on Burton-ness and for him to lapse into self-parody, which he stays a safe distance from here.

A lot rides on the shoulders of the titular pachyderm – if audiences believe the wholly computer-generated creation as a living, breathing character, then it’s easy to empathise with him and to feel sad when bad things befall him. The visual effects are supervised by Richard Stammers, and while Dumbo might look a bit unnatural in stills and posters, the result is successful. The human characters do a lot of interacting with Dumbo, which is mostly seamless. This is a movie in which the title character is only added into the film in post-production, and there isn’t an actor performing motion capture on set like with the Planet of the Apes reboot series or Alita: Battle Angel.

In addition to the synthetic main character, the human cast is a big part of what makes Dumbo work. There was a period in Colin Farrell’s career when Hollywood was pushing him as an action hero, and he’s much better as characters like Holt – quiet, tortured characters who are still noble, they’re just not spouting one-liners. Farrell brings a pensive sadness to Holt, who is handicapped after fighting in the war and is struggling to raise his two children after the death of his wife.

Michael Keaton is having heaps of fun as the slimy P.T. Barnum analogue. His villainous character is never truly terrifying and isn’t half as terrifying as Keaton’s portrayal of the Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming. There’s also the irony of a slick huckster who swallows up a smaller business being the villain in a Disney movie, given that Disney regularly swallows up slightly smaller businesses.

DeVito brings humour and heart to the role of Medici, someone who cares for his employees but who is struggling to make ends meet. The film hints that the circus performers have lives and personalities beyond their gimmick – Roshan Seth’s snake charmer character Pramesh Singh cares deeply for the elephants, while DeObia Oparei’s strong man character Rongo is also Medici’s accountant and general right-hand man.

Eva Green has become something of a muse of Burton’s, this being her third film with him. She brings elegance and mystique to the role of Colette, whom Vandevere keeps firmly under his thumb.

Nico Parker gives an assured performance as Milly, who has her heart set on becoming a scientist. She’s a girl ahead of her time, aspiring to something more than being a circus performer. Milly’s brother Joe is a bit less defined as a character, but Finley Hobbins is still quite endearing.

While Dumbo sometimes feels just a bit too conventional, it is a moving, often enchanting take on the classic animated film. The film benefits from just enough of Burton’s signature weirdness and darkness while still being something for the whole family.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald review

FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD

Director : David Yates
Cast : Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Zoë Kravitz, Callum Turner, Claudia Kim, Jude Law, Johnny Depp, Brontis Jodorowsky
Genre : Adventure/Fantasy/Drama
Run Time : 134 mins
Opens : 15 November 2018
Rating : PG

The Wizarding World gains a new wrinkle as writer J.K. Rowling takes us deeper into the happenings that far preceded young Harry Potter’s enrolment at Hogwarts. It is 1927 and leaving off the events of the first Fantastic Beasts film, magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is still being reprimanded by the Ministry of Magic for his involvement in the chaos in New York the previous year. Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), Newt’s former Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts, entrusts him with a special mission: find and defeat the treacherous wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), with whom Dumbledore has a shared past.

Grindelwald’s agenda of Pureblood wizard supremacy and complete control over the non-magical population requires one special ingredient: Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), who is off in search of his identity. Newt, reuniting with MACUSA Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson), Tina’s sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) and Queenie’s boyfriend Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), must get to Credence before Grindelwald does, as Grindelwald amasses more support for his dangerous ideology.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald takes the flaws of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and amplifies them. While the first Fantastic Beasts movie was ostensibly a whimsical monster movie about a tweedy textbook author who is flung into a larger-than-life adventure, The Crimes of Grindelwald is on its way to almost entirely dropping that pretence, pushing this line of films further into the tangled back-story of the original Harry Potter series. Director David Yates and screenwriter JK Rowling return, and The Crimes of Grindelwald does feel like a part of the larger Wizarding World, but it also seems designed to frustrate and annoy the Potterhead faithful and casual viewers alike.

While Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was far enough removed from the main line of Potter lore for neophytes to hop on to, The Crimes of Grindelwald dives head-first into reams of back-story, such that characters are trying to catch their breath while delivering exposition. Many issues with the storytelling can be traced to how this is movie #2 in a planned series of five films, meaning the usual frustration that comes with watching the second movie in a trilogy is multiplied. There aren’t just a few loose ends left untied, this is a two-for-one loose end sale.

The film’s glaring faults aside, fans of the Wizarding World will find plenty that’s charming about this movie, and it will be hard to not be moved by the film’s brief sojourn back to the Hogwarts grounds, a stop by the Great Hall included. Production designer Stuart Craig’s sets are beautiful creations, the French Ministry of Magic a particularly elegant locale. Colleen Atwood’s costumes for the earlier film nabbed the designer her fourth Oscar win, and Tina gets to sport a particularly sleek leather coat this time around. James Newton Howard’s sumptuous score conjures up memories of John Williams’ work on the series, while stopping short of feeling like a copycat. Alas, much of the visual effects work, especially on the creatures, continues to feel synthetic, making us pine for that animatronic Basilisk from the end of Chamber of Secrets.

While the first film planted the seeds of Grindelwald’s looming presence in the magical world, the sequel places him front and centre. No longer a shadowy threat, Johnny Depp is all over this movie, his casting having led to much uproar. Even leaving aside the domestic abuse allegations that make Depp’s presence in this film cast a dark pall on the rest of it, his Grindelwald just isn’t magnetic or menacing enough. The character is meant to be a seductive populist who cleverly veils his hateful creed in shrewd warnings of Muggle arrogance and self-destructiveness. Depp may have residual star power, but he falls dramatically short when he’s supposed to carry this film.

It is comforting to see Newt, Tina, Jacob and Queenie again, but the returning characters must make a little room for new ones. Zoë Kravitz’s Leta Lestrange, a former flame of Newt’s and now involved with Newt’s brother Theseus (Callum Turner), is an enigmatic character who has lots of dramatic potential but gets short shrift. Similarly, Ezra Miller’s conflicted Credence, who proved one of the most interesting parts of the first film, shows glimmers of power, but his story is purposefully incomplete.

Jude Law’s appearance as a dashing young Dumbledore is one of the film’s big selling points, but his screen time is necessarily brief. The crucial relationship and later falling out between Dumbledore and Grindelwald is hinted at but not expounded upon. Callum Turner is bound to become Tumblr’s new boyfriend and the sibling rivalry between Newt and Theseus is fun, but borders on feeling extraneous.

One of the other controversial aspects of the film, casting South Korean actress Claudia Kim as the human form of the snake Nagini, proves to be more fuss than it’s worth. The problematic implications are there, but the inclusion of Nagini contributes practically nothing to the story.

There is another review with the headline “with The Crimes of Grindelwald, J.K. Rowling has hit peak George Lucas”. While that is a bit hyperbolic, the comparison isn’t without merit. There is obviously plenty of care taken in further crafting the look and feel of the Wizarding World, but as the film piles on the reveals and gets lost in doling out fan-service, the movie clearly buckles under its own weight. Now to wait for three more of these and it all might make sense then.

 

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Solo: A Star Wars Story review

For inSing

SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY

Director : Ron Howard
Cast : Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Thandie Newton, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Joonas Suotamo, Paul Bettany
Genre : Action / Adventure / Fantasy
Run Time : 135 mins
Opens : 24 May 2018
Rating : PG (Some Violence)

            Before he was the gun-slinging scoundrel who always shoots first, he was young, scrappy and hungry. This is the man we meet in Solo: A Star Wars Story.

Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich), a street urchin from the backwater planet of Corellia, enlists in the Imperial forces with dreams of becoming a pilot. Stuck in the infantry, Han chances across a group of smugglers and sees a way out. He ingratiates himself with the group’s leader Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and becomes acquainted with the Wookiee Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo). Han finds himself entangled in a web of warring crime syndicates as he sets off on a mission to steal a shipment of the valuable and highly volatile fuel Coaxium.

Tobias and his crew must deliver the Coaxium to the dangerous crime lord Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), head of the Crimson Dawn syndicate. Along the way, Han runs into his boyhood sweetheart Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), who has fallen in with some unsavoury characters. Han also crosses paths with the dashing smuggler Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and sets his heart on acquiring Lando’s beloved ship. As he launches head first into adventure, Han takes his first steps into a larger world.

Solo: A Star Wars Story has mainly been greeted with cynicism. You’ve probably heard murmurs about how this is an unnecessary endeavour, or how Disney is milking its cash cow. Look at it this way: the Star Wars galaxy is a vast playground for filmmakers to explore. It makes sense that the first anthology movies, Rogue One and Solo, cover not entirely untrodden ground, before future instalments branch off into further reaches and farther away from what we’re familiar with.

Brian Daley’s Han Solo Adventures book trilogy and Ann C. Crispin’s Han Solo Trilogy explored Han and Chewie’s adventures before meeting Luke and Obi-Wan. A movie covering similar ground seems logical enough.

This film has had a rocky journey to the screen, with initially-hired directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller fired and then replaced with Ron Howard. Yes, it’s tempting to imagine what might have been, but all things considered, Solo does not feel like a movie that was taken apart and hastily reassembled. It might not work as tightly as Rogue One, which similarly underwent reshoots under a different director, but Solo hangs together well enough.

The general criticisms about Solo, in addition to how its existence is not exactly vital, are that Alden Ehrenreich doesn’t match up to Harrison Ford and that the movie is formulaic and going through the motions. We’ll get to the leading man in a moment. This reviewer will argue that being formulaic is not a bad thing if the result is entertaining, and Solo is supremely entertaining. After all, the Star Wars movies are often formulaic, following patterns established in mythology and storytelling across the ages. This is a movie that hits the ground running, is bursting with energy, and while there are times when it seems like a corporation-mandated product, there is a bit of welcome eagerness and scrappiness to it.

Like Rogue One before it, Solo works to bridge the Prequel and Original trilogies, with references to characters and events from both. Solo feels tactile and lived-in, with our characters visiting various dusty, windy, grimy, muddy locales. The creature effects are supervised by Neal Scanlan, who worked on The Force Awakens, Rogue One and The Last Jedi. There is a reliance on puppets and prosthetics, and while there are computer-generated or enhanced creatures and sets, nothing in Solo feels entirely synthetic.

The set pieces are executed well and are generally enjoyable. There’s a daring train heist which is genuinely pulse-quickening sequence, and we get to see Solo and co. undertake the risky Kessel Run. Just as with Rogue One, this reviewer was initially worried that Solo “wouldn’t feel like Star Wars”. To us at least, it does. The design elements could’ve done with a little more creativity, though.

Solo’s narrative must hit certain mile markers and portray all the important moments that made him who he is. Despite this requirement, it never feels like things are on autopilot. Howard has been decried as a “safe” choice, but there’s still liveliness and humour to the proceedings. This does not come across as a movie that was narrowly plucked from the jaws of death, limping into theatres.

Few people are going to give Ehrenreich a fair shake. The actor visibly tries his best to capture the essence of the iconic scoundrel, and while he’s not Harrison Ford (because really, who else is?), he’s better than most will give him credit for. Ehrenreich is not effortlessly cool, but that works here, because we’re meeting a Han who is finding his footing and who has yet to be moulded into the man audiences know him as. He’s about on par with Sean Patrick Flanery, who portrayed a younger version of that other popular Harrison Ford character in The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.

Woody Harrelson plays the mentor figure with a trick or two up his sleeve, and the Tobias character plays very much to Harrelson’s strengths. It’s nothing we haven’t seen from Harrelson, but it makes sense that this is the guy that taught Han Solo much of what he knows.

Donald Glover is a fantastic Lando – vain, charismatic, smooth and owner of a walk-in closet filled entirely with capes. There’s a subtle inflection that is very reminiscent of Billy Dee Williams without feeling like an SNL impersonation, and there’s just enough of Lando in this that this reviewer wants to see what else Glover can do with the role.

The supporting characters introduced in this film are not as memorable as those in Rogue One, but still fit well within the narrative. Emilia Clarke is fine as Qi’ra and there are times when this reviewer was really hoping she and Han would end up together, before realising that it’s a foregone conclusion that they won’t. Since The Force Awakens and Rogue One both cast young English brunettes in the lead, perhaps a leading lady who’s a little different from that mould would have been a little more interesting.

Suotamo does a lot of physical work as Chewie, and the film’s depiction of how Han and Chewie meet is an absolute hoot and one of the best moments of the film.

Bettany’s crime lord is archetypical but still sufficiently commanding. The character was intended to be an alien played by Michael K. Williams, and the character was reworked and recast when Williams was unable to make the reshoots.

Alas, Thandie Newton is criminally underused, and what seems like an interesting character isn’t given much to do.

There’s joy to be found in Star Wars movies that are layered and philosophical, but there’s also joy to be found in a straightforward, exhilarating adventure, which Solo is to a tee. There are flaws, there are places where it could’ve been a little wilder and freer, but as a detour from the main series, it has its charm.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

A Wrinkle in Time movie review

For inSing

A WRINKLE IN TIME

Director : AvaDuVernay
Cast : Storm Reid, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Levi Miller, Deric McCabe, Chris Pine, Zach Galifianakis, Michael Peña, Gugu Mbatha-Raw
Genre : Fantasy/Sci-fi/Family
Run Time : 1h 55m
Opens : 8 March 2018
Rating : PG

Madeleine L’Engle’s 1962 young adult sci-fi fantasy novel A Wrinkle in Time has captured the imaginations of children for decades. Under the guidance of director Ava DuVernay, the story makes its way to the big screen.

Young Meg Murry (Storm Reid) has never been the same since the mysterious disappearance of her astrophysicist father Alex (Chris Pine) four years ago. She and her adoptive brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) are visited by the eccentric Mrs Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), a cosmic entity.

Meg, Charles Wallace and their schoolmate Calvin (Levi Miller) soon meet Mrs Whatsit’s compatriots, Mrs Who (Mindy Kaling) and Mrs Which (Oprah Winfrey). The three ‘Mrs Ws’ whisk the children away on an adventure in search of Meg and Charles’ father. It turns out that Alex Murry found a way to ‘tesser’ or ‘wrinkle time’, travelling through the universe and unable to find his way back. The path that lies before Meg, Charles Wallace and Calvin is paved with wonder, but also untold danger.

Any time a major studio attempts to make a weird, trippy blockbuster that looks to be something outside the norm, it’s a risk. While audiences constantly crave something different, executing a project like that can be tricky. A Wrinkle in Time is as ambitious as it is flawed – while those flaws do make it very interesting, it is frustrating to glimpse the incredible film that might have been.

Ava DuVernay, director of Selma and 13th, is voice who needs to be heard. It’s a great thing that Disney hired her for A Wrinkle in Time, and DuVernay puts her stamp on the story. There are significant changes made the source material: in addition to updating the setting, the characters of Sandy and Dennys, the twins, have been omitted.

The activism that is at the heart of DuVernay’s storytelling can be glimpsed in the film, through small touches like naming the elementary school attended by Meg, Charles Wallace and Calvin after novelist and civil rights activist James Baldwin.

The film’s message is admirable, and its themes of insecurity and a search for belonging are eminently relatable. Unfortunately, A Wrinkle in Time isn’t the easiest film to get into. The world-building seems somewhat haphazard, and the movie struggles to sweep viewers up. There are some beautiful visuals, but much of the computer-generated scenery feels stubbornly synthetic. Location filming in Otago, New Zealand, does lend the film some grandeur, but the landscapes stop short of feeling truly magical.

L’Engle was reading about quantum physics while she wrote A Wrinkle in Time, and in the decades since then, there has been considerable progress in that realm. Both L’Engle’s Christian faith and her interest in science manifest themselves in her writing. We are presented with a melding of science and spirituality, with a new age sensibility permeating the film. The ‘problem of evil’ is confronted head on, with all the evil in the universe emanating from a mystical, malevolent entity known as “The It”. It’s a lot to wrap one’s head around, let alone in a film aimed at kids.

The film’s diverse cast is a point in its favour and is a major way in which DuVernay exercises her voice as the film’s director. Storm Reid shows promise playing the sullen, withdrawn Meg. Many young viewers will readily identify with Meg, and the film’s treatment of body image issues is praiseworthy.

McCabe is impish and endearing, but stumbles through some of the more challenging material in the third act. Miller, best known as Peter Pan in 2015’s Pan, is winsome and just the right amount of dopey as the tagalong.

The three Mrs Ws are appropriately larger-than-life, aided by dramatic hair and makeup and colourful, eye-catching costumes. Oprah Winfrey is convincing as a powerful, benevolent being, since that mostly aligns with her public image. Witherspoon is bubbly and silly, while Kaling is stranded reciting inspirational quotes, a device which doesn’t quite work. The Mrs Ws exist mostly to dispense reams of exposition and aren’t quite as fascinating as their appearances indicate.

Pine is charming, as he is wont to be, if not quite believable as a genius scientist. Gugu Mbatha-Raw doesn’t get too much to do as Meg and Charles Wallace’s mother Kate, but the film is effectively emotional when it depicts the family coping with Alex’s disappearance. Zach Galifianakis is quirky if inessential as The Happy Medium, who fits the ‘weird character we meet along the way’ archetype to a tee.

There is great value in much of what A Wrinkle in Time has to say, but as a transportive, absorbing sci-fi fantasy epic, it doesn’t quite hang together. A Wrinkle in Time is a ‘points for effort’ movie that takes risks – it’s clearly the work of a passionate filmmaker with a distinct voice, so it’s too bad that it winds up being this muddled and unsatisfying.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

The Shape of Water movie review

For inSing

THE SHAPE OF WATER

Director : Guillermo del Toro
Cast : Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer
Genre : Drama, Fantasy
Run Time : 2h 4m
Opens : 1 February 2018
Rating : M18 (Sexual Scenes And Nudity)

       In The Godfather, the Corleone family received a threatening message, telling them that the enforcer Luca Brasi “sleeps with the fishes”.

This fantasy romance film puts an entirely different spin on that phrase.

It is 1962, and Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute janitor working at a secret government facility in Baltimore. Elsa lives alone, and her two best friends are her neighbour, illustrator Giles (Richard Jenkins) and her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer).

Col. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), the severe head of security, arrives at the facility with precious cargo in tow – a humanoid amphibian creature dubbed ‘the Asset’ (Doug Jones). Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who is studying the Asset, takes issue with Strickland’s harsh treatment towards the creature.

Elisa gradually begins to bond with the creature, bringing him eggs and playing music on a gramophone in his presence. As unlikely as it seems, Elisa begins to fall in love with the Asset. When she discovers his life is in danger, Elisa sets about rescuing the Asset from the facility, making her a target of Strickland’s wrath.

Director Guillermo del Toro, who also co-wrote the film with Vanessa Taylor, has always been a genre filmmaker. All his films can be classified as fantasy, horror, science fiction, or some combination of the above. However, this has never restricted him – rather, working within these genres has freed del Toro as a storyteller. General audiences often view genre films through a somewhat narrow lens, but del Toro broadens said lens, and The Shape of Water is an excellent example of this approach. The film has garnered 13 Oscar nominations, including for Best Picture and Best Director – it’s not every day that the Academy recognises fantasy romance monster movies this way.

This is a weird, beautiful, enchanting movie. On the surface, there’s the oddness of a woman falling in love and entering a physical relationship with a humanoid fish creature. Originally, del Toro wanted to remake Creature from the Black Lagoon, but from Gill-man’s perspective, recasting the classic movie monster as a romantic lead.

Naturally, cheesy romance novels in which women fall in love with supernatural creatures of various stripes, including but not limited to vampires, werewolves, angels and immortals, come to mind. However, The Shape of Water is far more poetic and less literal than that. Its bizarreness is intertwined with enveloping warmth. This is a movie about outsiders finding solace and understanding in each other, and past the genre trappings, there’s something pure and resonant about that.

The film treats 60s America with a degree of romanticism, but is also keenly aware of the societal tensions at the time and how those attitudes continue to manifest themselves today. This is a fantasy, but the world in which it unfolds is eminently believable.

Like all del Toro’s movies, The Shape of Water is deliberately designed. All the little details vividly evoke the period, and the atmospherics, from the colour palette to Alexandre Desplat’s harp-driven score, sell the film as a meticulously crafted whole. As envisioned by production designer Paul D. Austerberry and shot by cinematographer Dan Laustsen, there’s a cold dankness to the research facility. However, this proves to be the right setting for the romance between Elisa and the Asset to blossom, the unromantic surrounds throwing their bond into sharper relief.

The Elisa character gives Hawkins the opportunity to deliver a sensitive yet electrifying performance. The character is mute, and has always felt like she’s been regarded as missing something everyone else does, but she is a whole person, with dreams and desires of her own. The character’s sexuality is portrayed with a refreshing frankness, and Hawkins brings no vanity to the part at all.

Hawkins’ physicality complements the physicality displayed by Doug Jones, an oft-collaborator of Guillermo del Toro’s. Like classic movie monster portrayers Lon Chaney and Boris Karloff, there’s more to Doug Jones than the fact that he’s in special effects makeup in most of his roles. In The Shape of Water, he gives a legitimately masterful performance, overcoming the constraints of what must’ve been a very uncomfortable suit, especially since Jones was in water for most of the film.

With his luminous skin and limpid eyes, The Asset is beautifully designed, and has become something of an unlikely sex symbol. Legacy Effects developed the special effects suit and makeup, and it’s easy to buy the Asset as a living, breathing entity. However, he looks so much like Abe Sapien from the Hellboy movies – also directed by del Toro – that this reviewer couldn’t help but imagine the Asset was Abe Sapien, even though del Toro has said they’re different characters.

Michael Shannon is in maximum creep mode, playing a truly despicable antagonist. Strickland is inherently cruel, racist and exacting, but has also bought in to the consumerist message of the ‘American dream’, coveting a fancy new Cadillac. There’s a bit of a supervillain air to Strickland, but Shannon never goes the full moustache-twirling hog. There’s the religious zealot angle, with Strickland referencing Bible stories and saying that the Asset is an aberration for not being made ‘in God’s image’. Shannon can always be counted on to play a scary villain, and Strickland is plenty scary.

Jenkins’ Giles is a loveable character, someone who’s harbouring a secret and whom, like Elisa, knows what it’s like to be an outcast. The friendship shared by Elisa and Giles is sweet, and Jenkins and Hawkins play off each other to create an unconventional, lightly comedic double act.

Spencer plays to type as Zelda, sassy and chatty and always an understanding friend and co-worker to Elisa. Stuhlbarg’s character seems like the stock sci-fi movie scientist, but we see a few layers to him as the film progresses.

The Shape of Water is an exquisite creation that brims with humanity. It’s not afraid to expose some of the ugliness of humanity, but it counteracts that with indescribable beauty. This is a fairy tale for grown-ups, with plenty to say beyond its central conceit of ‘woman falls in love with humanoid fish monster’. There will be audiences who might be put off by its superficial weirdness, but most viewers will find it easy to surrender to the film’s embrace, however cold and slimy it might seem at first.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong