The Shape of Water (15) ****
The Cloverfield Paradox (15) *
The Mercy (12A) **
Loveless (15) ****
Guillermo Del Toro tends to be at his best when rooting fantasy horror in real life horror. Save for his two Hellboy movies (among the most irreverent and entertaining comic book films of the modern era), his more straightforward genre fare – Mimic, Pacific Rim, the ripe gothic melodrama of Crimson Peak – are pretty anaemic once you get past the beautiful production design. The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, on the other hand, are genuinely beautiful pieces of cinema: films that respectively use ghosts and monsters to explore the physical and psychological impact of living under a repressive regimes (both are set during the Spanish Civil War). Oscar front-runner The Shape of Water continues that trend, albeit without the same degree of profundity. Set in America at a time in which Cold War paranoia and the Civil Rights injustices of the early 1960s have created an oppressive atmosphere for those on the margins of society, it’s the story of a mute-since-childhood cleaner (Sally Hawkins) who falls for the amphibious humanoid (Doug Jones) being experimented upon at the underground research facility where she works. Essentially a subversive homage to the B-movie creature features of the era, the film doesn’t even try to pretend that the monster – which has been dragged up from a river in South America – is going to be the bad guy. It might not be wise to leave said creature – repeatedly referred to as “the Asset” – in the company of a cat, but the film makes clear early on that the true villain is the American military-industrial complex, personified here by Michael Shannon’s square-jawed, Cadillac-driving, all-American security agent. But if the film hammers its political subtext a little too hard, Del Toro creates wonders in other ways. The evolving relationship between Hawkins’ Elisa and the be-gilled object of her affection is erotically charged in a way that monster movie love stories like Beauty and the Beast and King Kong rarely are. She also has much more agency as a character than the heroines of those films, something seized upon by Hawkins, who’s flat-out brilliant in the role; her innately expressive features almost rendering the subtitling of her signed conversations irrelevant. Elisa’s friendship with her closeted, elderly gay neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins, playing a supporting character with the depth of a lead) is beautifully sketched out as well. They live above an old cinema and Del Toro takes great delight in showing light from the projector seeping up through the cracks of their floorboards – a reminder of the way fantasy can seep into real life in positive ways, giving those shut out from the world the strength to be themselves, even in dark times. This is a monster movie made with real love.
Unlike The Cloverfield Paradox, the third instalment of the JJ Abrams-produced monster movie franchise. To date it’s a series that has gained what traction it has through intense secrecy and well-orchestrated hype. The 2008 found-footage original, for instance, sent the internet into meltdown when the 9/11-riffing trailer came out of nowhere a few months before the film’s release. Eight years on, the existence of the tangential – and rather excellent – sequel 10 Cloverfield Lane was revealed just two months before its release. Cut to this past Sunday and the saga continued its tradition of disrupting traditional release patterns once again, not simply debuting the first trailer in the middle of the Super Bowl, but by making the film available to watch almost immediately on Netflix. Sadly, what felt briefly like a radical new way to unleash a major new movie soon revealed itself to be more of a cinematic fire sale designed to stoke interest in something that has “damaged goods” written all over it. Directed by newcomer Julias Onah and starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Daniel Brühl, David Oyelowo, Zhang Ziyi and Chris O’Dowd, the film revolves around a last ditch effort to solve the energy crisis on Earth by firing up a radical particle accelerator that might generate infinite free energy, but might also rip a hole in the space-time continuum and unleash monsters in the present, the future, or even the past. Presumably we’re supposed to infer that this is the cause of the attacks glimpsed in the first two movies, but it’s an idea so tenuously explored it barely justifies what follows, which soon descends into a barely coherent people-going-crazy-in-space film that borrows liberally from the Alien franchise, Solaris, Event Horizon, Sunshine, Interstellar and Another Earth (to name a few).
The Mercy isn’t much better. A fatuous based-on-true life tale from Man on Wire director James Marsh, it casts Colin Firth as Donald Crowhurst, an amateur sailor who disappeared while competing in a solo round-the-world yacht race in 1968. Though there’s certainly an intriguing story buried in here somewhere, the film abandons it in its efforts to valorise Crowhurst and his foolhardy dream while demonising the press for doing its job.
Cannes-winning Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev (Leviathan) isn’t messing around with the title of his latest film. Loveless is a bleak but brilliant portrait of the end of a marriage and the fraught paths each party takes as their 12-year-old son disappears in the midst of their break-up. The resulting procedural aspect of the film gives it gripping narrative drive, but it’s the pitiless portrait of middle-class life in modern Russia that lingers longest.