The Shape of Water (2017)

The Shape of Water (2017) movie poster

director Guillermo del Toro
viewed: 12/10/2017 at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema – New Mission, SF, CA

Though it’s not post-modern in most ways, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is a revisionist horror fantasy.

It’s the movie in which the monster gets the girl.

Del Toro mashes up and masticates a lot of different things here, including the 1960’s aesthetics and period shorthand of TV’s Mad Men, all while simmering in the sauce of lush designs. With its initial tone of fairy tale, I first thought that the world of The Shape of Water was indeed a fantasy, like one of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro. But as the film wears on, this is very much meant to be the Maryland of the 1960’s.

The creature, beautifully designed indeed, is the romantic hero here. How is it so different than the Abe Sapien of del Toro’s Hellboy films? Inhabited by Doug Jones, as in the other films, the creature is really only a shade away.  I find this somewhat perplexing.

The film, however, isn’t some miraculous fantasy love story. Well, it is and it isn’t. The writing is less than great. After watching del Toro’s television show The Strain (a bit), the cracks and lacks in quality are more acceptable in pulpier genre junk than vaguely arthouse dreamwork. As inverted as the concept is, the execution is almost pedestrian outside of the design work.

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

Pan's Labyrinth (2006) movie poster

director Guillermo del Toro
viewed: 11/11/2017

It had been a decade since I saw Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth on its initial release in the theater. Like a lot of people, I’ve considered it his best film, certainly a partner to his 2001 The Devil’s Backbone.

I generally enjoy del Toro’s work, though his more commercial stuff seems thin on substance, if aesthetically pleasing and occasionally pretty fun.  I follow him on social media and even got to go see his collection of stuff at the LACMA Guillermo del Toro: At Home with Monsters.

In 2007, my kids were 6 and 3 so I didn’t take them to see Pan’s Labyrinth at the time. I’ve long thought they might enjoy it, but only just now got around to sharing it with them.

I was surprised that my daughter was sort of nonplussed about it. I’d thought she would dig it more. My son, as is his wont, fell asleep early on but wanted to watch it again.

I think it holds up pretty well. The aesthetics and story are nice, the performers solid. It’s a dark fairy tale about childhood, escapism and fantasy. The CGI doesn’t hold up as well, but it never does if you ask me. Maybe it’s not as deep or rich as it could be, but I’d still call it his most complete film.

Crimson Peak (2015)

Crimson Peak (2015) movie poster

director Guillermo del Toro
viewed: 10/24/2015 at AMC Metreon 16, SF, CA

I like Guillermo del Toro.  I’ve been with him since Cronos (1993) and have seen him craft an interesting career between beautiful art film horror (The Devil’s Backbone (2001) & Pan’s Labyrinth (2005)) and Hollywood science fiction comic book nonsense (Mimic (1997), Blade II (2002), Hellboy (2004), Hellboy II (2008), & Pacific Rim (2013).)

Why list all his feature films?  Because if you look at his body of work, you can see that he’s gone back and forth with regularity between artsy stuff and more commercial fare.  Heck, he might even have another one on his resume by now if he didn’t squander a number of years with Peter Jackson on that Hobbit (2012) monstrosity.

Heck, he’s on Twitter these days, sharing his breadth of passions and facinations.  He does his own design work, probably at most well-realized in Pan’s Labyrinth, but I give the guy credit.  And double heck, I was probably a total outlier myself because I actually enjoyed Pacific Rim.

Crimson Peak looks fantastic.  It’s beautifully designed and shot.  Victorian Gothic horror story with lush colors and featuring Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, and Jessica Chastain, all very sumptuous themselves in their own ways.

It’s an earnest and devout throwback of a ghost film, hearkening of the days of Hammer horror or classic terrors like The Innocents (1961) or Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963).  It’s also an original screenplay, if not the most original of ideas for the story.  All of the loving details are all onscreen.  Vividly.

But it’s not spectacular.  It’s not haunting (to me, at least).  It was enjoyable enough, but not the least enthralling.  My kids enjoyed it.  I liked it.  I’m not saying I didn’t like it.

For my money, the best ghost story film of this century has been Alejandro Amenábar’s 2001 film, The Others.  There is a film with less showy designs and more creepy creeps.

But I will continue to like del Toro.  And I’ll look forward to his next films.

Pacific Rim (2013)

Pacific Rim (2013) movie poster

director Guillermo del Toro
viewed: 07/27/2013 at AMC Metreon 16, SF, CA

Pacific Rim is a geekster’s paradise.

Giant robots versus giant monsters from another dimension.  Why is this so cool?  And Transformers (2007) so lame?  I guess you’ve just got to realize that Guillermo del Toro knows what such a core audience wants to see and Michael Bay is…, well, Michael Bay.

Because this movie is big.  Loud.  Utterly reliant on digital animation effects.  In those ways, it’s certainly like Bay’s Transformers films.  In fact, the movie was so loud that Clara kept having to have me cover her ears.  And Felix ended up with a migraine after it.

But they both thought it was totally cool.  Felix wanted to see it again (maybe sitting back a little further next time).  Clara, definitely with earplugs.

On the level of script and acting, to complain about the film would be as easy as shooting fish in a barrel.  A lot at the core is hackneyed, cliched, and fairly awful.  But that is not really what this film is about.

It’s about the awesome cool robots and monsters that del Toro has designed and unleashed on the world and on each other.  And I think that I’m realizing that if why this movie is cool needs explanation, then the film is probably just not for you.  And I don’t mean that in a condescending way.  I mean it in a “fair enough” sort of way.

For some, this movie may well be awful.  For the rest of us,…Whee!

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. Guillermo del Toro
viewed: 07/25/08 at AMC Loews Metreon 16 with IMAX, SF, CA

Back in 2004, I ventured to the theater to see the “original” Hellboy, which was also directed by Guillermo del Toro, a director who has moved out of the moderate obscurity into the relative mainstream with the success of his last film, Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), which gave him his alternate art house cred to match his action film cred.  Del Toro’s career can be seen as two pronged, even though those prongs share similarities and aesthetic characteristics.  His first side is his oldest side, in a sense, starting with his 1993 film Cronos, an odd vampire film from Mexico, with objects of blood extraction embodied in mechanical insects.  Again in this vein, he made the very fine, The Devil’s Backbone (2001), which in many ways reflects his later work in Pan’s Labyrinth.

But del Toro also has his films that “pay the bills”.  These are the action films, horror films, genre crap that in other hands is easily forgettable dreck.  But for del Toro, being somewhat of an auteur, his films from both the “highbrow” and the “lowbrow” seem to fit reasonably well together, and they share his keen design aesthetic, not just as a filmmaker but as an art designer.  His first of these was 1997’s Mimic, a sci-fi film with Mira Sorvino and giant cockroaches in the NY subway system.  He later made Blade II (2002), a sequel to another genre action film and then the moderate failure of Hellboy, which was pretty lame (I saw it in the brief period that I was not updating this thing).

I’d heard that Hellboy II: The Golden Army was an improvement on the first, which was fine but forgettable.  I’d even heard decent buzz about it.

But you know, it’s not really a whole lot better.

At its best, Hellboy II features a calvalcade of designs of del Toro’s monster notebook, which is actually really kind of neat.  Lots of interestingly designed monsters and landscapes, which are pretty fun.  And I like Ron Perlman as Hellboy.  The design of the character is both cartoony and plastic, yet visually appealing.  And his oddball cast of characters, creatures and weirdities.  I’ve never read the comic from which it was adapted so I can’t comment back on that.  But it’s fine.

But the movie was only decent at best, which are its action pieces and broader comedy.

When it strives toward emotion, the sentiment of romance, soppy friendship, love, significance…well it’s even crappier than the Barry Manilow song that it utilizes ironically in one of its more comic sequences.  Even though the film makes fun of itself and its characters in points, there are other points of genuine attempts at true heartstring-plucking.  And there, it’s just downright embarrassing.  It makes you feel foolish for sitting there.

In the end, it was not that good of a movie.  It’s entertaining enough, but it makes you wonder how deep is the depth of the stronger work of Guillermo del Toro.  If he is truly an auteur, not just a stylist, then there should be more to mine and fewer grimaces to bear.

Pan’s Labyrinth

Pan's Labyrinth (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Guillermo del Toro
viewed: 02/09/07 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

I’d been wanting to see this movie for ages, even before it actually came out, but for some reason it took me a long, long time to finally get around to it.  So, I left work a bit early on Friday and hit a showing in the late afternoon.  The film surprised me, mainly because it was as good as I had hoped it would be.  I am used to let-down on films that I am excited about seeing.  But, I have to say, Pan’s Labyrinth is excellent.

Writer/director Guillermo del Toro has certainly hit his high mark.  He’s had an interesting career so far.  The first of his films I thought was okay, a strange vampire film, Cronos (1993) and then a couple of weird, semi-interesting Hollywood films, Mimic (1997) and Blade II (2002) and Hellboy (2004), but somewhere in between made a semi-obscure gem, also set in Franco-era Spain, The Devil’s Backbone (2001) which was quite excellent itself.

Pan’s Labyrinth is a real further departure, far deeper in fantasy, but tied into a historical critique of the fascism of Franco’s Spain, embodied by the cruel, heartless Capitán Vidal.  The world of the film is beautifully rendered, rich in character and detail.  I had actually thought before I’d seen it that the art design, being as cool-looking as it was, potentially could overpower the story.  Quite frankly, as entertaining as his Hollywood work is, it’s also not great stuff inherently.  The strength of the narrative in this film is a big part of why it’s so strong.

Ivana Baquero is pretty wonderful as Ofelia, the tragically oppressed daughter of an ailing pregnant mother who has married herself to the cruel Vidal after Ofelia’s father, a tailor, has died.  They are taken to a remote mountain area of Spain where Vidal is leading an attack on the rebels in the area.  She discovers an ancient underground world to which she belongs, a long-lost princess, reincarnated to return to her world and achieve immortality.  She discovers an ancient faun who instructs her on three tasks that she must achieve to enable her to return to her world.

Del Toro parallels aspects of the fantasy world in tune with things that happen in “reality”, images of keys, knives, and ultimately the baby echo each other through the steps of her journey.  As the story unfolds, the connections deepen and mesh.  It’s a nice conceit, and del Toro plays out the balance between the fantasy and reality in a clever and seamless fashion.

This is an excellent film.  Really good.

Blade II

Blade II (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Guillermo del Toro
viewed: 01/29/03

The first Blade (1998) film, directed by Stephen Norrington, was a fun B-horror/action film, which featured some amusing CGI death sequences for the vampires dispatched by Blade (Wesley Snipes), the half-human, half-vampire vampire hunter. Since Blade II was directed by Guillermo del Toro, whose 2001 film The Devil’s Backbone I had liked so well, I had some hopes that despite its rather lackluster reviews that the film would be worthwhile, maybe even another B-movie gem.

A gem it is not. A moderately satisfying B-movie it is.

The Matrix (1999), as I have mentioned before, seems to have infused its aesthetic into the action genre quite verily, and it is well on display here. The production values aren’t quite as high and some of the action seems even more ambitious, which results in some fun but cheapish looking attempts at the slick and cool that the Wachowski brothers achieved more successfully in their film. The whole production is so serious and sexy, heavy on the slick, post-Matrix leather/goth style, that there are many moments that resemble camp and feel somewhat arch.

The vampires, who are largely villains in the film’s world, have a rather fully developed cultural infrastructure, hidden and codified, underground like a criminal empire and run quite like a monarchy. The vampire elite are developing (spoiler alert) this whole genetic engineering/cloning scheme which the film clearly depicts as associated with the really, really bad guys and whose results are calamitous.

While most of the vampires are depicted as evil, or clearly as the villains, Leonor Varela, who plays the daughter of the Overlord of the vampires, turns out to be a vampire with a conscience, a “good” vampire. I wasn’t trying to make too much headway through the significance of exactly what the vampires’ social structures were meant to represent, but for some reason I feel compelled to say that Leonor Varela struck me as very attractive.

Now that this commentary has devolved to such “insights,” I will terminate it.

The Devil’s Backbone

(2001) dir. Guillermo del Toro
viewed: 08/03/02

The Devil’s Backbone is an elegant nightmare of a children’s story set against the historical backdrop of the Spanish-American war. Beautifully produced and consistantly interesting, it is a very good film.

Set in an orphanage in the middle of the desert, the narrative tends toward the gothic, with ghosts, a hidden stash of gold bricks, and an old headmistress with a wooden leg. The orphanage is a haunted place, both literally and figuratively. All of the characters seem to have a good deal of melodramatic history hanging about them. There is a defused bomb standing in the center of the courtyard, a looming reminder of the threat of death that lurks so close to all of the characters.

It’s almost downright classical, like Henry James or Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden turned evil. It’s a children’s story in many ways, told mostly from the perspective of Carlos, the recently orphaned protagonist. The fears of abandonment, ostracism, and death are keenly aligned with Carlos’s perception. However, the point-of-view is not utterly attached to the singular third person character of Carlos.

And really, if this was truly a children’s film, it would give serious nightmares to under-aged viewers.