Thursday, 22 February 2018

David at the movies: Creature Feature - enchanting but daft

THE SHAPE OF WATER


Back in the 1950s we used to see sci-fi movies like The Qatermass Experiment and I Married a Monster from Outer Space, shot on desperately low budgets but satisfyingly scary for their time - and more than a little daft. The Shape of Water is a 'throwback' to that era, set in a mysterious US oceanographic facility in the 1960s. Sally Hawkins plays Elisa, a cleaner who takes pity on the exotic amphibious man brought to the facility from his home in the Amazon. Elisa is mute and knows what it’s like to feel an ‘outsider’. She feeds the Amphibian and teaches him sign language. And, of course, as the poster clearly signals, she falls in love with him.

Guillermo del Toro is not new to ‘creature features’ or, as he would prefer to call them, fairy tales for adults. There are some very adult scenes in this movie – a pity in a way since it excludes the younger audience who would be enchanted by it. The theme is not too far removed from Spielberg’s E.T. or Close Encounters with Elisa replacing the children captivated (captured, even) by aliens. Michael Shannon’s brutal facility chief is the equivalent of the Nazi bounty-hunters in an Indiana Jones adventure. There’s also a good-guy professor, and Elisa has a sassy sidekick in fellow cleaning-lady Olivia Spencer.

For all the wondrous CGI and make-up, the Creature is still visibly an actor (Doug Jones) wrapped in plastic. The budget was clearly awesome. I’m not sure that it really deserves to be getting all these Awards and Nominations. I couldn’t help remembering all those 1950s sci-fi horrors. Yes, it’s a beguiling fantasy romance but it’s also totally – epically – daft.

THE GREATEST SHOWMAN

This musical extrava-ganza on the life of P.T. Barnum is pitched at the X-Factor audience, much as Moulin Rouge was a few years ago. Don’t expect to hear Hugh Jackman singing ‘Oh What a Beautiful Morning’ (which he has sung on-stage). It’s not that kind of show. The songs are loud, with repetitious lyrics, staged like pop videos. P.T. Barnum was a 19th-century showman, but this is a decidedly 21st-century show.

Zac Efron provides eye-candy for teenage viewers, but the movie totally belongs to Jackman, sounding better than he did in Les Mis and dancing like an Olympic gymnast. Political correctness has diluted the ‘freak show’ with which Barnum begins his circus career – there’s a bearded lady (with a fine belting voice), Tom Thumb and dancing Siamese twins, even a 'Wolf Boy', but nothing as grotesque as the Elephant Man, who, with other tragically deformed people, provided the ‘lure’ for punters into Barnum’s circus.

Keala Settle as Barnum's 'bearded lady';
This is not my idea of what a musical should be, but it’s dazzlingly staged and performed with great exuberance and – somewhat against my better judgement – I enjoyed it!

DARKEST HOUR



Gary Oldman’s take on Winston Churchill is already winning awards and hotly tipped to take this year’s Oscar. Brian Cox gave a more thoughtful perform-ance in last year’s Churchill, but he didn’t win anything. That’s show-biz, I guess.

This version looks at the Great Man at the pivotal moment in his career when he replaces Chamberlain as prime minister of a coalition government in 1940, with the British Army facing annihilation at Dunkirk. King George is not keen on Winston (he championed Edward VIII during the Abdication crisis), and he has a ‘mortal enemy’ in Lord Halifax who thinks he should be leading the country. Churchill's  decisions during the First War don't give him a good military track record.

There are many scenes in dingy rooms and corridors in the war bunker beneath St James’s Park. Even Bucking-ham Palace looks a bit dour. The movie’s best scene, almost certainly invented, is when Winston takes the Underground from St James’s to Westminster (a 90-second journey that here takes six minutes) and finds the people are keener to fight on than the Tory members of his Cabinet. I found myself thinking of Laurence Olivier’s deliberately hammy Archie Rice in The Enter-tainer.

Kirsten Scott-Thomas is a grander, less motherly Clementine than Miranda Richardson was last year. Lily James is charming as the PM's shy new typist. Everybody plays down against Oldman’s shouty interpretation of Winston. His prosthetics deserve an award of their own and he captures the voice and the mannerisms as well as anybody else has, but other actors have given us subtler reincarnations that, unfairly it must be said, failed to attract the Oscar buzz. 

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI



The weirdest title of the year and heavily tipped for Oscars, having already won Best Picture at the Golden Globes. Frances McDormand is Mildred, the small-town mom whose daughter was raped and murdered almost a year ago. She thinks the chief of Police (Woody Harrelson) has not tried hard enough to find her daughter’s killer and pays for three huge billboard posters to remind him (and the townsfolk) of what she sees as a dereliction of duty. Some of the deputies, notably Dixon (Sam Rockwell) are bigoted bullies, but Chief Willoughby is a decent man, dying a slow death from cancer and keenly aware that a crime has gone unsolved.

Rape, murder, cancer (and arson) – this movie pulls no punches. The billboards encourage a violent response and, as we know, violence begets violence. All the performances are gut-wrenchingly good, especially McDormand who wears her grief like an ever-present shroud. The frequent shifts of tone from tragedy to comedy are brilliantly scripted. If I have one negative reaction it’s my usual one to the relentless use of f-words (and even the c-word, although this is amusingly exchanged in one kitchen table scene between Mildred and her rebellious teenage son).

A tough movie to watch, but a good one – even a great one. I’ll be surprised if McDormand doesn’t beat Meryl Streep to the podium at this year’s Academy Awards. Mildred is one of those characters who will stay with you long after you leave the cinema.

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