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TIFF 2017: ‘The Shape Of Water’ Is Guillermo Del Toro At His Finest

The Shape of Water is an intoxicating film that dazzles the eyes and captivates the heart in equal measure.

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A new film by Guillermo del Toro is always a big deal. After directing the modern-day masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro became a director with enough clout to push artistic boundaries without major pushback from the studios; he brings his macabre sensibilities to mainstream movies. His last two pictures, Crimson Peak and Pacific Rim, were aimed at a broad audience and felt like watered-down GDT, but his latest film, the noir-flavoured fairy-tale, The Shape of Water, is Guillermo del Toro pure and uncut.

‘The Shape of Water’ – Image Courtesy of TIFF

Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a lowly cleaning lady who works the night shift at a top-secret government laboratory. She lives alone in a creaky apartment above a movie theatre (aptly named The Orpheus). Elisa is mute, so her only two friends, Giles (Richard Jenkins) and Zelda (Octavia Spencer), communicate with her through sign language. Giles is an elderly artist who Elisa checks in on with a daily care package. Her co-worker Zelda is also her partner in crime. Side by side, the duo spend their night shifts making (one-sided) small talk as they scrub toilets and mop up pissy floors.

Elisa’s banal routine takes a turn when a government agent named Strickland (a delectably villainous Michael Shannon) arrives with a mysterious container holding “The Asset.” Before being ordered out of the area, Elisa sees an inhuman hand reach out and touch the container’s glass portal. Shortly after, Strickland is injured by The Asset, and Elisa is sent in to clean up the bloody mess. Left alone in the containment area, Elisa’s curiosity gets the best of her, and she discovers a humanoid creature (Doug Jones) lurking in the container’s murky water. More curious than afraid, Elisa returns every night, and the two of them form a connection. After word gets out that the higher-ups have decided to dissect The Asset, Elisa makes it her mission to help her new friend escape its captors.

Guillermo del Toro has crafted a stylized fantasy world that takes place Cold War-era America, and like the Cold War, the film presents a pleasant façade with untold horrors hidden just below the surface. Sidewalks glow beneath a movie theatre’s dazzling marquee, people order pie at diners where the booths are covered in red vinyl, and classic tunes flow out from every radio. Although by fantasy film standards The Shape of Water is relatively grounded, the world has a seductive, dream-like quality.

‘The Shape of Water’ – Image Courtesy of TIFF

This is a Guillermo del Toro movie, and its dark and twisted elements are a major selling point. The Shape of Water is as haunting and atmospheric as anything in his filmography — for all you gamers, many scenes in the film evoke memories of Bioshock. Chilly blues and faded greens add colour to sets draped in shadows, and each location feels like it has a story behind it. Small details like chipped paint on window frames and cracked tiles on bathroom walls adds to the lived-in aesthetic.

The costume designers, production designers, and VFX teams have all brought their A-games, and it shows. I can’t begin to imagine how many months they spent perfecting every facet of Doug Jones’ creature makeup down to the last fish scale. This is a movie that demands multiple watches to soak up all the visual flourishes. The Shape of Water has the makings of a film that will inspire cosplayers and fuel fan art from now until forever.

We need to talk about Sally Hawkins. She turns in the calibre of performance many actors spend years working towards. Hawkins shows us who this woman is during the opening ten minutes without the need for narration, exposition dumps, or even dialogue. She expresses herself through her daily routine, her kind gestures, and especially those dazzling eyes. At first glance, you may take her as meek, but that’s not the case; she never feels like a wilting rose. There’s a devilishness in Elisa’s gaze that hints at her steely resolve.

The Shape of Water

‘The Shape of Water’ – Image Courtesy of TIFF

Elisa is instantly lovable, but what makes the character pop are the people who surround her. Zelda is loud, brash, and does enough talking for the two of them — I get the sense it would be that way even if Elisa could speak. But Zelda never comes off as domineering; instead she’s protective and fiercely loyal. Meanwhile, Richard Jenkins’ next bad performance will be his first bad performance. The man is a dynamo who brings world-class acting to each role he takes on. As Giles, he’s the film’s big bleeding heart. He’s charming, sentimental, and as sweet as the pies he keeps in his fridge. Like Zelda, he thinks the world of Elisa. The Shape of Water only reaches such emotional highs if we buy into the love between these three outsiders. Their love and respect for each other sets the tone of the film, and I can’t imagine anyone else inhabiting these roles.

Guillermo del Toro mined his Gothic influences and crafted a noir-style fairy tale. The Shape of Water is a timeless story about the downtrodden that feels of the moment. It’s a story of dreamers, outsiders, and the voiceless (literally and figuratively) who find solace only when they’re together. Peel back the genre movie layers — the sea creature, top secret lab, and evil government agents — and you’ll discover a profound yearning to love and be loved. Ultimately, The Shape of Water is a story about love and its intractable desire to touch us all, humans and monsters alike.

The 42nd annual Toronto International Film Festival is scheduled to be held from 7 to 17 September 2017.

Victor Stiff is a Toronto-based pop culture writer and film critic who enjoys covering the city's biggest (and nerdiest) events. Victor has covered TIFF, Hot Docs, Toronto After Dark, Toronto ComiCon, and Fan Expo Canada for publications all over the internet. You can find his latest posts on Twitter and Instagram.

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‘Queen of Hearts’ is a Frank and Difficult Look at Sexual Desire

Trine Dyrholm is typically brilliant in Danish film ‘Queen of Hearts’ — playing an older woman embarking on an affair with her stepson.

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Queen of Hearts

Queen of Hearts starts with a rather banal scene. Anne (Trine Dyrholm) walks through the woods with her dog. Her children are just outside her large, glass-heavy house. She goes inside, where her husband, Peter (Magnus Krepper), says police have called and he has to go. She looks outside at some barren trees, dramatic strings play, and the title credits come on; it’s a seemingly innocuous moment curdled into something far more ominous. 

This opening salvo with something moody and dark hiding within the banality and reliability of a simple family scene (later revealed to be in the future) sums up the Official Danish Best International Film submission Queen of Hearts as a whole. This is a film of bad decisions, loneliness, and creaky moral boundaries, interrogating the mores of modern womanhood against the backdrop of supposed domestic perfection. 

Our protagonist, Anne, is a lawyer who works with children who have been abused. She knows how to talk to young victims of rape and neglect, balancing a firm sense of what’s right with the necessary language to give these children hope. But she has difficulties switching from work to home, unable to give her twin daughters the affection they deserve. One way for anyone to switch off and focus on life outside of work, of course, is to engage in some form of intimacy; yet, her hypocritical, workaholic doctor husband has little time to give her any attention in the bedroom. 

When Peter’s teenage son, Gustav (Gustav Lindh), turns up to stay for the summer, Anne is immediately attracted to his moodiness and sexual swagger. Their slow seduction scenes seem to all come from different movies: porno (he suddenly comes out of the shower in the towel), summer indie drama (a scene in a lake with splashing water and an ecstatic soundtrack), and eventually horror (a writhing, overly staged sex scene in the dark that is extremely shocking in its frankness). 

These shifts in tone reflect the film’s queasy study in shifting sympathies, making Queen of Hearts a modern morality play baked in typically Scandinavian seriousness. Is Anne simply engaging in a harmless affair, rediscovering her long-dormant sexuality? Or is the age difference simply too far? With echoes of both The Hunt (2012) and the women-focused sex-dramas of Lars von Trier, it is sure to provoke a mixture of praise for its brazen female sexual gaze, and eventually disgust for where this gaze finally takes us. 

Queen of Hearts

Most of us assume that we are good people, even as we are engaging in less than savoury activities. It may look bad to people on the outside, but we have our reasons. The ever-reliable Trine Dyrholm turns in another mesmerising performance here, balancing her own lack of sexual self-confidence against her outwardly authoritative presence as a lawyer. Even if we cannot agree with what she does, Dyrholm successfully conveys her character’s complexity, making her sympathetic throughout. But just as we can never judge ourselves objectively, we can never know the ultimate effect our actions may have on others, especially in a dynamic such as this, leading to some bitter results. 

Queen of Hearts asks the viewer to never make assumptions, to think outside of clichés, and to really dig deep into the true heart of the matter. Director May el-Toukhy knows she has strong actors and a strong screenplay here, employing minimal tricks to just let them get on and really chew into the material. While unlikely to make it into the final Oscar shortlist, Queen of Hearts deserves a lot of credit for its utter brazenness and steadfast commitment to its difficult premise.

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‘Ford v Ferrari’ Drives Fast with Little Under the Hood

A classic Hollywood drama with fast cars and a stellar Christian Bale performance that feels great despite a lack of emotional substance.

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Ford v Ferrari

Many directors always struggle with producers and other businessmen to retain their vision. What might work most for that vision may not be what focus tests and audiences have proven to enjoy, so the film gets reworked and reworked until it becomes a box office hit, and potentially retains a director’s intent. Ford v Ferrari doesn’t necessarily feel like that — this is a James Mangold film in many regards — but by the end of its story of vision and skill versus marketing and business agendas, Mangold’s latest wrestles with placing trust in an individual against an entire body of suits.

When Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) is approached by Ford Motors to create a car fast enough to beat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans (an annual racing event where drivers go all day and night around the same track), he is forced to fight tooth-and-nail to get the best driver for the job: Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Shelby’s fight is singular; he wants to win the Le Mans, and knows that Miles is the only one who can do it. Yet, Ford Motors is still a company with many eyes on them, and employing the hot-headed Miles as a driver could be disastrous. So begins a struggle for Shelby and Miles to have their desires met by a company looking at the bottom line. That struggle — one that underscores every decision made by the characters in the film — is what sits at the core of Ford v Ferrari, and keeps things interesting. Set that aside, however, and the film loses a lot of momentum.

Ford v Ferrari

Still, the racing will grip audiences throughout. The final Le Mans challenge runs for a decent portion of Ford v Ferrari and is engaging throughout, but there are several other races and practices where Mangold’s craftsmanship as a filmmaker shines bright. Miles sits in the driver’s seat of all of these moments, and Bale’s performance is never stronger than when his character has that need for speed. Miles is a passionate driver with pure intentions, and Bale gives him a lot of wit and heart in between huge swings of emotion. It’s a performance that stands tall but doesn’t distract, instead meshing extremely well with the action.

Meanwhile, the other performances are also solid. Matt Damon is very good in the role of Shelby, though his character is quite often reserved because he has to be. When you put him against Bale, however, it’s clear that Shelby pales to the race car driver’s fleshed-out character, as we follow the latter’s family, his rejections and successes, and his pure heart. In the backdrop is a wide array of supporting actors, including Caitriona Balfe as Mollie Miles, Josh Lucas as the thorn in Shelby’s side, Jon Bernthal playing a standard Jon Bernthal role, and Tracy Letts chewing up scenery whenever he can as Henry Ford II. Letts and Lucas in particular give great caricatured performances, planting Ford v Ferrari into a more standard Hollywood drama.

Ford v Ferrari

Largely that’s the problem: Ford v Ferrari is a technical achievement with some incredible craftsmanship and performances that just never feels as great at slow times as it does when it’s moving past 7000 RPMs. It has a need for speed, and the pacing shows that, but it also doesn’t really rise very high above what’s needed to please an audience. Mangold is great at deriving emotional substance out of a subject, but a lot of that in Ford v Ferrari is left on the shoulders of Bale’s performance. Instead, the film focuses heavily on the bureaucratic side of things, and how that hinders talented people from being who they are destined to be. While fun to watch, there isn’t much more that will have Ford v Ferrari lingering with audiences. Instead, this will be a movie that resonates with racing fans and those that struggle against restrictions, keeping general audience satisfied in their big Hollywood dramas for the time being.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 14 as part of our coverage of The Toronto International Film Festival.

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History of ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ – the Movie that Made me a Movie Buff

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Wes Craven intended Nightmare to be an exploration of surreal horror as opposed to just another stalk-and-slash horror movie, and not only did Nightmare offer a wildly imaginative, inspired concept, but it was a solid commercial genre entry for the dating crowd. Elm Street was New Line’s first genuine mainstream cinematic venture (after Alone In The Dark), and made the company a huge pile of money. The film was shot in 30 days at a cost of roughly $1.8 million, but it made back its figure and then some on opening weekend. New Line Cinema was saved from bankruptcy by the success of the film, and was jokingly nicknamed “the house that Freddy built.”

Perhaps the most influential horror film of the ’80s, Craven’s 1984 slasher about a quartet of high school kids terrorized in their dreams by a torched boogeyman in a fedora hat and dusty pullovers spawned countless sequels and even a TV series.

Nightmare On Elm Street 1984

One great thing Nightmare offered, perhaps more than anything else, was a new horror star in Robert Englund. Englund based the physicality of Freddy on Klaus Kinski’s performance in Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979), making Freddy one of the most recognizable modern horror villains: vicious, but with a sense of humour as sharp as the blades on his gloves. The horribly barbequed man with the ragged slouch hat, dusty red-and-green striped sweater, and metal gloves with knives at the tip of each finger, had not yet become the ridiculous wisecracking clown of the sequels. Here he says very little, and when he does speak, his words are powerful for its brevity – and oh those infamous razor gloves scraping against metal is enough to send shivers down your spine.

The inspiration for the character of Freddy came from several sources in Wes Craven’s childhood. The name, Fred Krueger, came from a schoolmate of Craven who had bullied him for several years and Freddy’s appearance was inspired by a hobo lurking around Craven’s house, who Craven spotted from his bedroom window one night at the age of ten. But the basis of the film was inspired by several newspaper articles printed in the LA Times on a group of Khmer refugees, who were suffering disturbing nightmares, and refused to sleep – with the most extreme cases leading to actual death in the throes of horrific nightmares. Medical authorities called the phenomenon Asian Death Syndrome.

“I don’t know who he is, but he’s burned and he wears a weird hat and a red and green sweater, really dirty. And he uses these knives, like giant fingernails… “

Nightmare On Elm Street 1984

This was the film that introduced the world to Freddy Krueger, a monster who exists in his victims’ dreams and preys on them in the vulnerability of sleep. The idea behind the glove was a practical one on Wes Craven’s part, as he wanted to give the character a unique weapon, but also something that could be made cheaply and wouldn’t be difficult to transport. The end result brings a macabre ghostly figure throughout – indeed, precisely what nightmares are made of.

In addition to offering the visceral thrills that are necessary in a genre entry, Craven’s screenplay works on several levels. Here the idea of sleep as the ultimate threat is ingenious and incredibly insidious. Craven masterfully disguises dreams as reality and vice versa, and the idea that injuries sustained in dreams also exist outside helps to further blur the already murky distinction between the two. The primary element that elevates A Nightmare on Elm Street above many other slasher films is that the storyline invites intellectual observation: At times, we’re aware that the characters are trapped in a dreamscape, but there are times when we are not, and there are occasions when we suspect they’re awake and they are actually asleep – as if the children are in a never-ending state of hypnagogia.

The ultimate revelation however is that Freddy is really the byproduct of parental vigilantism. The teenagers in the film are paying for the sins of their parents —and thus the brute is determined to exact revenge in using their children as his victims. Nightmare has been described as a reaction to the perceived innocence of American suburbs: parents in the film’s fictional suburb dispose of Krueger and hide any form of his existence in an attempt to build a safe environment for their children. There’s a clear generational divide in A Nightmare on Elm Street, with the children trying to stay awake both figuratively and literally and the parents continuing to ignore the situation, utterly avoiding taking responsibility for their hideous actions. They instead bury their memories of the crime they once commuted so deep down inside, it remains lodged in the far reaches of their brain, where we can also find their declarative memories. As a result, the sins-of-the-father biblical warning (in a slasher-movie setting) have allowed Krueger to amass incredible power in his nightmare world – power he uses to exact his revenge. More so, Freddy’s actions have been interpreted as symbolic of the often traumatic experiences of adolescence. Sexuality is ever present in Freudian images and is almost exclusively displayed in a threatening and mysterious context (i.e. Tina’s death visually evokes a rape, Freddy’s glove emerges between Nancy’s legs in the bath, a centipede crawls out of the mouth of one of the victims and finally a mattress swallows up Johnny Depp only to ejaculate him immediately after). The original script actually called for Krueger to be a child molester, rather than a child killer, but somehow the idea was lost in the process of shooting.

Nightmare On Elm Street 1984

Craven claimed he wanted someone very “non-Hollywood” for the role of Nancy, and he believed Langenkamp met this quality. Depp was another unknown when he was cast; and initially never intending on auditioning. Instead he was only tagging along with friend Jackie Earle Haley (who went on to play Freddy in the 2010 remake), yet it was Depp who got the part of Glen instead. Nightmare was both the feature debut and breakthrough for Depp and a stepping stone to bigger things to come.

Nightmare is the story of the courage and resourcefulness of one extraordinary girl. At the age of 19, Langekamp portrays one of the most perfectly realized and well-expressed teenagers/heroines of the 1980s. The best slasher films all have realistic heroines, and Langenkamp ranks as close to the top as Janet Leigh or Jamie Lee Curtis. As Nancy, Heather Langenkamp is closer to Alien’s Sigourney Weaver than to Halloween’s Jamie Lee Curtis: quick-witted, adventurous and courageous, and willing to enter into Freddy’s realm even when she knows he has the upper glove. Nancy and Freddy are incredibly well-matched: during the climax, she even uses a few survivalist techniques to turn the tables on Freddy. Her character is one of the greatest “final girls” in the history of slasher films, and goes on to reappear throughout the franchise in the only two solid sequels (A Nightmare On Elm Street 3, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare).

scarynoes

Visually, A Nightmare on Elm Street is a real treat hovering somewhere between gothic, supernatural imagery and the typical 80’s slasher fare. Cinematographer Jacques Haitkin’s work here is innovative and atmospheric, capturing a malevolent mood with light and shadow, most notably in the surrealistic basement scenes set around the furnace. Like so many films of this genre, its artistic ingenuity is intensified with various bloody set-pieces and visual effects. A Nightmare on Elm Street boasts several impressively conceived and well executed dream/kill sequences. During production, over 500 gallons of fake blood were used for the special effects production. The special effects, most of which are low-tech, are surprisingly effective, and this was the first film to use a breakaway mirror.

Craven’s probing of the waking/dreaming barrier results in some memorable kill sequences. Tina’s (Amanda Wyss) death scene, which featured her trashing across the ceiling, was partly inspired by the movie Royal Wedding (1951), which was the first movie to use a rotating set. The set here slowly spun to allow her to roll into position, with a camera bolted to the wall and a cameraman strapped into a chair beside it, which turned in tandem with the room. It’s important to remember that this was a low budget film shot in 30 days. For the two shots where Rod (Jsu Garcia) and Tina reach out for one another, Tina is actually lying on the floor and Garcia is hanging upside down with his hair pasted to stay flat.

Johnny-A-Nightmare-on-Elm-Street-johnny-depp

FX man Jim Doyle was responsible for designing and constructing the ingenious full-scale gyro rotating room which was again used for Johnny Depp’s kill. For the famous blood geyser sequence, the furniture, cameraman, director and actor were fixed in place, and the room would spin upside down, thus allowing the rigged room to appear right side up while thousands of gallons of fake blood would seem to gush, erupt and ejaculate from the bed. On the DVD commentary, Wes Craven remarks that the room spinning the wrong way was like a “Ferris Wheel from hell.” This scene was partly inspired by the elevator scene in The Shining. Particularly effective is the scene where Nancy is attacked by Krueger in her bathtub and pulled under the water into a pitch-black pool leading to a back alley chase where Freddy stalks her. To achieve this effect, the tub was put in a bathroom set that was built over a swimming pool. During this underwater sequence Heather Langenkamp was replaced with a stuntwoman. Also worth noting is the “melting staircase” as seen in Nancy’s dream, which was created using pancake mix and directed by Friday the 13th director Sean S. Cunningham (who is uncredited). Finally, the sequence in which Freddy is set on fire, shot in one long take (with several cameramen), featured one hell of an elaborate and dangerous stunt by stuntman Anthony Cecere (who won best stunt of the year for it).

a_nightmare_on_elm_street_review

Finally I just couldn’t end without mentioning Charles Bernstein’s spare score, the musical cues, synthesizers, creepy sound effects and the film’s unforgettable children’s rhyme – which is all perfect for the material – eerie but never overwhelming.

A Nightmare on Elm Street is tailor made for those who like their scares evened with thought-provoking ideas – something that is a rarity in this genre. Yes, there are plenty of shocks, but there’s something much more: a psychological fantasy thriller that tears away at the barrier of dreams and reality, making us think twice before settling in for a good night’s sleep. The film may be a bit rough around the edges for the new generation, and multiple viewings do tend to expose its low-budget origins, but Nightmare is still to this day dark and forbidding, chilling and incredibly unnerving – a near masterpiece of independent genre filmmaking.

Ricky D

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