Tag: guillermo del toro

The Shape of Water


The Shape of Water (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

Those with a penchant for strange love stories, especially the dark fairytale kind, will surely gravitate toward “The Shape of Water,” a pensive and melancholy look into the lives lonely and yearning individuals during the Cold War. It can be argued that perhaps the most interesting element of the film is that it works as a gargantuan metaphor for our basic need as a species to be loved and accepted, whether that someone be an ordinary citizen who just so happens to be a mute to a curiosity that is so exotic that the foreigner is considered an entirely different creature altogether. In a way, the work is a celebration of so-called freaks of society for they find a way to rise to the challenge and pave the way for the future.

Equally interesting is the structure of the picture. Unlike ordinary fantastic love stories, director Guillermo del Toro chooses for his project to have an extended exposition to the point where it takes up nearly half of the film’s running time. While this approach is certain to challenge viewers, especially those who crave unsubtle action right away, I found that this communicates the fact that the veteran filmmaker has a special confidence in the material. Unconcerned about time pressures or following expected beats and rhythms, del Toro ensures that we understand our heroine named Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a night janitor in a research center housing a humanoid amphibian to be used as a model for a weapon against the Russians, before any semblance of romance takes center stage.

Hawkins plays the mute character with such grace. It is easy to dismiss a performance when the actor does not say a word, but those who take the time to look closely and examine the intricacies of how she expresses a range of emotions will be rewarded. My advice: Occasionally ignore the yellow subtitles altogether. Instead, focus on her face, those eyes, the tension on her hands and fingers, how she holds her arms just so, and how she uses her mouth to expresses how she feels, what she thinks, and what wants to accomplish. A point can be made that it is more difficult to create a believable character, and keep her interesting, when one cannot vocalize.

Director of photography Dan Laustsen creates such a unique-looking world that it is almost like into a gem. Notice how hues of blue and green pervade the screen, not just in the laboratory where the tortured creature (Doug Jones) is kept but also the outdoors of rain-soaked streets, the gloomy apartments of singles who dream of an alternate life where they partnered, loved unconditionally. Partnered with del Toro’s direction, Laustsen’s cinematography, despite blues and greens usually pointing toward cold sentiments, can also communicate warmth, hope, and home. The penultimate and final scenes support this observation.

Despite the film having a running time of two hours, I found that this is not long enough. I wished to know more about the co-worker (Octavia Spencer) who always looks out for Elisa, the romantic struggles of Elisa’s aging homosexual neighbor (Richard Jenkins), and the villainous man (Michael Shannon) who caught the amphibian. While we do get one or two scenes that depict these characters’ personal lives, they come across rather episodic. Yet despite this shortcoming, “The Shape of Water” is absolutely worth a look-see.

Crimson Peak


Crimson Peak (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★

The night of her mother’s death, young Edith was visited by her mother’s ghost and warned her of Crimson Peak. Although it did not make sense to her at the time, Edith has never forgotten the encounter. Fourteen years later, Edith (Mia Wasikowska), an aspiring writer, meets a baronet from England, Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who comes to America with the hopes of raising capital for his project with the help of Edith’s father (Jim Beaver), a successful businessman.

In Europe, Thomas’ mansion, Allerdale Hall, sits on top of a clay mine. It is a matter of funding and building the proper machinery so that the clay can be acquired and sold. Soon, Edith and Thomas marry and live in Allerdale Hall. However, Edith begins to suspect that the mansion is haunted.

Written by Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robins, “Crimson Peak” is a gothic-horror film that is beautifully told with strong special and visual effects to back it up. It has many similarities with classic horror films, particularly with its treatment of gore and violence. These elements are secondary. The film is about the story and the characters first and how they come to change over time. Thus, an expected criticism is its slow pacing.

The deliberate pacing fits this type of story like a glove. It forces us to wonder how the characters are going to clash upon the delivery of key revelations. During its opening minutes, there are well-placed acknowledgements that the story is not really about ghosts, that ghosts merely serve as metaphor for the past that haunts. Although the idea only becomes fully realized during the latter half of the picture, it works because the wonderful performances by the leads and supporting performers help to carry through the promise.

It can be argued that the heroine is written as a bit of a bore. I agree—to an extent—but Wasikowska puts in a lot of effort to make Edith interesting. Take away the extravagant garments, hairstyles, and accessories and the performance remains highly watchable. Wasikowska appears to have more than a dozen faces to express fear. It looks and feels so effortless, the viewer gets the impression that she just picks one from her bag of tricks when the time is right. The scenes in which Edith is required to investigate during the night stand out.

There is suspense and genuine horror as she walks through hallways and opens cabinets because, like the camera, her expressions and body language are patient and precise. Jessica Chastain, too, shines as Thomas’ older, conniving sister. Notice the way she milks every scene she is in; menace is communicated right down to her fingertips.

Some of the computer-generated imagery are a bit much. Although the monsters in the haunted mansion look creepy and dangerous when they are shown, the longer the camera lingers on them, the less impact they tend to have. Perhaps this could have been circumvented if some of the images were more tactile, less translucent-looking. The choice to make them the latter, however, is an interesting one. Perhaps we are never really supposed to believe they look real or convincing, to tie into the idea that the film is not primarily a ghost story.

“Crimson Peak,” directed by Guillermo del Toro, does not need to be thoroughly original. It is difficult to deny that it is a period piece horror that is very done well. There is intrigue in the gothic romantic story and characters, the forefront and background images are stunning, the performances exhibit range, and we care about what happens to the characters. Though others may claim the film is “an exercise of style over substance,” the imbalance is not by much.

Pacific Rim


Pacific Rim (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

San Francisco, Manila, Cabo–the first three cities demolished by the Kaiju, towering monsters from another world that have gone through a portal located deep within the Pacific Ocean. In response to the catastrophic attacks, nations of the world band together and create the Jaeger program. Led by Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), giant robots are sent to exterminate the leviathans each time they surface. For seven years, the program has proven to be a glowing success. However, not only have the aliens turned more massive over time, it appears as though they have learned to adapt.

“Pacific Rim,” based on the screenplay by Travis Beacham and Guillermo del Toro, is propelled by two elements: nostalgia and faultless visual effects. When I wasn’t running around outside with my cousins or collecting bugs as a kid, I sat in front of the television around dinner time and marveled at shows like “Ultraman,” “Chikyu Sentai Fiveman,” and “Chōdenji Machine Voltes V.” When an episode was not dubbed, everything was in Japanese. I didn’t mind; the images spoke for themselves. All I really cared about was the action–especially during the last ten minutes or so when two figures fighting, one standing for good and the other for evil, grow taller than mountains and anything goes from there. I approached the film with optimism.

Fans of sci-fi action will be satisfied. Children, especially most boys, will be drawn to the picture. Themes like determination and heroism are present, but the centerpiece, colossal figures duking it out until an arm is torn off or the target is pummeled to electrical malfunction, allows it to stand out from other movies that showcase robots and superheroes smashing into skyscrapers.

The magic is in the detail and execution. While we are given some time to gape at the giants’ full bodies from a good distance, tight shots that linger are also implemented so we can observe the roughness and scaliness of the creatures which directly contrasts with the angularity and bulkiness of the robots. It is a completely different experience–a pleasant one–compared to other work within the sub-genre in which most of the action is largely composed of quick cuts. It is inviting. Instead of repelling or inundating us with rampant and incomprehensible editing, the filmmakers actually want us to see what two hundred million dollars looks like on screen when it is done right.

Having said that, I am a little older now and action is no longer the only element I care about. The dialogue is not particularly strong especially when the mood takes a serious turn. In addition, trying to steer some of the material toward a dark and dramatic territory is a miscalculation because paths are created but never explored meaningfully. There are ways of creating character development without necessarily making more subplots. For example, since the planet is in a state of cataclysm, it is more appropriate to focus on the decisions the characters feel they must make, how they live with those choices, and what their specific roles mean to them within the Jeager program. By streamlining its scope with respect to characterization, there might have been less scenes that drag or feel forced.

It is not without a sense of humor. I am usually repelled when scientists are portrayed as being so smart that they are unable to relate with anything that has to do with reality, but Charlie Day and Burn Gorman as Newton and Gottlieb, respectively, are so fidgety, you’d think they chugged at least three Red Bulls prior to “Action!” I was amused by simply watching their characters struggling to stand still and keeping their opinions to themselves when their superior demands that they speak one at a time. Scientists with different perspectives on how to solve a problem is nothing new, but Day and Gorman’s performances create an illusion that it is new. Also, I liked looking at their lab. Newton’s side is like a bizarre candy store. That piece of Kaiju brain floating in a tank made me hungry. (I like to eat pork brain.)

Directed by Guillermo del Toro, “Pacific Rim” is made with a love for the medium. It engages us with its visuals without relying on them too much to the point where there is no story. And although the script is somewhat limited, it remains a delight throughout. When you feel that the filmmakers have taken extra steps to create a work that is worthy of your time, especially in today’s increasingly cynical attitudes toward moviemaking, know that what you have seen is a rarity.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark


Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

Sally (Bailee Madison) was sent by her mother to live with her father (Guy Pearce), Alex, in Rhode Island while he and his girlfriend (Katie Holmes), Kim, restored the historic Blackwood mansion. Despite the manor house being dark and creepy, it wasn’t haunted by ghosts. It was, however, home to little creatures in the basement whose diet consisted of children’s bones and teeth. Based on the screenplay by Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” reached a synergy between horrific and fantastic elements. Although Sally had the tendency to mope about, we loved her because she was sassy, and we cared for her because her childlike curiosity often got the best of her. It could have taken the convenient path of simply putting children in peril to deliver cheap thrills, but the material strived to be more than that. It provided us with a proper background story that involved Blackwood (Garry McDonald) and his desperation to save his eight-year-old son from the teeth-hungry creatures. Like the best horror movies, I found myself wanting to know more about the source of horror and why the antagonists were motivated to do the things they did. The jump-out-of-your-seat and cringe-in-your-seat moments were earned. Naturally, Alex didn’t believe in her daughter’s stories. He believed the stories were a product of adjustment issues. After all, Sally felt like she wasn’t wanted by her mother, claiming that she had been given away. It was expected that the father would eventually realize that the creatures from her daughter’s imagination were actually real. It was a matter of exactly when. Perhaps as he looked through a keyhole and a needle was waiting on the other side? When Sally took pictures using a polaroid camera during an important dinner? It teased our expectations and the answer was given to us when we least expected it. However, I wish the filmmakers showed less of how the creature looked like. It didn’t help that their bodies were revealed early on. It didn’t give us time to speculate. The teeth-lovers were CGI and I wasn’t too convinced that the animation complemented the gothic interiors of the mansion. It would have been just as effective if we only saw the creatures’ glowing eyes as they hid in darkness from under the bed and staring ravenously on the other side of the hallway. Furthermore, Kim could have been more developed. She was Sally’s eventual mother figure (rather than an evil stepmother) who was reluctant in her ability to parent. That struggle was interesting and an exploration of her feelings of inadequacy would have added another layer of emotional resonance. “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” directed by Troy Nixey, was accompanied by a gorgeous art direction and cinematography. Like the towering Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” it made me want to explore its interiors as well as its grounds.

Pan’s Labyrinth


Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
★★★★ / ★★★★

“El laberinto del fauno” or “Pan’s Labyrinth,” written and directed by Guillermo del Toro, is one of the most compelling pictures I’ve ever seen about the power of imagination. Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) used her mind as an escape from several events that she could not fully understand and deal with: moving into a new home in a countryside surrounded by the Spanish guerilla, her mother’s (Ariadna Gil) decision to be with a cruel army captain (Sergi López), her mother’s illness along with having a new sibling and the war that was driving everyone around her into a state of conflict and madness. In her fantasy world, she was an underground princess trapped in a human body. In order to get back to her royal family, a faun (Doug Jones) informed her that she must complete three dangerous tasks. What I admired most about this movie was del Toro’s ability to show us a story seen through a child’s eyes but at the same time keeping the reality at an arm’s length. Although fantastic elements are abound, this film is definitely not for children due to the intense violence and sometimes unbearable emotional suffering. I couldn’t help but be impressed with the way the director weaved in and out and through the reality and fantasy of the story. Even though we get drastic changes of scenery with each mission that Ofelia decided to take part in, tension was something we could not escape. I loved the spy/mother-figure played by Maribel Verdú. She just had this strength that radiated from within which made her a key figure in Ofelia’s life because her bed-ridden mother could not protect her. Verdú’s scenes with the smart and venomous captain gave me the creeps; the looks he so often gave her made me believe that he knew what she was up to all along. Ever since it’s release, “Pan’s Labyrinth” gained great approval from both critics and audiences and deservingly so. A lot of people consider the film as a dark fairytale. While it is that, I believe it only highlights one dimension of this amazing work. (The words “dark fairytale” sounds more like a fantasy.) A large portion of this picture was about how Ofelia looked inwards in a time of need and turned things that she could not control into something she could. That is, the more the main character was forced to grow up due to the circumstances around her, the more she gained an internal locus of control. When fantasy and reality finally collided during a key scene in the end, it was very depressing yet magical–and that was when del Toro’s vision finally came full circle.

The Devil’s Backbone


The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
★★★★ / ★★★★

“El espinazo del diablo” or “The Devil’s Backbone,” written and directed Guillermo del Toro (“Hellboy,” “Pan’s Labyrinth”), was about a newcomer in an orphanage named Carlos (Fernando Tielve) and the dark secrets that were about to unfold during his short stay. I love the fact that the film started off trying to define what a ghost was. When the proposed definitions seemed unfit, it jumped into the story and actually showed us what a ghost could be. Of course, by the end of the picture, it was astute enough to let the audiences define for themselves what a ghost was after we’ve seen the events that happened in the orphanage. The three main adults in the story set in the middle of the Spanish Civil War included a lady with a prosthetic leg (Marisa Paredes), a doctor (Federico Luppi), and a caretaker (Eduardo Noriega). Stuck in the orphanage for so long during the war, tension begins to arise and secrets begin to mount among the three. Caught in the middle of it all were the children such as Carlos and Jaime–as one of the tougher older kids with a secret (Íñigo Garcés) involving a ghost named Santi (Junio Valverde). The organic manner in which all of the various elements came together and the extremely atmospheric orphanage was exemplary. By that I mean that the shadows in the backdrop looked alive and haunting even if the focus was supposed to be on a character’s facial expression as he discovers something morbid or shocking. I admired del Toro’s use of foreshadowing involving a missile that landed but never exploded though that event marked the day where everything changed. Each scene had some kind of purpose which began to make more and more sense as the film progressed. I also liked that half of this film was more of a supernatural thriller with elements of mystery and the other half was a story of survival. The director balanced the tone so well that each half complimented each other and ended up with a work that was touching, heartpounding and quite clever. There were certain shots in this picture that stood out to me. One of them was whenever the camera was fixated on a character’s face in a close-up as something terrible happened, the lens would zoom out and show a beautiful and peaceful background. Even though techniques like that stood out to me, it never distracted me from the film. In fact, it enhanced my experience because the events that transpired in “The Devil’s Backbone” often had a silver lining. I saw this film back in 2002 or 2003, liked it, forgotten about it, and since then became a sleeper hit. I’m not surprised at all because it was so well done. There’s still a lot of people out there that haven’t seen the movie and they really should because it takes ghost stories on a new level.