REVIEW: The Shape of Water & Brawl in Cell Block 99 (LFF Day 6)

Shape of Water
Okay, so I may have skipped a few days, but both of these films were fresh in my mind and my thoughts on them actually seem to have made it onto the page in semi-presentable form.


The Shape of Water

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

With The Shape of Water, Guillermo Del Toro has delivered a film that is at once a luminous love letter to ‘50s sci-fi and a pricking commentary on prejudice.

Bashful, unwavering, and mute, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins, a near cert for awards attention) lives a charming life. She has two close friends in the form of next-door neighbor Giles (a wonderfully rueful Richard Jenkins), who makes a living drawing cheery, old-fashioned advertisements while mooning after the attendant at the local pie-shop, and colleague Zelda (the ever-reliable Octavia Spencer; NASA employed once again), who’s a dab hand with the time-card.

Dan Lausten’s cinematography imbues the film with a green inner luminosity, bringing life to the shadowy corridors of the government lab in which Sally and Zelda work as cleaners. Then the candy-chomping Colonel Richard Strickland (a typically intense Michael Shannon), the self-assured, fundamentally rotten embodiment of American exceptionalism, arrives on the premises.

He brings with him a “asset” that he and the more sympathetic Doctor Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) reportedly hope will give them an advantage in the battle against the Soviets: an Amphibian Man (played by perennial Del Toro creature actor Doug Jones). Once they’ve learned all they can from its living state, Strickland and his superiors plan to vivisect it, but Elisa, who has herself a strange relationship with water, quickly falls in love with this wild, mysterious being from beneath the surface.

Del Toro’s belief in the magic of film shines through the film: Elisa even lives above a cinema; grand and opulent, but whose few scant customers require no less than a deluge to rouse them from their slumber. Del Toro, perhaps, the only mainstream filmmaker who could take the Creature from the Black Lagoon and, without stripping it off is strangeness or danger, make an earnest, classical romance of it.

Like a spikier, far bloodier E.T. or mystical R-rated Splash, The Shape Of Water is nevertheless an enthralling fairy-tale entirely of Del Toro’s creation. Water, of course, takes the shape of whatever receptacle it happens to fill; be it a humble bathtub, a whole room, or an entire underwater world. In any case, this is a film that demands you make a space for it; any way you can.


Brawl in Cell Block 99

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

S. Craig Zahler has followed up a memorable starter, revisionist Western Bone Tomahawk, with an immaculate slab of ’70s-style exploitation thriller.

Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn in a career-revitalizing role) is an intimidating mass of hulking muscle and contradictions: the blue Celtic cross tattooed on the back of his skull speaks of a disreputable past, but he’s also a man of conscience, integrity, and laconic wit.

It’s those traits that help land him with an extended prison sentence; albeit at a facility that seems surprisingly enlightened given the rest of Brawl in Cell Block 99‘s assorted genre trappings. Things fall bloodily into place, however, when Bradley’s pregnant wife, Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter), is kidnapped and he is left with a gruesome ultimatum.

It’s here the film shifts from sincere, somewhat stately character study to brutal prison thriller as Bradley sets about living up to his fearsome demeanor; wreaking havoc on prisoners and guards, both benign and otherwise, to ensure his prompt delivery to the titular location.

While there’s no single act of savagery to compete with the extended scalping/bisection in Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cellblock 99 certainly satisfies in its depiction of outrageous violence. At 132 minutes, it’s a veritable banquet of snapped arms, stomped heads, gouged eyes, and gnarly facial trauma that never feels like gluttony; indeed it flies past.

From its understated r&b soundtrack, which includes the likes of The O’Jays and Tavares, to the casting of Don Johnson as a black-clad, cigarillo-smoking sadist, the film is a reminder that Tarantino isn’t the only one capable of coming up with fillet steak from grind-house — served bloody, of course — and, unlike Tarantino, Zahler doesn’t even need to pepper it with references for added flavor. Bon appetit.

Author: robertmwallis

Graduate of Royal Holloway and the London Film School. Founder of Of All The Film Sites; formerly Of All The Film Blogs. Formerly Film & TV Editor of The Metropolist and Official Sidekick at A Place to Hang Your Cape. Co-host of The Movie RobCast podcast (formerly Electric Shadows) and member of the Online Film Critics Society.

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