Review: Paddington 2

About twenty minutes in to Paddington 2, the titular bear, falsely imprisoned for theft, stares into a jailhouse washing machine to find a red sock floating among black and white striped uniforms. “What’s the worst that can happen,” Paddington asks himself as the camera pulls back from the bear’s face, through the tumbling clothes before cutting to a shot of cartoonishly hardened prisoners adorned in pink and grey.

It’s a delightful moment in a thoroughly delightful movie. Director Paul King fills the film with scenes in which Paddington’s good-natured bumbling transforms a something bleak into something magical, making good use of Cinematographer Erik Wilson’s meandering camera. Exposition and fantasy scenes become exercises in style as characters turn into sketch cartoons swimming to France or figures ambling through a pop-book version of London or fancy diners in a prison canteen, all set to Dario Marianelli’s spritely score.

Once again, Ben Wishaw voices the title character with a mixture of childlike curiosity and warm politeness, keeping in tone with Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins who – alongside Madeleine Harris, Samuel Joslin, and Julie Walters – return as the Browns, Paddington’s adopted middle-class family. Of the new additions to the cast, Hugh Grant gets the showiest part, playing a conceited actor with more devious disguises than Count Olaf from A Series of Unfortunate Events. But it’s the prison characters who add the most flavor, particularly Brendan Gleeson as the gruff cook Nuckel’s and, in a smaller part, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith as the avuncular (but firm) Warden Walker.

King uses his ensemble cast to great effect, not only showing the caring communities Paddington creates around him, but also finding wonderful little character moments. A simple visiting hours chat between Paddington’s family and his new jailbird buddies gives King and Wilson opportunity to construct one of the most delightfully silly tableaus I’ve ever seen outside of a Muppet movie.

When its final act moves attention away from community-building, the movie drags a bit, never able to fully meld its tone to its caper plot. Worse, character arcs set up for the family – Mrs. Brown wants to swim, Jonathan Brown is embarrassed of his love of steam trains – pay off in a rudimentary manner that reveals them to be more straight character lines, making the movie feel a bit too overstuffed.

But the movie’s just so darn delightful that we quickly forgive and forget this minor annoyance. From its visuals to its plot, Paddington 2 is a testament to the motto our hero learns from his Aunt Lucy: “If we’re kind and polite the world will be right.” And it’s hard to get more right than a marmalade loving bear in a slicker.

Review: The Shape of Water

In her role as Elisa Esposito, the mute cleaner who falls in love with the Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) held in the government facility where she works, Sally Hawkings conveys passion and compassion without uttering a word. This feat is particularly impressive because Elisa shares several scenes with Richard Strickland, a cold war era government official played by Michael Shannon at his Michael Shannon-est. His character boils with barely contained contempt until finally exploding in volcanic rage at his perceived inferiors, but Elisa’s anger and ardor outpaces Strickland’s bloviating.

The clash between insiders and outcasts drives Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water, even more so than the romance plot that provides the film’s most memorable moments. A powerful man in the the early 60s US government, who lives with his attractive family in a fully mod-conned home, Strickland knows only the privilage he confuses for morality. To justify his lack of compassion toward the Amphibian Man, Strickland reminds Elisa and her partner Zelda (Octavia Spencer) that “the Lord looks like you and me,” before realizing that he’s addressing a mute and a black woman and clarifies: “A little more like me than you.”

But while Strickland’s certainty makes him competitive and cruel, Elisa’s condition allows her to bond with Zelda, with a gay struggling artist played by Richard Jenkins, with a Russian spy who puts love of nature over love of country, and with the Amphibian Man himself. Keenly aware of how her conditon marks her as inhuman to people like Strickland, Elisa finds other signifiers of humanity, those that Del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor highlight throughout the film: a love of art, sexual desire, basic empathy.

Del Toro further rebukes Strickland’s egoism in the way he presents the film’s world. Using almost nothing but tracking shots, holding still for only seconds at a time, Del Toro floats his camera along the sets that cinematographer Dan Laustsen bathes in greens and yellows and blues, replicating the Amphibian Man’s habitat. Strickland, and the US government that employs him or the Soviet forces who oppose him, may think that he runs the world, but every time the camera drifts from an overflowing tub to a spilled glass to a rain-soaked window pain, we’re told just how much these forces are out of their depth.

I know I’ve hardly said anything about the romance aspect, which is, obviously, a pretty important part of a romance story. But it’s the way that Del Toro reimagines power structures that makes the romance work. An unconventional love story, in part, shows us how loveless our conventions can be. The Shape of Water creates a world in which these conventions get washed away.