Movie Review: “The Shape of Water”

In a cinematic marketplace glutted with endless sequels, reboots, and reinterpretations, Guillermo del Toro’s filmography stands apart. Even when trading in familiar tropes of gothic horror (“Crimson Peak,” “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark”) or blockbuster action (“Hellboy II: The Golden Army,” “Pacific Rim”), his movies reflect a distinctive appreciation for the places where the mythic and the macabre overlap. And when this sensibility is allowed to fully flower, as in 2006’s unforgettable “Pan’s Labyrinth,” the results are nothing short of stunning.

“The Shape of Water” captures that same magic. Like its spiritual predecessor, “Shape” is a fairy tale for adults—a movie unafraid to engage both the darkness of the chthonic and the monstrosity of the real world. And like “Labyrinth,” it’s heartfelt, memorable, and satisfying on the deepest of levels.

Set during the height of the Cold War, “Shape” centers on mute janitor Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), who works the graveyard shift at a secret government lab outside Baltimore. When the sadistic Major Strickland (Michael Shannon) returns from an expedition to the Amazon with a “new asset” (Doug Jones) in tow, Elisa promptly befriends the ichthyic humanoid. When experiments on the live asset prove inconclusive and experts recommend vivisection, Elisa springs into action with a daring rescue plan.

On the surface, this narrative isn’t especially groundbreaking; much of the film resembles a mashup of “Beauty and the Beast” and “Free Willy.” The magic of “Shape,” though, is in the journey. Hawkins—bolstered by a strong supporting cast including Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer—turns in a bravura lead performance, capturing wordless intensity through a combination of facial expressiveness, rapid-fire sign language, and raw physical energy. Jones, as the similarly voiceless asset, matches her beat for beat as his character evolves from a helpless pawn of circumstance into a terrifying force of nature. (Mercifully, del Toro resists the temptation to rely on CGI motion-capture; this creature is a man in an actual costume.)

What really makes “The Shape of Water” so unforgettable, though, is the ever-present sense that this is a film about something. That’s not to say it’s trite or didactic: indeed, there’s a particularly vapid line of reviews of this film that describe it as simply a parable of tolerance in a fractured America. But this kind of assessment says far more about the neuroses of the critical class than about the movie itself: “Shape” is actually a story about the loss of stories, about the ways in which the beautiful and transcendent elements in life are subsumed within a world of shallow consumerism.

Colors mean everything in “Shape.” The murky shade of green that’s omnipresent within the film—the color of Elisa’s dress, Strickland’s Cadillac, the neon ads for television sets, the filling of a tasteless pie—represents the mundane, the enervating, and the utterly immanent. These are the day-to-day realities that lull us into blindness, keeping us from apprehending the wonder in our midst. By contrast, the color red—the color of Elisa’s apparel as the film proceeds, the color of the old movie theater beneath her apartment, the color of the pie shared by happy families in her neighbor’s paintings—evokes the Real, the ultimate, that which rouses souls from stupor and draws them into stories beyond themselves. That contrast between the comfortable and the magical is the beating heart of “Shape.” (A note: while this mode of overlapping the natural and the supernatural is undoubtedly sunnier than anything in “Pan’s Labyrinth,” it’s worth pointing out that this is most definitely not a film for children. Del Toro isn’t afraid to depict the violence and sexuality inherent in the real world.)

Longtime fans of del Toro’s movies will detect a great deal of shared DNA between this work and the rest of his canon. Some parallels are obvious (yes, the asset is del Toro’s second fish-man character with a taste for eggs), while others are subtler. Just to name one: del Toro’s films have always communicated, whether implicitly or explicitly, that the mysterious and wonderful in life is always close at hand and that we merely lack the predisposition to recognize it. Those who enter del Toro’s worlds and encounter the surreal are, almost without exception, “damaged” in some way—misbegotten (“Blade II”), destined for damnation (“Hellboy”), young and largely helpless (“Pan’s Labyrinth”), haunted by the past (“Pacific Rim,” “Crimson Peak,”), and so forth. Yet over and over again, these “deficiencies”—these weaknesses in the eyes of the world—prove to be the very traits that allow them to truly encounter that which is mythic and weighty. Their weaknesses force them to become part of stories that are not their own—stories that transcend them and in which they may play vital roles. By contrast, power and status—that is, the abilities to shape one’s own story—are, for del Toro, the epistemological anesthetics that numb the heart and mind to wonder.

“The Shape of Water” won’t be to all viewers’ tastes. It’s weird, exotic, and a bit bizarre, and not at all the sort of movie that one watches with an eye on their cell phone. “Shape” demands both a suspension of disbelief and a willingness to commit to del Toro’s singular vision. But those who’re willing to go along, to dive into this idiosyncratic and beautiful film, won’t be disappointed.

VERDICT: 9.5/10
Unlike anything else out there; the best del Toro flick since “Pan’s Labyrinth.”

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Posted by on December 30, 2017 in Fantasy


Movie Review: “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”

(It’s been way too long since I last reviewed movies—happily, it’ll be business as usual going forward. Also, be warned that there are lots of spoilers in this review.)

“The Last Jedi” is not a crowd-pleaser in the vein of “The Force Awakens.” It’s something very different indeed: a Star Wars movie that moves the saga forward without relying on nostalgia or high-dollar action scenes. It’s not the Star Wars film I would’ve made if given the chance, but that’s because Rian Johnson is far bolder than me, and “The Last Jedi” is all the better for it.

Picking up only moments after its predecessor’s conclusion, “The Last Jedi” opens with a dramatic space battle as the Resistance flees its home base. Meanwhile, our heroine Rey (Daisy Ridley) confronts long-lost Jedi master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on the monastic world of Ahch-To, determined to find the truth about her dark-side counterpart Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). The supporting characters—arrogant pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), renegade stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and shy mechanic Rose (Kelly Marie Tran)—all have plenty to do, but at bottom this isn’t their movie: we’re all here for Rey, Kylo, and the truth behind Luke’s mysterious words from the trailer: “It’s time for the Jedi to end.”

That’s not to say the B-plot (the Resistance’s flight from its enemies) isn’t entertaining, because it certainly is: indeed, one of the film’s best scenes takes place on a casino planet that simultaneously adopts and subverts the saga’s longstanding cantina tropes. Benicio Del Toro turns up as a lowlife “codebreaker” and Laura Dern does solid work as a Mon Mothma-lite figure. There’s a sense, though, in which at least some of this feels like padding: every time the camera cut away from the Rey/Luke drama and jumped back to the Resistance fleet, I found myself itching to get back to Ahch-To. (I still have about a million questions, but maybe that’s for the best; good worldbuilding means never giving away all the answers.)

On other fronts, there’s a lot to like here. Johnson’s visual style—a medley of dramatic pans and dives and striking close-ups—is a pleasant change from J.J. Abrams’s more conventional approach. John Williams’s score is similarly great, although I do miss the bombastic choirs of “Duel of the Fates” and “Battle of the Heroes.” And the effects—including one great particularly great use of puppetry—are everything one could hope for.

That said, the ending of “The Last Jedi” is bound to be controversial. There’s a part of me that wanted the film to end in a giant, glorious, propulsive revenge-of-Luke-Skywalker moment: don’t we all secretly want to see our legendary hero wipe out a whole army with the power of the Force? Or at the very least, beat Kylo Ren to a pulp in a brutal lightsaber duel?

On balance, though, I think the understated elegance of the film’s finale is perhaps its greatest strength. When “The Last Jedi” begins, Luke has lost faith in the Force and in the Jedi ways. That much was obvious from the firs previews: in the leadup to this movie’s release, some commentators speculated that Luke would shepherd in an era of “Gray Jedi” committed to walking a path between the light and dark sides of the Force. But that’s not how this story goes. Instead, in choosing a path of self-sacrifice and nonviolence, Luke fully manifests the power of the light side in a way never before seen onscreen; crushing armies might look cool onscreen, but doing so would be fundamentally inconsistent with Luke’s character and the philosophy he stands for. Johnson understands this, and the ending of “The Last Jedi” accordingly reflects that.

If Rotten Tomatoes is any indication, this may be the most polarizing Star Wars movie of all time. That’s because it’s something truly different from what we’ve seen before—there’s not even really a straight-up lightsaber duel. The way I felt leaving “The Force Awakens” was very different from the way I felt leaving “The Last Jedi”: exuberant and energized in the first case, contemplative and reflective in the latter. But that doesn’t mean “The Last Jedi” isn’t a success. In fact, it may on balance be the most masterful installment of all, even if it doesn’t leave audiences with the warm nostalgia fuzzies they crave. This is a movie about losing and regaining faith, about the dangers of separating dogma from discipline and praxis, and about loss and failure and the risks of mentorship. It is not your typical blockbuster, and not the Star Wars experience audiences expect, and that’s what makes it great.

A profoundly satisfying film that doesn’t just retread old ground, but pushes the saga forward in stirring ways.

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Posted by on December 16, 2017 in Sci-Fi

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