REVIEW: The Shape of Water

4 01 2018

Toronto International Film Festival

Guillermo del Toro may very well be cinema’s reigning master of monster mythology. Like few others, he understands the way that fantasy can speak to cultural hopes and fears — escapism is important if a filmmaker can locate where people want to escape to and why. “The Shape of Water” certainly helps make the case for his status at the top of the heap as he probes Kennedy-era America, a time that produced both the glimmering beacon of the Space Race and the combustible cocktail of civil rights.

Del Toro’s latest film comes straight from the “Pan’s Labyrinth mold, another fairytale with the look and feel of a cinematic storybook. Del Toro can always be counted on to provide masterful craftsmanship, even when his genre fusion and revisionism does not entirely cohere. Mercifully, it does here … for the most part.

“The Shape of Water” flows most smoothly and beautifully when focused on the primary blossoming love story between Sally Hawkins’ mute janitor Eliza and Doug Jones’ amphibious creature listed in the credits only as “The Asset.” Most characters in the film do not provide such a generous epithet for him, though, with Michael Shannon’s stern security guard Strickland simply referring to the classified experiment as an “affront.” There’s no object in his description, just a noun speaking to his abhorrence.

Eliza finds no such disgust in the swimming mystery from the moment The Asset’s tank is wheeled into her damp, dimly lit government laboratory in Baltimore. Like many a great romance, a sense of shared alienation from society at large draws the two lovers closer together. As entities struggling to be heard and understood — her due to lack of voice, him due to lack of others listening — they forge a bond both spiritual and sensual. Yes, you read that last word right.

As someone still recovering from the bizarre man-genetic experiment sex scene in Vincenzo Natali’s 2009 film “Splice,” I approach most interspecies couplings onscreen with a fair amount of trepidation. To del Toro’s credit, the pairing never feels gross in the slightest because he approaches their love with a disarmingly tender earnestness. He’s pulling from screen musicals as much as science-fiction in their relationship, a pairing which at first seems odd until del Toro finds the common ground in their use of dream-like spaces to find the fulfillment that escapes star-crossed lovers in reality.

It’s a remarkable change of pace to see a film embracing the idea that love can fear and confront other obstacles without seeming hopelessly naïve. Between del Toro, James Gray and many other unabashed classicists practicing at high levels, perhaps the pendulum can swing back away from the pervasive irony in which our culture is currently steeped. (Although del Toro does display an instinct for dry humor that gives his vintage style an edgy kick.)

If “The Shape of Water” were purely focused on Eliza and the creature with deity-like properties, it would be a pure shot of cinematic ecstasy. But del Toro makes the waters a little choppy by raising what should be subplots to the level of co-equal narrative threads. Shannon becomes the de facto villain of the film as a watchman who develops a fixation on slaying the monster for… no entirely cogent reason. Sure, he loses two fingers in an early altercation with the creation, rendering him mentally cuckolded, yet even the most furious rage of Shannon’s performance cannot distract from the poor character development. A whole narrative thread with Michael Stuhlbarg’s Hoffstetler serving as a covert spy also serves little purpose in the grand scheme of the film, only really establishing the era’s geopolitical stakes.

None of this negates the delicate power of Eliza’s love story. It does, however, hold the film back from achieving the purity and simplicity of the folkloric ends to which it strives. B

NOTE: This review originally ran on Vague Visages.

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REVIEW: Crimson Peak

17 10 2015

Crimson Peak” presents an unfortunate irony for most reviewers like myself.  The movie is essentially what we clamor for day in and day out: the chance for a great auteur like Guillermo del Toro to work on a sprawling canvas with a large budget of $55 million.  Yet, at the end of the day, the end product feels lacking in substance.  So how to respond?

If it felt like an ambitious endeavor in pursuit of a singular vision that just never quite finds its footing, I might be inclined to judge it more kindly.  While del Toro’s exercise in merging the Gothic romance with haunted house horror is interesting, “Crimson Peak” does not derive its strength from such a union.  In fact, most of the film’s memorable moments come from well-placed homages to classics like “Psycho” and “The Shining.”

del Toro’s immaculate eye for costume and design keep “Crimson Peak” stunning to look at, even if the events that unfold in this milieu are boring enough to encourage some shut-eye.  The film shows its hand far too early as two eerily close British siblings, Thomas and Lucille Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain), arrive in Buffalo, NY, to seek a capital injection.  Thomas conveniently falls for the main financier’s daughter, Mia Wasikowska’s Edith Cushing, and takes her back to their family estate known as Allerdale Hall.

“Crimson Peak” manages to elicit the odd thrill or chill here and there, but a moment where the Sharpes are seen plotting some unknown scheme towards the beginning of the film robs the experience of suspense.  There is not nearly enough heat between Hiddleston and Wasikowska to enliven the stale romantic beats they are doomed to hit.  Only Jessica Chastain, in a delightfully demented turn, manages to really excite when the final act finally allows her to come unhinged.

She’s almost too good for the movie.  While it’s hard to fault her for wanting to collaborate with a director like Guillermo del Toro, I can’t help but wish all this wrath was channeled into a more exciting work.  C+ / 2stars





REVIEW: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

5 01 2014

It’s a shame that it has not yet become en vogue for a deep voice to announce “previously on…” at the beginning of a film like they do at the start of an episode of “Homeland” or “Lost.”  This would certainly have come in handy for “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” the middle chapter of Peter Jackson’s film adaptation-cum-trilogy.  I will confess that I found the first entry, “An Unexpected Journey,” so forgettable that I spent 15 minutes reading the plot summary on Wikipedia  – and even longer trying to figure out how to remember or comprehend it.

Call me crazy, but I’ve always been rather immune to the appeal of Jackson’s Middle Earth epics.  While I admire the impeccable make-up work, the gorgeous cinematography, and the sheer amount of attention to detail apparent in the creation, the whole always feels less than the sum of its parts.  The plots never really engage me, and I find myself mentally exhausted by the end simply trying to both follow the chain of events and keep the characters straight.

“The Desolation of Smaug” seems about on par with its predecessor.  Neither have the same sense of urgency that propelled the original “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, thus making their north-of-160-minute runtimes feel more like a chore than an afternoon of entertainment.

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Random Factoid #334

27 06 2010

As you might know from January when I spent three weeks in Argentina, I am a student of the Spanish language.  My goal is to ultimately become bilingual because it is a useful skill to have when you live in Texas.

I also love foreign cinema, and a lot of what I watch happens to be in the Spanish language (mainly because there are so many cinematically vibrant countries that are mostly Spanish speaking).  Pedro Almodovar, Guillermo del Toro, and many more.

The farther I get in my study of Spanish, the less I need the subtitles.  For the most part, the characters speak fairly simply.  I usually only need them for vocabulary that I am unfamiliar with.  In fact, sometimes I can listen to the characters speak and find a more literal translation than the subtitles.

I also use watching these movies as an exercise in learning more Spanish.  I try to take away vocabulary from each of the movies and incorporate the words into my speaking.  For instance, I only know that carcel means “jail” because of “Talk to Her.”