‘The Shape of Water’ is Another Cinematic Masterpiece from Guillermo Del Toro

The Shape of Water movie poster

“Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Blade II” and “The Devil’s Backbone” should be more than enough proof of how Guillermo Del Toro is a cinematic god among directors. If you need further proof of this, then I suggest you watch “The Shape of Water,” his romantic fantasy which is truly one of the best films of 2017. While I tend to scoff at romantic movies as I consider them cringe-inducing exercises in endurance which prove to be even more painful than running the Los Angeles Marathon. Please keep in mind, I have run this marathon seven years in a row, and soon I will be running it yet again.

“The Shape of Water” transports us back to Baltimore, Maryland in the year 1962 when America was stuck in the middle of the Cold War. We meet Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a janitor at a secret laboratory who was rendered mute at a young age due to a neck injury. She follows a daily routine of pleasuring herself in the bathtub while boiling eggs on her kitchen stove, and then she goes to work where she performs her duties without complaint. Luckily, she has a pair of friends to converse with, in a matter of non-speaking, like artist and closeted homosexual Giles (Richard Jenkins) and her ever so talkative co-worker Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) who also takes the time to interpret Elisa’s sign language. But even with friends like these, let alone the luck she has living above a movie theater, there is clearly something missing from her life.

Things, however, quickly change for Elisa when the laboratory she works at receives a creature in a tank. This creature was captured in South America by the cold-hearted Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), and the government officials he answers to want to dissect the creature in an effort to gain a foothold on the space race. Elisa, however, has different ideas as she develops a strong connection with the creature which will not be easily broken.

I guess this might seem like a strange love story for many to take seriously, but considering the seismic shifts in how the world views, and should view, marriage and the rights of others, “The Shape of Water” could not have been timelier. As improbable as a relationship like this one may sound, Del Toro and his cast make it one we quickly become engaged in to where we are swept up emotionally in a way few movies can.

Along with cinematographer Dan Laustsen, Del Toro gives this film a look which is at once suffocating and yet wondrous. We clearly in the world of movies while watching this one, but the while this might seem like a genre picture designed to take us out of reality, it is filled with genuine emotion which is never easily earned. We can always count on Del Toro to give us a beautifully realized motion picture, but this one deserves special recognition as it had a budget of around $20 million, and yet he made it look like cost so much more. I would love to ask him how he accomplished what he did on a limited budget. In any other case, $20 million is a lot of money. But for a film like this, it seems almost too low to work with.

Sally Hawkins has wowed us as an actress in “Happy-Go-Lucky,” “Made in Dagenham” and “Blue Jasmine,” but she really outdoes herself here as Elisa Esposito as this role takes her into Holly “The Piano” Hunter territory. With her character being a mute, Hawkins not only has to communicate without the use of words (vocally anyway), she has to keep her heart open in a way which we make a habit of avoiding. This actress shows little hesitation in making herself so open and vulnerable to a creature everyone else would be quick to be infinitely fearful of.

Speaking of the creature, he is played by Doug Jones, an actor who is masterful at portraying non-human characters. Whether it’s as Abe Sapien in the “Hellboy” movies, the Faun and the Pale Man in “Pan’s Labyrinth” or even as Lieutenant Commander Saru on “Star Trek: Discovery,” Jones always succeeds in finding a humanity in these characters others would never be quick to discover or find. His performance here as the Amphibian Man is every bit as good as Andy Serkis’ in “War for the Planet of the Apes,” and I put these two actors together because many believe it is the makeup or special effects which do all the acting for them, but it’s their acting which makes their characters so memorable. Jones, like Hawkins, has to communicate without the use of words, but he has an even bigger challenge as his character cannot even use sign language. His work deserves more credit than it will likely get at awards time.

“The Shape of Water” also has a terrific cast of character actors, and they are the kind who never ever let us down. Richard Jenkins is right at home as Giles, a closeted gay man who, when he tries to reach out to someone he cares about, is quickly rebuffed not just by that someone, but also by a society which thoughtlessly excluded many for all the wrong reasons. Jenkins never resorts to giving us a cliched version of a homosexual, but instead makes us see Giles as a man who is kind and considerate but still ostracized to where he is willing to break the rules to help a friend who doesn’t judge him in the slightest.

When it comes to Octavia Spencer, you can never go wrong with her, and she is a wonderful presence here as Zelda Fuller, Elisa’s co-worker who is never at a loss for words. She also makes it clear how Zelda is a force to be reckoned with, and this is something the character’s husband really should have taken into account a long time ago.

There is also Michael Stuhlbarg who portrays Dr. Robert Hoffstetler, the scientist who sees far more value in the Amphibian Man being alive as opposed to becoming a glorified science experiment worthy of dissection. This is a typical role you find in genre films, but Stuhlbarg inhabits the role to where Robert can never be dismissed as a simple stock character. Even as we learn there is more to Robert than what we initially see on the surface, Stuhlbarg makes us see this is a man who values understanding and compassion over greed. You know, the kind of person we would love to see in the White House at this moment.

But one actor I want to point out in particular is Michael Shannon who portrays Colonel Richard Strickland, a man hellbent on putting his country before everything else, including his wife and kids. Shannon succeeds in rendering Strickland into a more complex character than you might expect. As we watch Strickland get berated by his superiors for not doing his job like they want him to, Shannon shows us a patriotic American who wants to serve his country well, but we watch as his spirit becomes as corrupted and diseased as those two fingers of his which were torn off his hand by the creature and reattached with limited success. As the movie goes on, those fingers of his become a disgusting color as they come to represent the corruption of his soul. Other actors would be intent on making you despise such a villainous character, but Shannon makes you see a man whose desperation has forever blindsided his worldview.

Whether or not you think “The Shape of Water” breaks any new ground in the world of motion pictures is irrelevant. All that matter is how it is a beautifully realized film which takes you on an incredible voyage only the best of its kind can. It also reminds you of how valuable a filmmaker Del Toro is in this day and age when distinct voices in the world of cinema are continually minimized and rendered silent for the sake of profit. Here’s hoping you get to see it on the big screen where it belongs before Donald Trump leads us into a war no one in America is prepared to be drafted into.

* * * * out of * * * *

Godzilla (2014)

godzilla-2014-poster

The stench which emanated from the sheer awfulness of Roland Emmerich’s “Godzilla” has haunted me ever since I saw it on the big screen in 1998. For a time, it dampened my spirits in terms of where movies were headed as I was afraid many more of them would be dumbed down like Emmerich’s movie was. Had it been an even bigger hit, I feared more summer blockbusters would look exactly like it; filled with lame one-dimensional characters and special effects which look no different from the video games we play at home. But in the end, it was so critically reviled that even Toho, the company that owns Godzilla, looked at Emmerich’s version of the monster as a separate, stand-alone character whom they renamed Zilla. It was if they were saying, “Oh no, that was so not Godzilla. That was a cousin or a step child or maybe the product of a one-night stand.”

But now that stench has vanished as Gareth Edwards has given us his version of “Godzilla,” and it makes for one of the most entertaining movies of the 2014 summer movie season. Instead of having this enormous Japanese monster chase after characters who look like they were part of a rejected sitcom pilot, he stays true to the style of the Toho series of Godzilla films and manages to weave in some commentary about nuclear power. Just as the original “Godzilla” served as a metaphor for Hiroshima, this one doesn’t dare hide away from what happened in Fukushima where nuclear accidents occurred after the massive earthquake and tsunami which occurred there.

The movie starts off with the terrifying destruction of a nuclear power plant, one which ends up dividing a father and his son. We then move to several years later when Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), an explosive ordnance disposal technician in the US Navy, comes home to his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and their son after a long tour of duty. Their reunion, however, is cut short as Ford gets word his father, nuclear physicist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), has once again been arrested in Japan for trespassing into areas blocked off to the general public as the area surrounding the power plant isn’t all that different from Chernobyl when it suffered a meltdown.

Joe is still convinced the power plant accident was really a cover up for something, and he and Ford come to discover what’s left of it has been converted into a laboratory of sorts. Scientists led by Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Dr. Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) reveal they have been housing a MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) and are trying to keep it contained by giving it doses of radiation. But, of course, all hell breaks loose when the MUTO breaks free of its captivity and heads out to sea, and it is then we learn another MUTO (this one a female) has been held in the United States and has also escaped and quickly laid waste to Las Vegas. Like Natasha Henstridge’s character in “Species,” she is looking to start a big family with offspring which will surely destroy all of humanity, and it’s only a matter of time before she finds her MUTO mate. Clearly, safe sex is not on their agenda.

This is where the iconic Godzilla comes in. Now in the past, this gigantic creature has been portrayed as an enemy to all of humanity and as an antihero who looks to take down any other monster who foolishly thinks it can defeat him. But in Edwards’ movie, Godzilla is really the good guy who, as Dr. Serizawa puts it, is here to “restore balance” to the world, and he doesn’t even bother the battleships which sail alongside him as he swims from one country to the next. We all know Godzilla will end up destroying a lot of expensive real estate which will cause many insurance companies to go bankrupt, but we’re still on the monster’s side as we know the military won’t have enough firepower to bring down the MUTOs.

Edwards takes his sweet time in revealing Godzilla to the audience, and we don’t really get a good look at him until almost an hour into the movie. When he does finally appear onscreen and let out the biggest of roars anyone has ever heard, the audience I saw this movie with broke into a tremendous applause. This is the fiercest Godzilla has looked in many years, and the way he towers over the tallest of buildings had me in awe. This is the way Godzilla should look and feel.

One of the many problems I had with the 1998 “Godzilla” is it never felt like I was watching a real monster on the big screen. It felt more like I was watching a big special effect to where the creature didn’t even fill the least bit threatening. But in 2014’s “Godzilla,” the creature looks and feels real to where I kept praying the human characters would keep themselves from standing underneath its feet. The thought of being crushed by a creature that big is horrifying.

As for “Godzilla’s” human element, it’s not altogether strong, but I still liked how the characters came across as relatable even if they were at times clichéd. I also have to give the screenwriters credit as the movie starts as one thing but surprisingly turns into something else. Just when I thought I knew what kind of movie this “Godzilla” was going to be, it continued to surprise me as it went along. Yes, we all know how things will end, but getting there proved to be more fun than I expected.

It also helps there is a terrific cast of actors to keep us emotionally involved in the characters before and after Godzilla makes his grand entrance. You can never go wrong with Bryan Cranston whether it’s “Breaking Bad” or anything else, and he makes his character very empathetic when he could have been easily laughable. As for Aaron Taylor-Johnson, I almost didn’t recognize him after getting so used to how he looked in those “Kick Ass” movies, and he does good work portraying the typical heroic military character we always see in “Godzilla” movies. Ken Watanabe remains a tremendously gifted actor, and even though I thought stared in horror one too many times in this movie, he is a very welcome addition to this cast. And then there’s David Strathairn who plays Admiral William Stenz, and he can always be counted on to give the military leader the gravitas and humanity a character like this deserves.

As for the female characters, their roles are a bit underwritten and I didn’t get to see as much of them as I would have liked. Still, you have actresses like Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche and Sally Hawkins making them into memorable characters when they could have been ones who were easily forgettable.

This “Godzilla” does have its problems, and there are times I wished Edwards and company had injected just a little more humor into the proceedings. Also, the big fight between Godzilla and the MUTOs never seems to come soon enough. There’s a moment where it looks like the fight will begin, but then a door closes on the characters and on our view of the monsters, and that was really frustrating. The human characters may have wanted the door shut, but everyone in the audience was clamoring for it stay open so we could see one enormous mutated creature beat the crap out of another. And yes, there probably are some plot holes and gaps in logic in the story, but I really didn’t care. You don’t always go to these movies expecting a whole lot of logic anyway.

What makes this “Godzilla” work is how it is clearly made by filmmakers who have a great love of monster movies. Edwards, whose previous directorial effort was British science fiction film “Monsters,” has talked about just how much he loves those kinds of movies, and he does an excellent job of making Godzilla a truly terrifying force of nature. After being absent from the big screen for over a decade, it is great to see this iconic monster make such a tremendous comeback.

I also got to say watching “Godzilla” makes me really happy that I do not work for an insurance company. Seeing all those destroyed buildings and roads, I can see claim adjustors going nuts as they field one phone call after another regarding totaled Hondas, decimated condos and bridges which now really lead to nowhere because they’ve been destroyed. You can bet no one’s going to take any guff from someone who tells them their insurance policy doesn’t cover attacks from giant mutated monsters!

* * * out of * * * *

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