THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017) – Exceptional Love Story Mired by Meandering Plot, Characters

1

the-shape-of-water-poster-copy

I had heard and read very good things about THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017), the new movie by writer/director Guillermo del Toro, and since the inspiration behind del Toro making this movie was CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954), one of my all-time favorite horror movies, I was eager to see this one, and admittedly, I had high expectations for it.

Sadly, those expectations were not met.

THE SHAPE OF WATER tells a poignant love story.  Mute Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) makes the best of her uneventful life in 1962 Baltimore.  She enjoys a sweet friendship with her artist neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a man struggling with his own aging process and who can’t hold a job, due as we learn later to a drinking problem, but he is tender and caring towards Elisa.  When she leaves her apartment, she’s off to work as a janitor at a secret government laboratory, where her friend and fellow cleaner Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) looks out for her.

When Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) brings in an Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) he captured in the waters of South America and houses it in the part of the lab Elisa cleans, she finds herself instantly drawn to the creature and soon begins secretly meeting with it, as she quickly discovers that it is highly intelligent and can communicate with her.  Since both she and the creature are mute, they immediately bond with each other, so much so, that in the classic Beauty and the Beast tradition, they fall in love.

This creative love story is the main story told in THE SHAPE OF WATER, and it’s the one that works.  Everything about the relationship between Elisa and the creature worked for me, and it’s the best part of THE SHAPE OF WATER.  But it’s everything else about this movie, from its supporting characters to its subplots that I found seriously lacking, and as such, dragged this movie down several notches.

One of the reasons the love story works so well is the tender performance by Sally Hawkins as Elisa.  Even before she meets the creature, Elisa is a likable character, from the way she interacts with her friend Giles to the way she does her job.  And when she connects with the creature, it’s a natural connection since in spite of her bright disposition, she still feels alone, without someone to love.  More so, when suddenly the feelings between Elisa and the creature become deeper, I completely bought into the relationship, mostly because Sally Hawkins’ performance convinced me her feelings were genuine.

It’s an impressive performance by Hawkins, especially since she plays a character who cannot speak.  She is probably the most expressive of any character in the movie. She’s certainly the most memorable character, and her performance is the best part of the movie.

The other reason the love story works is the writing by screenwriters Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor. The idea of taking an amphibious/human hybrid creature and showing off its intelligent and emotional side rather than turning it into just another movie monster, is a good one and one that I applaud.  I enjoyed the Amphibian Man here, and I was completely into the love story between this creature and Elisa.  Both the concept and the writing was refreshing and thought-provoking. My only wish is that they would have taken it even further and allowed us to learn even more about this mysterious creature from the sea.

And the Amphibian Man looks cool as well.  However, as played by Doug Jones, I was certainly reminded of a very similar character Jones played in another Guillermo del Toro movie, Abe Sapien in HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY (2008).  The Amphibian Man here is clearly reminiscent of Abe Sapien, and so as much as I liked his look, it’s not entirely original.

Jones makes his living playing creatures and aliens, as he also played The Bye Bye Man in the dreadful horror movie THE BYE BYE MAN (2017), as well as the ghoul in OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL (2016), among others.  He currently stars as Saru in the latest Star Trek TV show, STAR TREK: DISCOVERY (2017-18), again hidden under extensive make-up.  Jones is fine as the Amphibian Man, but it’s nothing I haven’t seen him do before.

But the rest of THE SHAPE OF WATER simply didn’t work for me.  Neither the rest of the characters or storylines drew me in.

Michael Shannon’s villain Colonel Richard Strickland is far too one-dimensional to be convincing.  He’s your standard military bad guy.  Even scences showing him at home with his wife and kids do nothing to lighten his Neegan-like portrayal of a vicious, close-minded bully.

Now, Richard Jenkins’ Giles was a character that I did like, but the story spends far too much time on his back story, when he’s simply not as integral to the main plot as Elisa. During the first half of the movie, a lot of time is spent on his visits to a diner, because he’s attracted to the young man working there, and we follow him as he tries to get his job back.  The point seems to be to show that like Elisa he’s a fellow outcast, but the story tends to meander off the main path and would have been better served to remain focused on Elisa and the creature. When the focus is on them, the movie is much more compelling.

Which brings me to the story. As much as liked the screenplay when it relayed the story of Elisa and the Amphibious Man, I found myself scratching my head about its other choices. The presence of Octavia Spencer in the role of Elisa’s friend Zelda immediately brought to mind Spencer’s work in THE HELP (2011) and HIDDEN FIGURES (2016), two superior films which dealt with racism.

THE SHAPE OF WATER also plays the race card, but only superficially.  We see Octavia Spencer’s character dealing with it, and we also see a couple of other scenes showing prevalent racist attitudes in 1962.  The point again seems to be that the cruelty which villain Richard Strickland shows the Amphibian Man wasn’t specific to rare aquatic creatures but to fellow humanity.  But in this movie these scenes seem so out of place, I think mostly because one thing we do not see is Elisa’s reaction to them.  It’s not part of her story, here.

Likewise, since it’s the height of the Cold War, Soviet spies are actively trying to steal U.S. secrets and are very interested in stealing the Amphibian Man from the Americans, and so we are introduced to as it turns out a sympathetic Soviet scientist Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) who, like Elisa, finds himself wanting to help the creature rather than turn it over to his Soviet contacts.  But these scenes don’t really work either. Like the other subplots, they seem out of place and take away from the movie’s main focus, the love story.

I know this will sound like sacrilege to a lot of movie fans, but I’m not the biggest fan of Guillermo del Toro’s work.  I loved both his HELLBOY movies, but for me, that’s about it. Even his well-regarded PAN’S LABRYNTH (2006) didn’t do a whole lot for me. So, in a way, I’m not really surprised I didn’t love THE SHAPE OF WATER.  I’m just not a fan of the way del Toro tells a story.

That being said, the love story between Elisa and the Amphibian Man is touching and extremely well-done.  It’s everything else in this movie that doesn’t really work for me.

To make the love story here the centerpiece of the movie, the supporting characters and story should be built around this main story in order to support it, but that’s not what happens here. Instead, the other characters and storylines seem out of place and do nothing but distract from the main and much better love story in the film.

As a result, THE SHAPE OF WATER is a mixed bag.

Its love story is exceptional. If only the rest of the movie had been the same.

—END—

 

 

Advertisements

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS (2016) – Thought-Provoking Creative Exercise in Moviemaking

0

nocturnal_animals

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, the new thriller by writer/director Tom Ford, and starring Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal, is the type of movie that gives its audience lots to think about, and the more you think about it the more you like it.

I’m still thinking about it.

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS opens with one of the most difficult-to-watch opening credits you’ll ever see in a movie.  The credits play over images of naked obese women dancing, in slow motion with nothing left to the imagination.  When the credits end, it’s revealed that these women are part of a modern art exhibit hosted by the film’s main character, art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams).

But even the reason for this choice of exhibit, these opening credit images, is something to think about, expecially when you juxtapose the outward ugliness and happy faces of these obese women with main character Susan Morrow’s outward beauty and internal sorrow.

So, Susan Morrow is a very successful art dealer and gallery owner, but she’s also terribly unhappy.  Her current marriage with the handsome and successful Hutton Morrow (Armie Hammer) is not going well, as her hubby is having an affair.  She’s also not happy with her career.

In the midst of all this, she receives a package from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), a novel he has written entitled Nocturnal Animals, which he has dedicated to her.  She starts reading it and is immediately captivated by the story, which we see unfold on screen.  A man Tony Hastings (also played by Jake Gyllenhaal) and his wife and daughter are driving along a lonely stretch of Texas highway when they cross paths with a carload of unsavory characters who force them off the road.

After a terse and very uncomfortable conversation, the three men, led by an aggressive sociocapth named Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) abduct Tony’s wife and daughter.  What follows and what horrible things happen to Tony and his family make up the bulk of the novel.

To Susan, it’s clear that this novel is symbolic of what happened to Edward in their marriage, specifically what she did to Edward as she ended their marriage.  She begins to think back to that time, when she and Edward were married, and these scenes are shown via flashback.

There are three stories being told in NOCTURNAL ANIMALS:  Susan’s present day predicament, dealing with her crumbling marriage and unsatisfying art career, the novel, which tells the fictional story of Tony — by far the most compelling part of the movie—, and Susan’s looking back at her first marriage to Edward.

Does the telling of all three stories work?  Do they seamlessly make up one terrific movie?  Not exactly, because there are certainly flaws here.  But NOCTURNAL ANIMALS is such a creative ambitious movie it’s easy to look past them.

The acting is excellent.  I’m a huge fan of Amy Adams and she doesn’t disappoint here at all.  Susan is a terribly unhappy character, and Adams captures this sadness brilliantly.  The entire movie is steeped in sadness, all the way down to its final shot.

By the far, the best story in the movie is the fictional one told in Edward’s novel.  That story also features the best acting in the movie.  Jake Gyllenhaal is very good as tormented husband Tony, the fictional counterpart of Edward.  Aaron Taylor-Johnson knocks it out of the park as the unhinged Ray.  Even better than both these guys is Michael Shannon as rogue law man Bobby Andes, who makes it his mission to hunt down Ray and his friends and bring them to justice.

I found Shannon’s performance mesmerizing.  The best part is he lifts Bobby above the usual rogue law man character and makes him nuanced enough to stand on his own.  He really makes him a real person, which is pretty funny when you think about it, since Shannon is playing a fictional character in a novel!  His Bobby acts and looks like he walked off the set of another recent movie involving crime in Texas, HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016), starring Jeff Bridges and Chris Pine, which came out earlier this year.

But the problem I had with this part of the movie is as good as it is, we know from the get-go that what we are watching is part of a fictional novel being read by Susan, and so while this is certainly creative, it also takes aways from the drama.  I was never as invested in these characters as I otherwise would have been, since I knew they weren’t real.

On the other hand, it’s clear that this story about Tony written by Edward is symbolic of what happened to his marriage with Susan, and how it impacted him.  As we see in the flashbacks, Susan ended their marriage in a truly horrible way.

It’s hinted at in the movie that Susan feels slightly threatened by the book, that she views its story as Edward seeking revenge against her.  I didn’t think this was played up enough in the movie.  I never got the sense Edward was a threatening person, nor did I feel Susan’s life was in danger because of him, which is too bad because this only would have added to the movie.

The ending to NOCTURNAL ANIMALS is a bold one and no doubt will leave some viewers upset, but I really liked it.  A running theme in the movie is how weak Edward is supposed to be.  At first, Susan defends her husband, saying he’s not weak but simply sensitive, but later, she changes her tune and even she is calling him weak.  The ending is Edward’s way of answering that accusation.

I enjoyed Tom Ford’s direction here.  As I said, he crafts the film so both visually and thematically it gives you a lot to think about. Likewise, it’s an excellent script by Ford, based on a novel by Austin Wright.  It tells three stories, all of them multi-layered, and it’s ambitious in its execution, even though I don’t think it all worked .

Even so, most mainstream movies today don’t require much brainwork, so it’s always refreshing to come across one that does.

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS is not a perfect movie, and it’s certainly not a crowd-pleaser or the type of movie you want to see on a date.  But it is a thought-provoking creative exercise in movie-making that succeeds in telling a very sad story.

And it is sad, from beginning to end.  Relentlessly sad.  It also does a fine job capturing the pain and sadness that goes with divorce and its aftermath.

You may not think you like this one as you walk out the theater, but if you give it some thought, and let some of the scenes seep into your consciousness afterwards, and if you ponder what it all means, you’ll find the answers add up to a satisfying conclusion.

One thing is for certain.  NOCTURNAL ANIMALS will stay with you long after you’ve left the theater.

—END—