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

HIDDEN FIGURES (2017) – Powerful Movie Has A lot To Say About Race Relations, Gender Roles, NASA.

1

hidden-figures

I finished 2016 with two terrific movies, LA LA LAND (2016) and MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016).  Now, to begin 2017, I’ve seen a movie equally as good as those two.

HIDDEN FIGURES is an exceptional movie, even better than some critics are giving it credit for.

HIDDEN FIGURES is the true story of three African-American women who worked for NASA as mathematicians in the early 1960s and were instrumental in launching the space campaign, specifically the first orbiting flight by astronaut John Glenn.

It’s  the early 1960s, and Katherine Johnson (Taraji P.Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) all work for NASA as “human computers,” toiling in the background, working nonstop to verify the math for their white male superiors.

Katherine’s big break comes when she goes to work for Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) who’s leading a frustrated group of NASA scientists and mathematicians, fighting a losing battle against a Soviet space program which seems to celebrate one success after another, while NASA is stuck in failure.

At one point in the film, Harrison says he refuses to believe that the Soviets are smarter and better than his people, and he interprets this to mean they’re not working hard enough, and so he puts his team on notice that they will work nonstop and through weekends until they get the job done.

Katherine’s math skills soon become noticeable not only to Harrison but also to astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) who after meeting her is so impressed he later personally requests her expertise to validate the math before he makes his historic flight into space.

Katherine’s achievements are all the more impressive because she has to overcome both racial and gender prejudices to accomplish them.  For instance, she has to suffer through the indignity of having a separate coffee pot labeled “colored” which no one will even touch.  There’s also no “colored” bathrooms in the building, so in order to use the bathroom she has to run nearly six blocks in her heels and back, something that is not noticed until Harrison chews her out for being missing from her desk for so long.  When he asks her where she goes, she tells him the bathroom, to which he snaps at her about what the heck takes her so long.  Which sets up one of the best scenes in the movie where she lets loose in an emotional tirade where she finally explains the whole bathroom situation.

An equally powerful scene follows where we see Harrison take a sledge-hammer to the “colored” bathroom sign, declaring “No more segregated bathrooms.  We all pee the same color at NASA.”

Meanwhile, Dorothy finds herself working as a supervisor to the “computers” but without the title or the pay which the position warrants.  Later, when an IBM computer is installed at NASA, with plans on replacing the human computers, Dorothy takes the initiative to read up on the device, and she self-teaches herself to the point where she can operate the machine better than the IBM technicians.  She use this new knowledge to keep her “girls” employed, as she trains them how to operate the IBM computers.

And Mary Jackson, inspired by her superior, a  Jewish man who tells her not to give up, that twenty years earlier he was in a Nazi concentration camp, and now he’s sending rockets to the moon, attempts to earn a college degree so she can join her fellow mathematicians and not simply be a human computer.  But to do so she will need to attend an all white school, which means she needs a judge to give her special permission.

HIDDEN FIGURES is an inspiring movie that works on multiple levels.  It has a lot to say about race relations and overcoming prejudices, as well as what it took to make NASA’s early space flights a success.  It’s SELMA (2014) meets APOLLO 13 (1995).

The acting is wonderful.

Taraji P. Henson shines as Katherine G. Johnson.  Henson makes Katherine a strong-willed woman who is both a single mother and a brilliant mathematician.  She also shows off the character’s vulnerabilities, and we get to see her softer side in a romance subplot where she becomes involved with a handsome military man, Colonel Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali).  She also makes Katherine, in spite of her nerdiness, adorable and sexy .

Henson currently stars in the TV show EMPIRE, and she previously starred in the show PERSON OF INTEREST (2011-2015).  I last saw her in the movie NO GOOD DEED (2014), a thriller in which she co-starred with Idris Elba, a film that I didn’t like very much.  She didn’t wow me at all in that movie, but here in HIDDEN FIGURES she’s brilliant.

Octavia Spencer is nearly as good as Dorothy Vaughan, who is probably the strongest of the three women and is seen as the glue which holds them together.  Spencer won an Oscar for her supporting role in THE HELP (2011), and while she probably won’t win an Oscar here, she’s still very good.

Equally as powerful as Henson and Spencer is Janelle Monae as Mary Jackson.  As Jackson, Monae gets some of the best lines in the movie.  Her scene in court as she attempts to convince a white judge to rule in her favor, to allow her to attend class at an all-white school, is also one of the more powerful scenes in the film.

Kevin Costner adds strong support as hard-nosed NASA man Al Harrison. He’s abrupt, no-nonsense, and heartless, and so later when even he is won over by Katherine, it’s all the more impressive.

Jim Parson, Sheldon on the TV show THE BIG BANG THEORY, plays it straight here as Paul Stafford, a white mathematician working for Al Harrison who feels jealous and threatened by Katherine.  He does a nice job in the role. Glen Powell also enjoys some fine moments as young astronaut John Glenn, a performance made even more touching since Glenn just passed away on December 8, 2016.

And Mahershala Ali who seems to be popping up everywhere these days also adds distinguished support as Colonel Jim Johnson, the man who falls in love with Katherine. Ali has been equally impressive on the TV shows HOUSE OF CARDS as Remy Danton, and as the villain “Cottonmouth” on the stylish Marvel TV show LUKE CAGE.  Of course, Ali is also starring in the highly touted and critically acclaimed movie MOONLIGHT (2016) a film which is expected to compete for Best Picture this year.  It’s a film I missed, because sadly, it did not play near me for very long.

Kirsten Dunst also shows up as Vivien Mitchell, the woman who Dorothy and her “human computers” have to report to, and she’s not too sympathetic to their plight, at least not at first.  Dunst is in her thirties now.  It seems like only yesterday she was Mary Jane in the Tobey Maguire SPIDERMAN movies. Time flies.

Theodore Melfi does a fine job directing this one.  It looks good as a 1960s period piece, and Melfi makes full use of some vivid colors here.  He also does a nice job balancing the stories of the three women. Melfi’s previous film was ST. VINCENT (2014), a comedy-drama starring Bill Murray, a film I liked a lot.  I enjoyed HIDDEN FIGURES even more.

Melfi also co-wrote the screenplay to HIDDEN FIGURES, along with Allison Schroeder, based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly.  It’s a strong script which strikes a nice balance between a story about race relations, prejudice, against both race and gender, and an exciting tale about the early space program. It also works as a character study of the three women in the story, as we really get to know and like these women a lot.

Some critics have complained that this movie doesn’t get dark enough, that the race issues are glossed over and sugar-coated to earn the film’s PG rating.  I disagree.  The sequence, for example, involving Katherine’s having to use a “colored” bathroom in a building located six blocks from where she works is powerful as is.  You don’t need bloodshed and strong language to get the point.

As such, with a PG rating, the important message that HIDDEN FIGURES presents can also be viewed by those younger than 13 years old.

HIDDEN FIGURES is a powerful movie, with a lot to say about race relations.  It also delivers a positive and much-needed message to the world today,  a world where race still divides rather than unites.

2017 has just begun.  There are a lot more movies to go, but HIDDEN FIGURES was the first movie I saw this year, and it’s instantly one of my favorites.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.