Sunday, December 31, 2017

SEA OF LOVE: a review of "The Shape Of Water"

Story by Guillermo del Toro
Screenplay Written by Guillermo del Toro & Vanessa Taylor
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
**** (four stars)

What a blissfully weird and undeniably wonderful film this is!!

The movie year of 2017 has proven itself to be a year of re-invention, that is, the re-inventing of genres and film styles that have, at their worst, been run into the ground. For me, filmmakers like Jordan Peele ("Get Out"), Christopher Nolan ("Dunkirk"), Edgar Wright ("Baby Driver"), Patty Jenkins ("Wonder Woman"), actor/writer Kumail Nanjiani ("The Big Sick") and for my money, the truly gifted Rian Johnson ("Star Wars: The Last Jedi") have all released films throughout the year that expertly rejuvenated the horror genre, the war film, the car chase action thriller, the superhero epic, the romantic comedy and even "Star Wars" itself with superlative amounts of invention, introspection and inspiration, as they all honored the standards of their respective genres while also discovering ways to become personal, and even fully idiosyncratic artistic statements in their own respective rights.

With Writer/Director Guillermo del Toro's "The Shape Of Water," we arrive with the classic monster movie, which in this case, is propelled by a "Beauty and the Beast" narrative which is as old as the hills, and to be honest with you, the framework did keep me a bit at arms length during the film's exquisitely presented yet familiar first half. Yet, deceptively familiar.

What del Toro's film achieved for me was how brilliantly it snuck up on me right at the point when I felt that I had seen it all before and could devise its every next move. But, as with all of the aforementioned filmmakers listed above, del Tor blindsided me over and again with an open-hearted creativity and flat out storytelling audacity that made the downright bizarre some of the most deliriously romantic and fluidly poetic visions I have seen in a move this year. Easily his finest, most richly presented film since the outstanding "Pan's Labyrinth" (2006), Guillermo del Toro's "The  Shape Of Water" is a marvelous and surprisingly malleable experience, much like the element depicted within the film's title.

Set during the Cold War of the early 1960's, "The Shape Of Water stars the astounding Sally Hawkins, in an undeniably Oscar caliber performance as Elisa Esposito, a mute, who lives in an apartment above a movie theater and works the night shift as a cleaning lady for a secret government laboratory in Baltimore.

Elisa's lonely life is the epitome of the mundane as her daily routine, from her work, to her eating habits starring an ever present hard-boiled egg to even her extremely private morning bath-time ritual are forever unchanged, her solace seemingly only arriving with her two trusted friends: her co-worker and sign language interpreter Zelda (an excellent Octavia Spencer) and her neighbor Giles (the brilliant Richard Jenkins), an artist and closeted homosexual.

Elisa's world begins to open wider with the arrival of a captured amphibious humanoid creature (played by Doug Jones), referred to as the "Asset" and housed within a tank under the command of the wrathful Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon at his most vicious). Soon, Elisa and the creature begin to communicate and formulate a bond through her surreptitious visits to his tank, where he is imprisoned as she feeds him her eggs, plays music for him and speaks through sign language.

As the creature's life is threatened, under the pretense of scientific experiments and exploration, Elisa, with Zelda and Giles in tow, hatches a plot to free the monster.

In essence, this plot description is what is delivered within the film's trailer and truth be told, when I first saw the trailers, I was not terribly inspired to see this film despite Guillermo del Toro's pedigree. As previously stated, the film was not quite reaching me for its first half as the familiarity of the plot was not feeling to transcend its genre trappings, regardless of the facts that every single performance within the film to that point had been uniformly excellent, the screenplay was beautifully written, and del Toro's visual presentation, as aided by Cinematographer Dan Laustsen, made "The Shape Of Water" flow as lusciously as a Technicolor fantasy of old.

Even so, I felt that I was seeing something that I had already seen in films like Steven Spielberg's timeless "E.T.: The Extraterrestrial" (1982) or even Ron Howard's "Splash" (1984). Clearly, del Toro designed his film to work in tandem with the classic films and  monsters that he loves as well as inspired him, most notably in this case "The Creature From The Black Lagoon" (1954), but what would exist beside an expertly rendered homage?

Yet, and as I also previously stated, the film truly snuck up on me.

Dear readers, it was definitely more than foolish of me to underestimate a filmmaker and storyteller on the level as Guillermo del Toro but I did.  That being said, you can only imagine how happy was I to witness precisely how del Toro developed and deepened his story in ways that allowed him to utilize his personal aesthetic, from the fantastic to the grotesque, transforming what was familiar into something that truly felt as if it was a dream magically plucked from del Toro's brain and miraculously displayed upon the silver screen.

I wish that I felt comfortable enough divulging more specifically about the sights (some of which are absolutely dazzling) and therefore, the fully earned emotions unearthed throughout "The Shape Of Water," But that would be unfair to all of you for I wish you to be as transported as I was. So curiously and courageously transported by a vision that proved itself to be as bizarre as it is challenging and poignant.

First of all, Guillermo del Toro has again provided us with a narrative that forces us to question precisely what is a monster: the being that looks disturbing and strange upon the surface or the one that appears to be "normal." That very dichotomy is further explored into areas of individualized dualities contained within public and hidden private personas and even further still, when delving into elements of interpersonal intimacies.

Secondly, I also admired how del Toro's film used the creature as a catalyst to explore the social politics of the era (and therefore our turbulent 21st century present) by presenting a tale where marginalized individuals are all attempting to not only stake their individual claims but to also survive within a violently intolerant world.

Again, I remain somewhat cagey as to not produce spoilers, but the magic of "The Shape Of Water," as I evidenced in the film's second half, allowed me to understand how del Toro had crafted his film to reveal itself through certain plot points and character details which fully informed everything I had seen in the film's first half bringing everything full circle rapturously by the film's aching conclusion.

Sally Hawkins is absolutely wondrous as she beautifully delivers a full, three dimensional performance that allows us to witness not solely the arc of Elisa but the depth of her inner world from her timidness to her determination as well as her strength, her moxie, her dreams, her sexuality, her bravery and the enormity of her empathy. The soul of the film rests within her every look, expression, motion and emotion as her every discovery as Elisa becomes our own, and in doing so, we are euphorically swept away. Simply stated, Sally Hawkins' performance is so complete that it truly feels like we are hearing her throughout the entire film even though she never utters one word.

What is water? It has the ability to exist within three distinct forms of liquid, gas, or as a solid.  Water can be a tranquil substance or unforgiving with its power. It can exist as a drip, as something shallow or with vast, endless depth. Guillermo del Toro's "The Shape Of Water" unfolds just like its titular element as it is a film that triumphantly grows, subsides, deepens, swallows, drowns, envelops, and cleanses. And isn't that what all of the very best stories do to us when they are told as grandly and as personally as this one?

Guillermo del Toro's "The Shape Of Water" is one of my favorite films of 2017.