The Shape of Water (Del Toro; 2017)

Guillermo Del Toro’s style is easily and immediately recognizable but is also uniquely his and hard to definitively describe.  His stories are urban period faerie tales, but the period is never too far in the past.  His visuals are somehow disturbing and whimsical at the same time, which makes sense since his favorite subject matter is to follow an innocent character undergoing terrifying situations.  How great of a filmmaker he is is still very much up to debate, but even his harshest critics will admit that what he does behind a camera is impossible to imitate.  Del Toro’s imagination is distinctly and uniquely his.

In his latest film The Shape of Water, we are given the story of Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman whose job is to clean at a secret United States government facility.  It takes place during the height of the Cold War, so security at the facility is tight and paranoia is rampant.  The story begins when Elisa and her closest work friend Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) witness a large container being brought into the facility by Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon).  Inside the container is a dangerous aquatic creature the likes of which no one outside the South American tribe which worshipped it as a god has ever seen before.  Elisa and Zelda are charged with cleaning the room the creature is housed in, and over time Elisa finds herself drawn to it and feels the need to spend as much time in the creature’s company as she can.


In interviews, Del Toro has said that one of the major themes in The Shape of Water is that the only characters in the film who have no trouble communicating with each other are the two who are incapable of speech.  If I hadn’t heard him say it I’m not sure I would have gotten that exact interpretation of the film, but I did see something very similar and that is that the two who are looked down on by others as lesser find in each other the drive and strength to overcome those very people who think so little of them.  It’s a common theme in a romantic faerie tale but in Del Toro’s hands it ascends beyond its common roots, really allowing us to experience the unusual nature of the central relationship while still being able to truly empathize with their plight unlike the majority of films which give us a very standard situation and merely use a character quirk here and there or an exaggerated adventure in order to make people and events seem unusual.

None of this could have worked at all if not for Del Toro’s talent with visual arts and the incredible performances of The Shape of Water‘s cast.  Art director Nigel Churcher and his crew give us a world at once familiar and fantastic.  It uses sewers, industry, and urban sprawl in a way a typical faerie tale would use dungeons, castles, and forests.  They are places of both beauty and danger but here the dragon is a sociopathic boss, the princess an isolated mute, the prince a South American fishman, and the father a homosexual artist who needs to hide his nature from the world.  The special effects in The Shape of Water are used to fantastic effect.   The fishman really comes to life through the incredible motion capture of Doug Jones and the aquatic scenes are things of tranquil, slightly surreal beauty.  Finally, the cinematography by Dan Laustsen is among the best we’ve seen this year and Sidney Wolinski’s film editing literally had me dropping my jaw in amazement on quite a few occasions.  Most impressive of all is that never once does Del Toro use his visuals to impress or to brag, but only to tell the story in the best way possible.  He doesn’t seek to wow us with his technical skill.  He seeks to let his story wow us with its depth of emotion and realizes that the visuals are one of the best ways of conveying that, but it is the story not the special effects and camera work that should be the focus.


You can’t have depth of emotion without people, and the actors’ performances in the film rival the visuals in quality meaning they are also some of the very best of the year.   Octavia Spencer and Michael Shannon are the veterans of the award circuits here, and they give as excellent a performance as we have come to expect from them which still means that they give the weakest performances in the ensemble.  Yes, everyone else is that amazing.  Richard Jenkins is absolutely phenomenal as the gay artist who lives down the hall from Elisa and acts as a sort of combination best friend and father figure.  The way is homosexual is only an element of his personality, but the element that makes him a pariah, and not the focal point of his character is written and performed with exactly the nuance more roles like this should be.  Not once does the film call attention to his sexuality, if it weren’t for one scene it would be more wondered at than confirmed, but while the film never makes the mistake of suggesting that his sexuality is anywhere near the entirety of his character it does recognize that if it weren’t for his sexuality his life would be very different.

Michael Stuhlbarg is excellent as Dr. Robert Hoffstetler.  To say too much about his character and what makes his performance so spectacular would be to delve too deeply into spoiler territory.  He is one of the few characters who shows an honest affection for the creature and adds a fascinating dimension to the Cold War element of the story.  He’s one of those actors who has been around a while, and you will recognize his face, but never remains memorable.  I don’t know if The Shape of Water will change that for most audiences as his role is a non-flashy supporting one, but he certainly made me sit up and take notice.


Then there are Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones as the cross-species lovers.  Both are entirely mute and able to communicate only with action and some sign language and both give a performance that despite, or perhaps because of, this handicap show just how fake and manufactured most Hollywood romances are.  Without speech, we have to understand what draws these two together, what makes them perfect for each other, and what it is that makes them love each other so much they would sacrifice their lives for and entrust their lives to each other.  They not only pull it off, they make it so seamless and look so effortless that by the film’s end it doesn’t even seem unusual.

Final verdict:  The Shape of Water does for “Beauty and the Beast” what many were hoping the live-action Disney version would do earlier this year, though this version of the story is far too adult and candid for most children.  The Shape of Water may not be quite the masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth was, but it is definitely one of the best films in Guillermo Del Toro’s repertoire.  From script to visuals to acting there is not a single element in the film which isn’t masterfully done and the performances, in particular, are some for the ages.  The Shape of Water isn’t one for those who don’t like Del Toro’s style as this movie is his through and through, but for everyone else this is a brilliant, moving, and unique love story which will be remembered as a great film for a very long time.


Lady Bird (Gerwig; 2017)

Lady Bird has a lot in common with last year’s The Edge of Seventeen.  Both are teen movies focused on a central female character going through one of their last years of high school (Junior year in The Edge of Seventeen, Senior year in Lady Bird).  Both movies are smaller independent films.  Both movies feature the mother-daughter relationship of their primary character prominently, and most importantly neither movie views their protagonist as an angel, a tortured soul, nor a lovable scamp as is the standard for teen movies as long as the genre has existed.

There is one very significant and important difference (well, more than one, but one I’m going to mention) between the two, and that is while The Edge of Seventeen is so far as we know purely fictional, Lady Bird is the semi-autobiographical story of its writer and director Greta Gerwig.  Greta Gerwig is not the biggest of names in Hollywood, but she has acted in 40 films, written 10 screenplays, and Lady Bird marks her second appearance in the director’s chair, so while the name may not immediately be recognizable it’s probable you’ve at least seen her before.  As the last film I reviewed Roman J. Israel, Esq. showed, it’s very difficult for a writer/director to keep the distance from his own work needed to bring it an objective, critical eye, and I can’t imagine how much more difficult it must be when not only are you writing and directing the movie but also that that movie is about yourself in a transformational year of your life.  Greta Gerwig not only manages it, though, she truly impresses and makes it look effortless.


The one thing character studies have in common is, of course, their focus on a character and his or her personal journey.  They can have a standard plot in which the arc of the character mirrors a standard story arc complete with all the classic elements of story writing.  Or, they can be a more slice of life style piece in which putting the audience in the characters place is what is most important.  Lady Bird manages to be both.  Gerwig takes a year of her life and manages to be self-aware and objective enough to make that year an honest, sometimes brutally sometimes heartwarmingly so, look at a teenage girl yearning for independence from her family, but scared and unsure of exactly how to go about doing so and what the consequences will be once she succeeds.  She also knows enough about storytelling and dramatic license to give the story structure we rarely see in a film that relies so much on being so true to life.  She obviously distanced herself from the story at least a little as our protagonist is named Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan)  and not Greta Gerwig, but however much she distanced herself it was enough to allow her to make a story that paces itself like big studio manufactured biopic but with the genuine intimacy of a small indie piece.  Its insight into the emotions and thoughts of a young woman right on the cusp of adulthood is as deep as I’ve ever seen in a teen film, but that insight never once causes the movie to lose its light-hearted, comic tone and thus it remains thoroughly entertaining at the same time it causes us to raise our eyebrows and stroke our chins in thought and discovery.

It probably goes without saying that when a film has great insight into its characters that it implies those characters avoid generalities and stereotype in any form, but Lady Bird does give us some very real characters that will most definitely be recognizable by all, but refuse to fit neatly into any sort of box we may want to put them in.  It’s a film which seems to instinctive understand the thoughts and emotions which motivate us and therefore gives us characters that act and react organically to the world and the people around them rather than to what would make the story interesting, but whether due to an incredible storytelling instinct or due to luck that the events of Gerwin’s life just happened to make for a Hollywood story, those very organic actions still lead to an engaging story with very recognizable moments of self-discovery and excitement.


What I and many others loved about The Edge of Seventeen was how its central character was something of a self-absorbed jerk who made her own problems for the most part, and had plenty of people around her willing and wanting to help her but she refused them all purely so she could feel unique and make herself into a martyr.  When she discovers, in the end, the kind of person she was and manages to change it wasn’t entirely organic, but the message was such an insightful one, very unique Hollywood but all too familiar in real life, that it was refreshing to see it dealt with on the big screen.  Lady Bird gives us largely the same character and gives us largely the same message, but even more organically and taking the character study to the next level.  Lady Bird doesn’t just realize that this is a type of person we all deal with if we aren’t that person ourself, but it also gives more insight into why the self-imposed martyr feels they need to act that way and what it is that drives them to become so overly self-aware and self-absorbed.

One thing which Lady Bird does better than any film I’ve ever seen for sure is portray and understand the mother-daughter relationship.  I suppose never having been a teenage girl myself, I can’t speak to Lady Bird‘s authenticity in this regard with a great amount of authority, but I walked out of the theater feeling like I finally understood the feeling between mother and daughter that simultaneously makes them each others closest friends and also strongest rivals.  Never before had I so honestly seen the sort of tug of war involved in the mother-daughter relationship in which they at once become both a surrogate and a matter of pride for the other.  They each want the other to truly be their own person, but that comes into conflict with the fact that they would be happiest if that own person was exactly like themselves.


It goes without saying at this point that I think the cast of Lady Bird was remarkable, but while I may not need to say it, I should and I find it odd that I’ve written this much without saying so.  Saoirse Ronan as Christine “Lady Bird” herself is at once hysterical and captivating.  She portrays a girl who obviously is unsure of herself in nearly every way but feels she needs to hide that fact from the world excellently.  But, as nuanced as her performance is, Laurie Metcalfe as”Lady Bird’s” mother Marion McPherson is astounding.  If I did not know better I would assume that these two really were a mother-daughter pair and these were not roles they are playing, but that they are legitimately being captured on film.  Metcalfe plays her role with such a genuine hysterical love I have only recognized before in a parent, that it’s obvious she’s not only drawing on personal experience but that she’s well aware of how she really acts and reacts in her personal experience.  Lucas Hedges as “Lady Bird’s” first real boyfriend, Tracy Letts as her father, Odeya Rush and Kathryn Newton as her on again off again best friends, and honestly too many more to name without making this review look like a list of names from the Old Testament are all absolutely fantastic in their roles.  Gerwin must not just be an excellent writer but is also amazing as a casting director or at getting the most out of actor’s performances, or both.


Final verdict:  I could probably go on about Lady Bird, but I think you get the idea and this is already becoming the longest review I’ve ever written, so I’ll stop there.  As much as I gush about Lady Bird, it is not the best movie of the year, though it is definitely one of the best teen movies I have ever seen and a film which should appeal to nearly everyone but the most cynical.   It’s a film that relies entirely on its script and its performances, but when those are both so perfectly nuanced, insightful, funny, and entertaining that’s all you really need.  This is not Greta Gerwig’s first outing as a writer nor as a director, but this is the film for which she will be remembered for a very long time.  I wholeheartedly recommend Lady Bird to nearly everyone, and excitedly look forward to whatever Gerwig brings us next.




Battle of the Sexes (Dayton & Faris; 2017)

The story of Battle of the Sexes is a very well known one, well enough that I am going to be a little more free with spoilers in this review than I usually am so consider yourself forewarned on that front.  Battle of the Sexes is a biopic telling the story behind one of the most famous tennis matches in history – the one between fifty-five year-old Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) and twenty-nine year-old Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) which was broadcast to nine million viewers and became a symbol of the entire feminist movement in the United States.   The film starts on the day Billie Jean and her agent Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) find out that the Pacific Southwest Tournament was offering the women participants 15% the prize money men were getting despite the fact that women drew just as large of a crowd as men did for their matches.  They and many other female pros boycott the tournament and start the Women’s Tennis Association with its own tour, and with the first shots fired our story begins.

It goes without saying that Battle of the Sexes has strong feminist themes.  The entire story focuses on a group of women led by one particularly talented and popular woman who decide they’ve had enough with the rules men set down for them, then go on to prove in no uncertain terms that they can get along just fine on their own without the men getting involved, thank you very much, and not only that but that they can literally beat the men at their own game.   It’s also an excellent hindsight view of where feminism stood at the start of 1970’s, a movement which already had a lot of attention and momentum, but which was largely being seen as a faze and something of a joke by the men in power who honestly could not understand what women were upset about.  This story is about a lot more than just feminism in the ’70’s, though, and Battle of the Sexes does its job of showing us the other myriad forces involved admirably.


While women’s rights were at the forefront of the American consciousness at the time, gay rights were still very much overlooked.  Battle of the Sexes doesn’t address the issue of gay rights as much as it does show Billie Jean King’s very personal journey of her discovery of her sexual orientation and the very personal reasons she had for remaining in the closet as long as she did.  While the mores of the time must have certainly had some influence on Billie Jean, Battle of the Sexes is somewhat remarkable in the way it shows a life where shame is not the primary motivator in hiding your sexuality, but rather respect, love, and professionalism, all positive reasons making for a story causes you to admire Billie Jean King even more rather than pity her or feel shame for our culture.


The forces surrounding Bobby Riggs also shed light on a hot topic – depression and gambling addiction.  It would be easy given the feminist themes in the forefront of the film to make Bobby Riggs into a villain, but writer Simon Beaufoy dodges that temptation by showing Bobby Riggs to be a person haunted by his past and who will do anything to recapture his former glory and the way it made him feel.  It shows Riggs as a man who has nothing against women nor feminism, but who saw in what was going on in women’s tennis an opportunity to take center stage again and to fuel his love for high stakes competition.  While this makes him a comic character most of the time, the glimpses into his family life show us the greater truth behind a warm, friendly, loving man being chased by demons of his own making.


With the deluge of biopics being released right now, Battle of the Sexes sets itself apart largely by being the one that tries to most evenly split the difference where spectacle and realism are concerned, and for the most part it manages that.  The big name stars and the comedy and showmanship inherent in the story make for entertaining spectacle, while the screenplay gives us a depth to the characters and themes which could easily have been lacking.  This leaves us with a film that doesn’t have the sheer entertainment value which American Made gave us nor the remarkably insightful character studies of Strongerrather than looking the worse for not leaning one direction or the other, we end up with a film that will never be seen as great, but will have wide appeal.

Final verdict:  Battle of the Sexes gives us larger than life personalities, character studies and themes with true depth, the spectacle of sports, romance, empowerment – in short, it’s a film that very nearly has it all.  While having it all means that it doesn’t truly achieve greatness in any one way, it still gives us a film that should satisfy nearly everyone excepting perhaps the most obsessive action adventure devotee.  Battle of the Sexes is one of the easiest movies in a while for me to recommend, but don’t take that to mean that I think it’s exceptional, just that it’s a very well done film which should please nearly everyone.