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.


Coco (Unkrich & Molina; 2017)

Pixar’s latest Coco is the story of Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez), a Mexican boy who wants to be a musician but was born into a family of music-hating cobblers.   His long dead idol Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt) always told people that they needed to seize their moment, but when Miguel decides to do just that by showing what a great musician he is in front of everybody at a Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festival he instead becomes cursed and is sent to the Land of the Dead himself alongside a stray dog named Dante.

Since Toy Story in 1995, Pixar Studios have been the masters of bringing us formulaic but hilarious and heartwarming family entertainment with an emphasis on the family.  The standard Pixar story is one we’ve become incredibly familiar with – fish out of water characters are forced into and ultimately embrace something outside of their normal comfort zone and learn a lesson which makes them a better part of their community and a happier person – and, they have done it so well over and over again that except for a handful of missteps they are some of the most beloved family films ever put to screen.  They always manage to skew the familiar just enough that our brains don’t ever have to put too much effort into being entertained, but we also manage to come away with what seems like a new, original perspective every time.


Coco is quintessential Pixar.  By using Mexican folklore, and in particular their holiday and lore surrounding the afterlife, they give us the framework needed to make the familiar family-oriented story something new as well as finally giving Hispanic culture a much needed big budget major release representation.  The ties between familial generations and a passion for music give us the story element we need to relate to, and the spirit guides, flower petal bridges, and rules of the great beyond are what give Coco its spectacle and wonder.

The animation on display in Coco is not the best we’ve seen from the studio, but it is impressive in how much thought the animators put into the details of the afterlife and its color palette is at times a true wonder.  Having to work with primarily skeletal figures for the major characters, however, does tend to hamstring variety as when every character is a skeleton with eyeballs, the only real differentiating factors are height and clothing.  This makes for an animated film in which the best animation is often in the background as that is where the artists can truly let their creativity loose.


Coco‘s script is a heartwarming one, but aside from a neat bit of writing prestidigitation in which they change the film’s message part way through, it is all quite predictable.  It’s a fantastic script for children who may not have seen these particular plot twists over and over again and therefore will actually be surprised, but the adults taking the kids to the movie will have to rely more on the humor and charm of the movie over its story for their entertainment value.

Final verdict:  This review is a little shorter than normal because Coco is a Pixar movie through and through and most already know the drill.  You’ve seen the story over and over before, but the Pixar variations on the theme are so well handled per their usual craftsmanship that you can overlook and possibly even enjoy the film more despite that.  Coco will make you laugh, cry, and smile and it will make you do all three exactly when they want you to.  Sure, it’s a manipulative film, all Pixar films are, but with master manipulators like these at the helm it’s a pleasure to allow them to do so.


P.S. The short film before Coco, Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, was merely so-so.  More an advertisement for the upcoming Frozen 2 than anything else, it really didn’t have the usual low key pizzazz the Pixar opener’s usually do.  But, it does have excellent animation and Idina Menzel’s gorgeous vocals, so it gets at least a bit of a pass.  You have to watch it to get to the main event, anyway, so may as well enjoy it.

Baby Driver (Wright; 2017)

Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End, and Scott Pilgrim vs the World.  All four of these films are cult classics, if not just outright classics without the cult attached, and all four were written and directed by Edgar Wright.  That would make for an impressive enough resume, but what makes it even more impressive is that, for major motion pictures, that is its entirety  There is no Coen Brothers’ The Ladykillers, no Kurosawa’s Dreams, no Polanski’s The Ninth Gate, there is, so far no bad movie marring an otherwise perfect record.  So, when Edgar Wright’s new film Baby Driver was announced it was to a good deal of anticipation and fanfare, and I’m happy to say the fanfare is deserved and the perfect record is still intact.

The reason Edgar Wright keeps making classics is because he keeps sticking to what he does best and that is taking a genre and half paying homage, half satrizing, and stylizing the hell out of said genre while using it to skewer the way we live our lives.  Wright actually switches up the formula mildly, because while it is most certainly a stylized genre filck, there is little of the satire, humor, or society skewering which is half of Wright’s trademark style.  What Wright gives us this time is a slick, smart, but straightforward crime movie.  Baby (Andel Elgort) was orphaned at a very young age, and the auto accident which killed his parents left him with tinnitis (a permanent ringing in the ears) and an obsession with cars.  A run in with crime lord Doc (Kevin Spacey) at a slightly older, but still very young, age left Baby with a debt he had to repay and, so he now works as Doc’s permanent get away driver in a crew of otherwise constantly rotating criminals including Jon Hamm as Buddy, Eliza Gonzalez as Darling, and Jamie Foxx as Bats.


These characters are all compelling due to a real sense of motivation, dialogue that is both natural and clever, and performances that exemplify a commitment to the art of bringing a fictional person to life.  While there isn’t a bad performance in the bunch, it is Jon Hamm and Eliza Gonzalez who truly go above and beyond in Baby Driver and steal every single scene they are in as their Bonnie and Clyde-esque criminal lovers who eventually reveal themselves to be far more unstable than their charming exteriors would suggest.  These two give two of the most accurate portrayals of true sociopaths I’ve ever seen captured in film in the way they disarm even the viewer with their charisma and false empathy all the while caring about nothing beyond themselves.

The camerawork is also excellent here, though, a few of the action pieces which do not involve cars did get a little dark and muddled, allowing us to experience the intense pacing of Baby Driver with very little confusion or lack of perspective.  The excellent choreography of both the actual action pieces as well as the cameras which capture these pieces show a true area of growth for Wright as a film maker as, while he has always focused on action genres in his previous films, he has never before been given a budget this large nor a story which relies so much on truly death defying stunt work, and he handles it all at a level that embarrasses many directors who have been putting together high spectacle action films their entire careers (yes, I’m still angry at you for last week Michael Bay).


The use of music in the movie is also invigorating.  Due to Baby’s tinnitis, he listens to music throughout nearly the entire running time of the film to show that music is a never ending obsession of his because it drowns out the ringing in his ears, and other reasons which would enter into spoiler territory.  The music selection is mostly older, but it does run a gamut from the incredibly popular and overplayed to the “how have I never heard this song?, I love this band” level of exposure, and it really adds an additional level of fun to the film in very much the way the Awesome Mixes did in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies.

What really makes the film shine, though, is the way all of these elements are edited together into a cohesive whole.  We get why the characters are criminals, and we appreciate their motivations and quirks.  We ooh and ahh at the stunts and the excellent cinematography being used to capture them, and the tunes get our foots tapping and our heads bobbing .  When the car is spinning and the guns blazing in the rhythm of the hip hop beat as the graffiti going by in the background portrays the lyrics of song on the        I-Pod and the banter even starts to go along with the beat, that’s when we realize what a true work of love we are experiencing.  The visuals, acting, and screenwriting are all very well done, but the editing is the real masterwork on display.


All that is not to say Baby Driver doesn’t have its share of problems, though, and a couple fairly serious ones at that.  The first is that by removing Wright’s sense of satire, we really don’t have much more going on here than a remarkably pretty series of action set pieces broken up by bits of banter.  There is no lesson to be learned here, no exploration of character, and no real insight into our universe.  The love story is believable, but ultimately pretty banal for a movie, and even the pseudo familial ties ultimately are nothing more than an excuse for be involved in a certain power dynamic.

The other, and I feel slightly more serious, problem is one of pacing, though not a typical issue in which the director couldn’t quite get the timing of action versus plot advancement.  In Baby Driver we get incredible action right off the bat letting us see right away the creative and kinetic journey we have ahead of us, and while the film never ceases being intelligent, frantic, and stylish, it also never surpasses what it gives us at the start.  This leaves us with a movie that plateaus immediately and never really builds to a climactic resolution, leaving us a bit disappointed without really completely understanding why at the end.


Final verdict:  Edgar Wright continues his legacy of excellence with Baby Driver, but this most likely is a film that will remembered more as a film made by Edgar Wright than as a film which stands as great under its own merit.   Despite its problems, there is a lot more to like here than to dislike, an awful lot more, but this is also certainly a film that many will walk away from feeling it was overhyped and will suffer a hit of reputation due to this.  Baby Driver is a fun, stylish, fantastic crime movie which will leave nearly everyone satisfied.  Just understand that on the Edgar Wright scale, this is closer to The World’s End than Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz.

Sing (Lourdelet and Jennings; 2016)

Matthew McConaughey voices Buster Moon, a koala bear who owns the local theater and is doing what he can to return it to a state of profitability and respect.  Reese Witherspoon is a pig housewife who loves her family but often feels unappreciated.   Seth MacFarlaine voices Mike, a classically trained arrogant mouse who could use some lessons in humility. Scarlett Johannson is Ash, a teenage porcupine in a band with her boyfriend who disrespects her.  John C. Reilly is Eddie, Buster’s closest friend who wants to make an identity for himself instead of the one laid out before him by his rich family.    Taron Egerton is a gorilla whose father is a bank robber by trade, and Taron doesn’t want to follow in his footsteps. Tori Kelley plays Meena, a shy teenage elephant whose family wants her to realize that she is a talented person who deserves to be noticed.  All of these people meet when Buster decides the best way to revive his theater is through a live singing competition in which all these characters take part.  Does that sound like a lot?  Perhaps too much for a single movie to take on and do justice?  It absolutely is.

That isn’t even all the characters, stars, and story lines involved in this incredibly overstuffed animated feature which at its heart is really just an excuse for big name stars to sing some pop songs and make an easy paycheck.  Sing is the latest from Illumination, the company that has given us the Despicable Me films and The Secret Life of Pets from earlier this year.  Much like those films, Sing is an animated film which is fine for children, but nothing more than fine, and can entertain adults well enough that they won’t regret bringing their kids to the theater, but not so well that they don’t realize the entire length of the film they could be doing something much better with their time.


Such as napping.

As someone who has been crusading against animation as seen as being purely for children for some time now, I still realize that there is nothing at all wrong with cartoons made with children as the primary audience, however, Sing is a film with an arrogrant crooner, a frazzled housewife with 25 children, bank robbers, and loan sharks as main characters.  It’s lessons are practically non-existent except to say such light themes as “you shouldn’t rob banks” or “mom’s can occasionally be cool”.  Add to that the fact that much of the humor is aimed squarely at adults, and you have a movie too simple and slight for an adult audience, but with characters and situations children won’t really get, and it’s impossible to tell who this movie is for other than people who just want to watch animals with celebrity voices sing overplayed and slight pop songs.

The animation is bright and colorful, another clue that the primary audience of the film is the younger crowd, and does definitely have a high level of charm.  There isn’t much remarkable about the visual style outside of this, however, as it has nowhere near the attention to detail seen in Zootopia, the creativity and artistry of Kubo and the Two Strings, nor the incredible talent on display in Moana.  It’s obvious this isn’t the animators first film, but it is still incredibly generic and not particularly memorable.


The animators thought long and hard about each individual character, coming up with physical quirks and identifying characteristics for even the most minor of extras.

Sing is a movie that’s hard to recommend as anything other than something to keep your kids busy for a while or as background noise while you work on something which demands more of your attention.  There are too many stories going on for any to earn any level of even minor investment, lessons, themes, and allegory are non-existent, the characters are as generic as they can possibly be as is the plot, and the animation is eye catching, but little else.  The only thing which will entertain you is the music and the charm, both of which Sing does have in abundance, but while those can be enough to get a smile here and there, it’s not nearly enough to make this a movie worth visiting more than once, and even that once on Netflix or the like.

Rating:  4.0 out of 10