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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

Elle (Verhoeven; 2016)

The first thing we see in Elle is the face of a charcoal colored cat staring straight ahead as we hear sexual noises coming from off screen.  The noises stop and we cut to two people lying on the hardwood floor of a kitchen, the man is wearing all black, including a ski mask, he stands zipping up his pants and runs off as the woman remains lying on the floor in an obvious state of shock.  It occurs to us immediately that what had just happened was a rape, but we don’t witness the rape, we start the story immediately afterward.  This is a brilliant opening as we aren’t focused on the act itself, but rather we get to exist in the aftermath alongside our protagonist Michéle LeBlanc (Isabelle Huppert).

Isabelle Huppert gives a performance here that can only be described as sublime.  Elle deals with a very sensitive topic in a fashion more nuanced than most people think is possible and the handling of that topic hinges entirely on Huppert’s performance.  Not only does she prove to be up to the task, she gives us a character that can somehow horrify and inspire us at the same time, someone who we have all the sympathy in the world for even as we find her repellent to a nearly equal degree.  It’s rare that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honors an actor in a non-American film, but there is a lot of buzz surrounding Isabelle Huppert for this year’s ceremony, and well there should be. This is not just a fully formed, well thought out character with a massive amount of depth, but it’s also a performance and a character that has to express mixed and uncomfortable feelings about a nearly untouchable hot topic issue, and she does this as well with grace, maturity, and style without even a hint of apology.1200

Why should there be an apology?  Well, there shouldn’t, but this film deals with its oh=so touchy themes in a manner that nearly everyone could be offended on some level.  It portrays a 50 year-old woman as a still very sexual person, so sexual that her rape is more about her safety at home than about her feeling violated.  She is shown to be a powerful woman, she runs a video game company and the game they are currently working on is one which shows images and scenes which would work feminists angry at the video game industry into an absolute tizzy, and she sleeps with whomever she wants whenever she wants and thinks nothing of it until her dalliance may ruin a friendship or working relationship somewhere down the road.  In short, she is a woman who acts just like rich men are perceived and portrayed in the media and in culture today.  So the rape doesn’t affect her and isn’t treated in the story in a stereotypical way.  Michéle does feel violated, yes, and she does want to find her attacker, but she is never a victim, and not just due to keeping up a tough outer exterior, she honestly never feels like one.  The thought that must have been put into the character of Michéle really shows as we see her as the most rich, powerful, sexual, and confident person in a world populated almost entirely by men, and that not only gives us many different motives to consider, but also allows for a plot that can flow naturally without the writer and director having to search for coincidences and contrivances to move events along.

The early plot of Elle involves the investigation into who performed the rape, bringing to the forefront many of the possible motivations in the mind of a rapist.  We suspect an ex-husband who feels slighted, an employee who is angry at her for the way she is running the company, a spurned admirer, and the list continues.   More important than the mind of the potential rapists, however, is the mind of Michéle herself.  In exploring the aftermath of a vicious crime there isn’t just one possible response despite what Hollywood often makes us think.  Michéle does not go to the police, she does not change her personal nor professional life much at all except to try and reason out who her attacker could be, she is very casual in her mentioning of the crime to her friends and family.  This is not a Lifetime channel style response to a rape, and this is where a great deal of the shock and heart of Elle lives, in the fact that this movie does not rely on stereotype and expectations but on using the flaws, strengths, quirks, perversions, and humanity of its characters to give us a far more real story than we are used to seeing, particularly when a plot involving a touchy subject is on display.

Past this point, I am going to mention specific plot points of Elle that could lead to your figuring out the central mystery of the movie before it is revealed.  I will not spoil the movie, but I will be giving major clues, so read more at your own risk.

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If it’s the incredibly complex and true characters and their responses that make the plot of Elle what it is, though, the true themes of the film rear their head going into the final third of the film.   Roughly two thirds of the way through the film the identity of the rapist is discovered, and we find that it is a man Michéle has been attracted to all along, and rather than changing her relationship with this man, it just changes her method of seduction, as she now uses the knowledge of the nature of their relationship she has to move the dynamic from coy and playful to something more perverse, dangerous, and reliant on power dynamics.  Michéle is such a powerful woman so in touch with her own sexual nature that all the rape ultimately does is change the way she flirts with her rapist.  It is from here on that we see that the film really isn’t about rape at all, nor really even about sex, but about power.  Michéle is such a powerful person that even something as devastating as a rape can’t take her confidence away from her, it just becomes another tool she uses to get what she wants.

That is the final piece of the puzzle in Elle and what it wants to say.  Once we see that it’s ultimately about power we understand why we have a protagonist who is so unsympathetic in a film that seems like it demands sympathy to work.  Michéle is a seriously flawed person.  She betrays those closest to her, she sabotages others’ lives to get her way or often just because she can, she gives no thought to the feelings and desires of those around her, Michéle is very much a textbook sociopath.  Yet, she is also the victim of the most heinous crime which leaves its victim alive afterward and this naturally makes us sympathetic to her.   If this were any other film which began in any other way Michéle would almost certainly be the villain, but Elle is a film brave enough to go into places so dark in such a well thought out way that we get to experience the life of a sociopath through the eyes of a sociopath, and who ever sees themselves as the villain of their own story?

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Final recommendation:  Elle is one of the bravest, no-nonsense films I have ever seen.  I really do not think this film could have been made in Hollywood for a great many reasons.  It has an older female protagonist very much in touch with her sexuality, power, and desires.  It’s a film that shows there is a more fine line between misogyny and feminism than one would ever expect, and I still can’t say with any authority which side of that line this film falls on.  It’s a film that brazenly displays the relationship between sex and power unapologetically.  This is a dark, dark film that is often very funny, often uncomfortable, and always challenging.  If you are not up for a challenge, if you just feel the need for entertainment, then this is not one to watch, but if you want to see something that will make you rethink sexual politics and power, something truly provacative, Elle is an absolute must see.