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.


Ghostbusters (Feig; 2016)

We love it when Hollywood does a remake.  I’m not being facetious.  While a great many of us will wail and scream every time a classic film is redone in Hollywood asking why can’t Hollywood ever do anything original anymore (the answer is that Hollywood has rarely ever done anything original even from its very earliest days), those are the same films that tend to make the most money for their producers.   We go see them out of curiosity, out of nostalgia, out of being dragged to them by a friend or significant other, but we go see them in droves.  But the outcry that accompanied the announcement of, and even more so after the first trailer for, this version of Ghostbusters nearly made it sound as if Birth of a Nation was being remade and the theme of how wonderful the Ku Klux Klan is was being left in.  Was it due to misogyny, had Hollywood messed with one classic too many, or was the trailer really just that bad?

A remake can take on many forms from a thorough reworking for modern audiences to a shot for shot replica of the original.  In this version of Ghostbusters we have the same logo, same uniforms, same car, same technology, and, of course, lots of ghosts, but the characters and plot are entirely original.  Which makes this version of Ghostbusters not so much a remake as an homage.


Well, homage with some fan service, but mostly homage.

The original Ghostbusters is a classic primarily due to the charismatic portrayal of its misfit characters by a group of comic geniuses (Dan Akyroyd, Harold Ramis, and Bill Murray, lest you either forgot or have somehow avoided seeing Ghostbusters and are reading this review entirely by mistake) combined with a script with fantastic dialogue, an original concept, and absolutely perfect pacing.  Obviously, we can’t have the original concept anymore, and this cast, while pretty damn good, doesn’t quite have the genius of the original, and the pacing here is far from perfect.  Kristen Wiig (as Erin Gilbert) does admirably with her part, especially given the fact that the most interesting feature of her character is somehow completely forgotten about roughly 20 minutes into the film’s running time, Leslie Jones is really funny as Patty Tolan, even if her role was a little too stereotypical to make me really feel comfortable with laughing at it, and Kate McKinnon absolutely steals the show out from everybody with her turn as the group’s engineer Jillian Holtzman.  The great disappointment here is from Melissa McCarthy as the group’s ringleader Abby Yates.  She seemed off during the entire movie, flipping back and forth from either being too subdued or too over the top and never hitting the tone she needed to make us laugh, but not be so cartoonish as to make us notice.


And. Chris Hemsworth shows us he can be funny!  Not all the time, but he can be!

The writing very much matches the acting here.  It’s more good than bad, and the new plot may be the best Ghostbusters plot so far, but the pacing is uneven, subplots start then are forgotten about. and the dialogue can go from fantastic to absolutely cheap.  The humor is all over the place,as well, though this isn’t a complaint so much as an observation as the different types of humor are welcome and also are very much hit or miss.  There are some very cerebral jokes that much of the audience may not even recognize as gags without a frame of reference, and there is the most crass of humor to be found, as well.  Whatever style of humor you enjoy most it will be found here, it just won’t always be top quality, though the majority of it merits at least a chuckle and a smile, and a decent chunk merits an awful lot more than that.

The special effects in the movie are, unfortunately, a little more on the miss side than the hit.  Some of the ghost effects are well done, and the technology the Ghostbusters use is interesting for the most part.  The technology the villain uses, however, and otherworldly effects are just so much visual noise.  It’s just having a bunch of blurred colors vomited up at you en masse hoping you won’t notice that there’s nothing coherent to see.  This seems to be a problem with film more and more of late, as directors rely more on CGI rather than on more old fashioned art direction to set the stage, and it shows that the directors and special effects crews really don’t know what to do with their technology, yet, other than just make blobby colors and miscellaneous filters and hope for the best.


Aim for that blob over there.  It’s probably something important.

The new Ghostbusters certainly does not merit the hate it’s garnered since it was announced.  It’s actually quite a good film, I laughed more often than I grimaced, even though there is no way it can live up to the original.  So, don’t go in expecting that.  Go in expecting a better than average comedy with a good cast and a plot that’s at least better than Ghostbusters II and you will have a good time.

Rating:  6.2 out of 10