The Shape of Water

February 15, 2018 by  
Filed under Movies

Guillermo del Toro always has a way of blending fantasy with reality, and did it to perfection with “Pan’s Labyrinth”. Since then he’s been hit or miss; but here, he takes a familiar story and tells it predictably–yet, it is still an amicable and poignant film.

A mute, lonely woman, Elisa (Sally Hawkins), works at a top secret government lab, as a custodian. Her only “friends” are her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and Giles, her next-door neighbor at an apartment above a movie theater. Giles, also lonely, paints advertisements for a living (or, attempted living), and has many cats. Zelda has a husband; but, as it’s revealed through monologues shared with Elisa, Zelda is just as lonely as they are. The three of their lives are affected when a security command brings in a mysterious sea creature, headed by Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). Strickland is your typical villain–he’s haughty, mistreating, and patronizing. He’s also quite racist and sexist. But that’s understandable, given the time period–it’s the early 1960’s.

The creature (played by Doug Jones) is a fascination for Elisa, who comes to befriend it as well. It, always referred to as “The Asset”, is presumably male. Elisa begins speaking with him, feeding him eggs, and teaching him basic sign language. She is not caught doing this, except by another mysterious scientist there, named Robert “Bob” Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who is also curious about studying the creature’s habits. There is a hitch, though, since the creature was only captured to be vivisected. Bob and Elisa certainly don’t want this to happen, so Elisa decides to “steal” the creature away to her home.

Giles, who desperately wants a relationship with someone (he is gay, and of course that is shunned in society at that time), wants the best for Elisa and wants her to be happy. Things get a little complicated when she brings the creature back, and he tussles with Giles’ kitties. For those who are cat-lovers, you may be disturbed by what unfolds there.

Speaking of which, there are some bold liberties del Toro takes with such a formulaic story. The subplot with Bob being involved with the Russians is the most plausible and very intriguing, even though it’s still predictable. But there are moments, such as the cat scene, that can just take someone out of the picture emotionally. We want to be attached to these characters, and feel them. There are some moments that are either too gruesome, or too racy, or just too over-the-top, to be easily digested. And this story seemingly should be easy digested. I realize del Toro likes to take risks, that’s one of the things I admire most about him as a filmmaker. But sometimes, going too far doesn’t yield the desired effect of breaking new ground. It just comes off as exploitation. In an exploitative film, it works fine. Like Eli Roth’s “The Green Inferno”. We expect to see blood and gore, and we do see more than the average blood & gore film. And we see more than what human eyes should be exposed to. But it’s set up that way. So when we see it, maybe it’s shocking. But it’s not surprising.

“The Shape of Water” has some great performances. Octavia Spencer just nails the (perhaps typecast) role of the sympathetic friend. She’s always a joy to watch. Michael Shannon is great as the stereotypical bad guy, with a nice little touch of having a sweet tooth (to cheap candy, which I think is an important aside). Also, an affinity for “the new car”, driving around to show off. Early in the film, his fingers are bit off by the creature. Elisa finds them, and doctors re-attach. The results get more amusing as the film goes on, and serves as a nice metaphor for his state of mind, and sanity. And, possibly, how two rotten fingers spoil the whole batch.

I actually was not a huge fan of Hawkins’ performance, however. I felt it a bit self-indulgent and her character wasn’t that well fleshed out. We know she’s lonely and wants to love–but there’s nothing in her approach that seems forlorn or yearning. She seems almost content throughout. Certainly we feel her pain when the creature is in danger or threatened; but that’s just the natural reaction to seeing someone or something hurt. Richard Jenkins as her neighbor Giles is pleasant as well, and him being homosexual in a time of homophobia gives us a sense of sympathy for him. In his case, he’s as excluded as the sea creature. Of course, Jones does his best with the creature character. But, there is not much he can do outside of giving us the basic performance. He also sort of falls flat, with no third dimension. Maybe that’s not as important, but I would’ve liked to see some character development with The Asset as well. Stuhlbarg gives a strong performance as Bob, who certainly cares for the creature, and for Elisa’s ability to take care of him. He’s a bit weird, but likable.

Overall, the film does work with its firm and simple premise. But, I would’ve liked to see some originality when it came to the characters. The actors can bring them out of stock, but the script doesn’t give a whole lot of diversity to work with. There are plenty of nice moments, a few strange ones; and, like I mentioned earlier, some that might take you out of the drama and emotion. That can cost points. But if the shape of water is supposed to be a heart, it’s at least a pretty picture of one.

My rating: :-)

Hidden Figures

February 15, 2017 by  
Filed under Movies

The space race made NASA a household name, and America became a powerhouse by winning the space race in 1969 when they put the first human on the moon. It’s the centerpiece to modern science, and one of the greatest achievements we always point to as a cornerstone to the gateway to the future. We all know Neil Armstrong was the first man on the moon, we all know the conspiracy–just kidding–the fact that the moon landing happened. But what a lot of people didn’t know, me included, was that behind those starch white shirts and coke bottle, horn-rimmed glasses, were a group of black women who were a big part of what made that all possible.

“Hidden Figures” tells the much needed story of 3 of them–Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), and how their brilliant minds helped the process that led to the Apollo landing. That landing isn’t the focus of the film, though, its climax is set to sending the first American–John Glenn (Glen Powell)–into orbit. The Soviets had already achieved this, and in the beginning of the film, this is not well-received news by NASA. Especially not to Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), director of the Space Task Group. This puts pressure on them to make space travel happen, or else NASA could be possibly shut down due to its large cost.

Katherine is known as a “computer”, someone who can do equations and complex math on a whim. She is called upon to help the Task Group, since no one in the room knows how to do a specific kind of geometry. She works under Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), who reports directly to Harrison. Of course, at this time, seeing a “colored” person, is a bit off-putting to the all-white group. But, as Harrison says, NASA only knows one color–and it isn’t white or black. It’s basically…math. So he accepts her, but not her lengthy bathroom breaks which becomes a bit of a plot point since the “colored” bathrooms are across the campus in another building, taking her away from her desk for nearly an hour each time she has to go.

Dorothy meanwhile is assigned as a supervisor–but not given the title–to the rest of the black women who work at NASA, the West Area Computers division. Mary Jackson also works there, but wants to be an engineer. At the time, there were no “colored” engineers. So, Jackson and Dorothy have to deal with their respective drawbacks. Even though they work for a highly esteemed organization, they are still segregated and kept down from what they want to be and achieve.

Katherine’s role becomes more prominent as her equations and solutions impress Harrison more and more, and it soon lands her right in the control room of NASA, preparing to set the coordinates of John Glenn’s first flight into outer space. A prior launch proves ineffective, with astronaut Gus Grissom piloting, due to failed numbers provided by an IBM (an actual computer as we know it). The IBM isn’t programmed correctly because it’s new and not exactly understood by the people who are working on it. However, Dorothy learns its “language”, and it becomes apparent that her desired position of Supervisor becomes more imminent. Mary is able to convince a judge to allow her night classes at an all-white school in order to obtain a certification to become an engineer.

Throughout this, with some dramatic moments and even some light humor, is a thoroughly entertaining educational film. It takes a few liberties with the actual history–but since many people don’t even know these three women existed, I’d say if anything it encourages you to find out more about them. You’ll find that some of the dramatic exaggerations may not have ever happened, but the effect they provide for the movie is pertinent and I don’t have a problem with that. It’s never used to push an agenda, or create a manipulative narrative. The film is very classy and reserved, allowing these characters to blossom in front of us naturally, well played by the actresses–especially Spencer.

There’s also a bit of romance to add a nice touch. Mahershala Ali plays Jim Johnson, who meets Katherine and the two fall in love. He’s military, and a bit dismissive at first of her role at NASA. But she warms to him, and the two develop a sweet relationship. Mary Jackson’s husband Levi (Aldis Hodge) is another nice addition, a little more aggressive as a civil rights activist. Then there’s Kirsten Dunst who plays probably the most overtly stereotypical “racist” character of Vivian Mitchell, supervisor to the West Area Computers. However, her character also has more to it than just being “the white lady racist”.

It’s an important history lesson that provides enough information to want to know more, and gives us a fully entertaining film from start to finish. You can’t ask for much more when it comes to historical dramas. And it’s nice to know that NASA integrated their best brains so that we could literally…touch the stars.

My rating: :D