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: :-)

The Cabin in the Woods

April 29, 2012 by  
Filed under Movies

As a fan of the horror genre, I’m always intrigued by any filmmaker who sets out to tear down the genre and build it back up. Wes Craven achieved this with “Scream” back in the late 90’s, a film that was released during a desperate era for the genre, when it had been bled completely dry (pun intended) by the saturation of slasher franchises such as “Friday the 13th” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street”. We were starved for something new, and “Scream” provided a fresh but somewhat all-too-hip alternative to the routine slasher genre. It turned it on its head by being more self aware, while still telling a decent story and having a fun twist at the end.

Now that we’ve been inundated with remakes and “found footage” movies left and right, perhaps it’s time for another shot in the arm. That’s at least what Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon set out to do with “The Cabin in the Woods”.

But this movie may be one of the biggest miscalculations of a genre critique I’ve ever seen. Any fan of these types of movies should see right through the criticisms of Goddard and Whedon fairly quickly. And then we are left with a very arrogant, cynical, and extremely self-serving horror comedy that neither chills nor amuses.

First misstep: the characters are too bland and irritatingly stock to be made into funny caricatures mocking what we usually find in these kinds of films. We have the dumb blond, the jock, the quiet smart guy, the homely (but insanely beautiful) down to earth girl, and of course…the stoner who turns out to be right about everything. I guess Whedon wanted him to be the “audience”, catching onto every little inconsistency in a horror story. He’s played quite nauseatingly by Fran†Kranz. I hope†I never have to see this actor in another film in my life.

The second misstep can only be described while describing the plot: take a couple of kids and have them go to a cabin in the woods (because it’s the jock’s cousin’s), and then as the story progresses, illustrate that these kids are part of a scheme by oddly button down suits who are part of some cult that sacrifices people for ancient gods that will destroy the earth if the sacrifices are not executed (ahem). Did I just ruin the surprise for you? I don’t think I did, but even if I did, I did you a favor.

The idea is that these suits are going to control what happens to the kids at the cabin. They display all kinds of creepy things you find in these types of places. Creepy dolls, creepy paintings (which came the closest to actually scaring me), and of course…Pandora’s Box. So the kids actually raise the dead and the suits then try to make sure the kids die one by one until the sacrifice is complete.

I actually liked the premise of this film because it would give you a chance to make fun of the standard horror “cabin in the woods” story while still telling a bigger story with the real horror being that if these stereotypical things don’t happen, we all die. Unfortunately, Whedon and Goddard are far too interested in being cute and clever that once we’re let in on the joke, they’re already telling you how funny it is.

I think in a horror comedy, you have a very thin line to walk. You don’t want to be too jokey, because it becomes self aware and then you take the fun out of it. But you do still want to scare people. I think one of the best examples of when it works is the original “Fright Night”. Another would be “Evil Dead 2”. I can even point to Whedon’s introduction into the genre with his own “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”. But here, this is beyond self-aware. This is purely self-congratulatory. Whedon and Goddard want you to know how cool they are by throwing in a ton of horror film references (everything from “Hellraiser” to “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” to “Night of the Living Dead” to “Aliens”) and how great it is that they are being critical of†bad horror films that are full of cliches and bad dialog.

However, in their attempt to mock the genre, they simply just come off as snobs as far as I’m concerned. I’ll be honest–I love bad horror films. I love the stereotypes, the cliches. Why? Because these films aren’t meant to be film classics. They’re meant to be drive-in fodder. An excuse to put your hand around your date’s shoulder and make a move. In many cases, these films mock themselves already enough and become parodies of themselves to the point where “The Cabin in the Woods” is the equivalent of the NYU film school grad sitting in a showing of “Friday the 13th” and telling you how adolescent it is.

We get it, guys. How about instead of wasting time telling me what I already know, make your own film fun and entertaining? “Cabin in the Woods” has its own problems, too. Logically some of the steps these guys take to sacrifice people don’t make sense, and sometimes they’re too convoluted if the end result is supposed to be death for the ancient gods. Why would you give anyone a chance of surviving if it means the end of the world for all of us? Which by the way, leads to a very anticlimactic ending. All the while I kept thinking…what is really at stake for any of these characters? Can we really believe the world will end if these kids aren’t killed? What’s at stake for the kids is far more relevant and credible, and yet we already know what has to happen with them so there is no tension going into the third act of the film.

I wanted to like this movie and appreciate the level of detail that Whedon and Goddard took with the horror genre. If they didn’t try so hard to manipulate me†so much, maybe I would’ve actually enjoyed it.

My rating: :(