Friday, February 16, 2018

THE SHAPE OF WATER





Guillermo del Toro is fearless when it comes to showing us new and delightful things. In a Hollywood content to recycle the same comic book titles over and over, del Toro is among the most visionary of moviemakers, up there with Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam. The bad news is, just like Burton and Gilliam, del Toro is better with visuals than he is with plots.

I felt this way even after del Toro's masterful Pan's Labyrinth, a visually stunning gem with plenty of weird little creations fluttering about, but no real story that I can remember. I almost wish del Toro aside would not bother with plots, and simply create a bunch of surreal demons and let them run wild for 90 minutes. He's obviously more inspired by monsters and odd architecture than he is by the mechanization of a script, so I'd suggest he do what he loves and leave the stories out. I could sit and watch his grotesques for hours, but his stories put me to sleep, including his latest, The Shape of Water.

The movie takes place in a stylized early 1960s America, a time when cars looked like rockets and there was constant talk about the future. Elisa (Sally Hawkins) lives above a movie theater with a bunch of cats and her gay, alcoholic male friend, who happens to be an out of work advertising artist. Their home appears to fluctuate in size - at times it seems highly claustrophobic, at others it looks to be as large as a castle - and they amuse themselves by watching old Shirley Temple movies on a little television. Elisa is mute,  resulting from an unnamed childhood incident that her left her with some nasty scars on her throat. She also works cleaning toilets at a nearby government laboratory, where a mysterious creature from the amazon is being held for observation. 

The creature is a wonder, an obvious descendant of Universal Pictures' infamous gill man of the 1950s, but rather than the fishmouth of the old lagoon creature, this one has a rather sensuous human mouth. The creature's nemesis is Col. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), a bully with a cattle prod. The creature, no doubt tired of being prodded, bites off Stricklnd's fingers. Such rudeness only intensifies their rivalry.

Elisa, who doesn't have many human connections, is enchanted by the creature. She's soon taking her lunch-breaks outside his holding tank, offering him hard-boiled eggs, and playing lush, orchestral music on a portable record player. He seems to like her, too. He likes the eggs, anyway. When Elisa finds out the plan is for scientists to kill the creature and examine his lungs - they think his unique breathing organs may hold the key to successful space travel - she decides to rescue him. This won't be easy, because the Russians want him, too.

It feels as if del Toro decided this thin plot was enough on which to hang a movie, and he immediately went to work on the visuals, which are stunning. I liked the giant computers at the military base; they reminded me of the ones I saw at my father's office when I was a boy.  I also liked the vintage automobiles, Elisa's fascination with sexy shoes, and the use of Alice Faye and Carmen Miranda on the soundtrack. But del Toro also goes for the cheap and obvious. It's a movie where  nobility is only found in gay men, poor black women, mute girls, lonely scientists, and sea monsters, while a white suburban family man is the embodiment of evil. Del Toro should be ashamed of such simple-minded pandering.

There's also the inevitable  showdown  between the creature and Strickland, and then an ending lifted directly from Splash. By then, I was looking for the exit.

As Strickland, Shannon practically vibrates with menace and is watchable throughout. He has the movie's best line: "Are you totally mute? Or do you squawk a little?" Hawkins is excellent, too. Still, the movie has been praised beyond comprehension -  it has received 13 Academy Award nominations - which says less about the value of The Shape of Water, and more about the miserable state of contemporary movies. 

Del Toro's work is always interesting to look at, and this, combined with a sentimental plot about misfits banding together to beat the evil old white military complex, will endear The Shape of Water to many viewers. For those wanting their fantasy films to have some edge, there's much bloody violence. For those who want things a bit saucy, Hawkins  masturbates throughout the movie, and  eventually fucks the creature in a bathtub. Maybe I should just be happy that a director like del Toro made a movie that, in many ways, is an homage to great films of the past, from the aforementioned Creature from the Black Lagoon, when Ricou Browning took  Julie Adams  to his underwater lair, to The Hunchback of Notre Dame (which del Toro quotes with a visual nod to the old Aurora modeling kit), to The Evil of Frankenstein, where a little  mute girl looked after the monster. Hell, it was even fun to think about Splash again. And I'd be lying if I said I didn't come out of the theater whistling an old Alice Faye tune.


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