The Shape of Water

SHapeDirector: Guillermo del Toro

Screenwriters: Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor

Cast: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Doug Jones

Guillermo del Toro is a visionary unlike most working in entertainment today. Del Toro has been the architect of uniquely fantastic films like Pan’s Labyrinth, the Hellboy films, and Pacific Rim as well as the outstanding and underrated television series, The Strain. He’s also a terrific artist whose published artwork notebook is brilliantly impressive and fascinating. His latest and most celebrated film to date, The Shape of Water, is no exception.

The Shape of Water is what del Toro does best, blending an imaginative plot against the backdrop of a real-world historical period. Set in the 1960s in the midst of the Civil Rights movement and an escalating Vietnam conflict, The Shape of Water follows Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a shy, sweet and vulnerable mute woman who lives above a Baltimore movie house and works as a janitor in a top-secret government research facility. Elisa lives a mostly simple and generally isolated existance, except for occasional visits with her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) and regular “chats,” for lack of a better word, with her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer).

All of this abruptly changes, however, when Elisa’s research lab receives a new specimen from South America, an amphibious man-like creature. The creature is ushered into the facility late one evening during Elisa and Zelda’s shift, accompanied by government agent Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) and research scientist, Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg). Strickland and Hoffstetler are united in a goal to know

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A Tale of Two Michaels – Doesn’t it seem like at least one of these guys is in every good movie or TV show?

more about the creature, but their methods and purposes beyond that couldn’t be more different. Hoffstetler desires to understand and study the creature while Strickland wants nothing more than to determine its usefulness to the United States government, and when Strickland is attacked by the creature, his methods become savage. When Elisa witnesses some of Strickland’s cruelty towards the creature, she becomes determined to save it and enlists the help of Zelda and Giles. Like Elisa, the creature can not communicate verbally, and she also senses the kindness in its soul. What emerges is a twisted Beauty and the Beast narrative that is both beautiful and at times rather horrifying.

Del Toro’s cast is perhaps the most magnificent part of the film. Richard Jenkins and Sally Hawkins give perfect performances. Both are always on top of their game, but never have their talents been showcased like they are here. Legend has it, del Toro pitched this film to Hawkins at an awards show years ago while drunk. He was quoted as saying, I was drunk and it’s not a movie that makes you sound less drunk.” This is exactly the sentiment one should undertake when viewing this film. Objectively, this is a film that can be written off as ridiculous, but when one looks beneath the surface (pun intended), there’s the makings of a masterpiece. The performances by the cast are outstanding, the direction is deliberate and poetic, and the score by Alexandre Desplat is perfection. Del Toro’s film is reminiscent of the style of French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet who directed the films Amélie and City of Lost Children, both of which have a distinct and almost fairy-tale like quality to them.

The Shape of Water is a finely crafted film from top to bottom. It is imaginative and it is spellbinding in a way few films are able to achieve. If I had seen it earlier, it would surely have been on my list of the top films of the year, but I am guessing the 13 Oscar nominations it received will suffice. The cinematic voice of Guillermo del Toro is one I hope only grows and persists. His films deserve to be “events” not unlike those of Christopher Nolan, which makes it fitting that del Toro and Nolan will be duking it out this year for Oscars in eight different categories including the two biggest: Best Picture and Best Director. A-

The Shape of Water is rated R with a running time of 2 hours and 3 minutes.

Blue Jasmine

ImageFor The People’s Critic, perhaps the most anticipated moment of any cinematic calendar year is not the summer blockbusters or the fall awards-hungry films.  It is the release of the latest Woody Allen film.  With Blue Jasmine being his 41st film as writer/director in as many years, the always reliable, always prolific auteur has earned the respect of The People’s Critic as a living legend.  The Brooklyn-born neurotic genius shows no signs of running out of steam at the age of 77 with Blue Jasmine being one of his most insightful and finely-tuned films of his career.

Have you ever wondered who that blabbering stranger is who sits next to you on an air plane or who that mumbling nut-case is who sits next to you on a park bench?  These are quite possibly the questions that inspired Allen’s latest film.  The film’s title refers to Jasmine French (Cate Blanchett), a modern American socialite who suffers a life crisis when her financial investor husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin), turns out to be a white-collar crook in the vein of Bernie Madoff.  Jasmine’s story is told as a fractured storyline flashing back and forth to Jasmine’s life before and after her impending ruin.  Allen handles these juxtapositions flawlessly, carefully crafting the triggers that send the story hurdling back and forth.

Allen’s film may be contextually set within the confines of financial crisis; however, the film is actually about trust and fate.  The strength of the story rests on the complex and fractured relationship between two adopted sisters, Jasmine and Ginger (Sally Hawkins).  Jasmine and Ginger were separately adopted, raised together, but fate sent them on wildly different paths.  The film opens with a freshly ruined Jasmine leaving New York to live with Ginger in San Francisco.  The transition is not an easy one for her, and Ginger’s low-middle class lifestyle disgusts Jasmine.  What complicates things even more is that Ginger and her now ex-husband, Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) were victims of Jasmine’s husband and lost everything.  Jasmine is mindful of this tension and it is a testament to Blanchett’s ability in how strongly she plays a victim who is also a victimizer!  Allen explores this element throughout the film while also examining Jasmine’s sense of entitlement regardless of the fact that she has no skills and simply fell into wealth; we even learn that even her name is false as she changed it from Jeanette to Jasmine because she thought Jeanette “lacked panache.”

Furthermore, trust is a dynamic issue presented in the film.  While mostly known for his impeccable ability to create fascinating female characters (and Blue Jasmine is no exception), Allen also presents the damage of deception through his uncharacteristically diverse set of male characters.  Bobby Cannavale is especially indicative of this as Ginger’s current boyfriend, Chili.  Michael Stuhlbarg, Louis C.K., and Peter Sarsgaard join Cannavale and Dice Clay in developing the vital effect of trust, or lack thereof, on the human condition.

When one looks at the career and accomplishments of Woody Allen, one sees the maturation of an artist, of a genius.  It is this maturation of Allen’s techniques, subject matter, and films in general that I find most interesting.  And it is fitting that Blue Jasmine is probably most comparable with one of Allen’s most mature films, Crimes and Misdemeanors as both films utilize his broad knowledge of literature and film as well as exploring a whole range of moral ambiguities while accomplishing the difficult task of combining comedy with drama.  Cate Blanchett is poised to enter the Oscar race swinging as is Allen’s screenplay.  Blanchett is clearly the film’s major talking point and she delivers a tragic performance worthy of much discussion.  I can only imagine how Ruth Madoff feels about this one.  A

Blue Jasmine is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 38 minutes.  This is another solid film in Allen’s storied career that is sure to illicit emotion while also emitting a slightly disturbing tone. 

Seven Psychopaths

Director: Martin McDonagh

Screenwriter: Martin McDonagh

Cast: Colin Ferrell, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, and Woody Harrelson

Seven Psychopaths is Martin McDonagh’s follow-up to his quirky 2008 hit, In Bruges.  McDonagh is making a name for himself as his two films complement each other nicely and provide a roadmap for the type of director McDonagh aspires to be.  Like Tarantino or Hitchcock, McDonagh strives to make films about similar types of characters viewed through a similar societal lens.  Awareness seems to be McDonagh’s trademark.  His characters are flawed, yet keenly aware of these flaws.  His scripts are dark, yet this darkness is carefully tempered by his films’ awareness of the fact that they are films, as his characters are always interacting with the film industry in some way.  This awareness allows the viewer to enjoy his films on multiple levels, first on a narrative level and again on a satirical level that tries to provide commentary on humanity through the narrative.

In the case of Seven Psychopaths, McDonagh turns his focused lens on an unfocused, alcoholic screenwriter, Marty (Colin Ferrell).  Marty is struggling to write a film called Seven Psychopaths and turns to his friends and their acquaintances for inspirations on ways to characterize his seven different psychopathic characters.   What follows is a wild series of events that lead Marty down the literal Psycho-Path to self-realization.  As his characters become fleshed out, Marty starts to see that he’s living a detached life.  His detached life is illustrated by the flaws of his screenplay.  Marty’s writing is not authentic.  He borrows from other people’s lives to write his characters, and his tragic personal life causes his women characters to be nothing but fragile stereotypes.  His relationship is in shambles, his inspiration is drying up, Marty is desperate for a motivation, and thanks to a mixed up con-gone-wrong by his dog kidnapping grifter friends, Hans and Billy (Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell), this motivation comes in the form of an LA underground gangster (Woody Harrelson) who is seriously upset about his kidnapped Shi-tszu.

Seven Psychopaths is a busy film and it is also McDonagh’s most brutal.  There is so much going on that its stars only have a matter of minutes to shine.  Standouts are Rockwell and Walken.  Rockwell’s Billy is a fast-talking idea man.  He’s relentless and firing on all cylinders in every scene.  Walken plays Hans, who is much more relaxed than Billy, but equally fun to watch.  Walken is doing a Walken impression here, which is basically what people have come to want from him in this phase of his career.  Regarding its brutality, from the opening scene, the film’s tone is quite clear.  While trailers might lead one to believe that the dog kidnapping plotline is central to the story, it is actually a very minor element.  The majority of the film’s 109 minutes explores exactly what happens when the “inmates take over the insane asylum.”  Desert shootouts, sadistic serial killers, and revenge killings pepper the action of the film.  Seven Psychopaths feels inspired by the independent films of the 90s.  As it unfolds, it is reminiscent of 1994s Floundering or 1995’s Living in Oblivion not in plot (or in casting James LeGros), but in its meaning.  These films blend the effects of fantasy and reality in a compelling way, creating a very enjoyable movie.  If only James LeGros could have shown up as an eighth psychopath!  B+