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.

Hidden Figures

hfDirector: Theodore Melfi

Screenwriters: Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi

Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kirsten Dunst, and Kevin Costner

No matter how you felt about 2016, I think most of us could use a little pick-me-up in 2017. Well, enter Hidden Figures to provide a brief respite with a little chicken soup for the soul right when we desperately need it.

Hidden Figures is the true story about a group of African American women employed by NASA who were instrumental in the success of the now iconic and historic space missions of the 1960s. Taraji P. Henson plays Katherine Johnson, who along with her two friends Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), work as human computers for NASA, doing calculations that the engineers need worked or verified. This proves to be a skilled yet monotonous task, and all the while the women working as Computers look on as the first International Business Machine (IBM) is being assembled across campus, threatening to render their roles obsolete.

An academic prodigy, Johnson’s prowess for Geometry gets her promoted to personal Computer for Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), director of Guidance and Control, the branch responsible for calculating the trajectory for NASA’s first manned space launches. This sounds all well and good, but Harrison is not the warm, fuzzy type, and a room full of egotistical White, male engineers in the Jim Crow South does not exactly translate to a respectable work environment. The movie unfolds henceforth as tensions rise over the space race between America and Russia. Johnson must grapple with the hostilities of being a Black woman in a White man’s world while Jackson and Vaughan adapt to a changing world where computers are machines, not people.

There is a lot going on in this movie; far too much to summarize in a simple movie review. Each of the heroines’ stories is compelling and outstanding in its own special way. Writer/Director Theodore Melfi is wise to begin the film where he does and allow each of these characters to forge her own path in the face of societal and cultural stifling. While many of the tropes of traditional period biography are present, it’s the ones that don’t get played that make all of the difference. Several times, I set myself up for the inevitable and predictable harassment scene or cartoonish bigotry, and each time I was pleasantly surprised when it didn’t happen. Hidden Figures does not go for the cheap jab at your sensibilities, and instead takes the high road exposing the institutional racism of the time, not just the blatant form. We’ve seen many films depicting the shame and cruelty of “separate but equal,” but not as many that also reveal its inconvenience or question its complacency.

Furthermore, we have fantastic performances all around, of course from our leading ladies, but also from Costner and supporting players like Mahershala Ali, Kirsten Dunst, and Jim Parsons. Movies like this do come around every year, but Hidden Figures feels uniquely appropriate for right now. Additionally, the film aptly depicts the great John Glenn whom we lost last year and who deserves to be lionized as part of this story as well. Melfi is fast becoming a go-to writer and director when it comes to creating emotional and satisfying films. His previous film, St. Vincent was equally crafted, and Hidden Figures furthers his budding trademark theme of exploring the unconventional (and sometimes “hidden”) goodness in the world.

Hidden Figures is not groundbreaking or particularly edgy. What it is, is a spectacular, and relatively unknown story of progress and perseverance, without feeling cheap or going to the same old well. It feels fresh and inspirational, and while not especially deep, it does make for a good time at the movies. A-

Get on Up

Get on Up“I paid the cost to be the boss.” By the time we hear these words in the new James Brown biopic Get on Up, we know they’re true. Chadwick Boseman (42), who plays James Brown in the film, speaks this revealing lyric directly to the audience in one of the film’s signature fourth-wall breaking scenes. Appropriately, Get on Up is not a traditional musical biopic. Director Tate Taylor (The Help) keeps things interesting by including Boseman’s asides to the audience as well as shaking things up with a fractured and non-linear storyline. These choices along with some excellent music make Get on Up a movie worthy of its subject.

Get on Up opens in 1988 with a disheveled James Brown entering an insurance seminar with a shotgun and telling everyone to leave. Not what you were expecting?  That’s the point.   The film then flashes back to Brown’s childhood and remains mostly in Brown’s past bouncing between his youth, teenage years, and young adulthood. Brown’s childhood is awful. At a young age, his mother (Viola Davis) leaves, and he is forced to live with his abusive and violent father (Lennie James) in a small shack outside Atlanta. When his father joins the army, young James is left with his Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer), a madam of a brothel in Augusta, Ga. Recipe for disaster? You bet. James is soon arrested for petty theft but with no official home address, his sentence is extended. When a gospel group lead by a young Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) comes to entertain the inmates, James finds his “soul” mate. With Byrd’s help, he is able to get out of jail and together they form the historic Famous Flames. And so it is in prison of all places where James Brown finds the funk.

What is funk? Well take Get on Up, subtract Clint Eastwood’s tepid Jersey Boys, and what you’re left with is solid gold, toe-tapping funk! And what we have here is a funk filled film. In the theater where I saw this film, two women were dancing in the aisles during one of the scenes. That speaks volumes to the power of James Brown’s music and the way that Tate Taylor utilized it. But an equal amount of credit must go to Boseman for his performance. He expresses the complexity of James Brown with every dramatic scene and he embodies the physicality of Brown in every performance scene. This is a performance on par with Jamie Foxx’s portrayal of Ray Charles in Ray, although Boseman does lip-sync to Brown rather than sing.  Still, you can’t dance-sync and Boseman is electric on his feet!

With a very active career that spans six decades, telling the James Brown story requires some glossing over many facts and events as well as spanning large portions of time. However, what Taylor focuses on in this film is not the rags-to-riches story that one would expect given Brown’s story, but rather that “cost” Brown paid to be the “Boss” he became, and overall he is quite successful. There is some “squeegeeing” of Brown’s image here and a deliberately murky narrative, but the film still resonates with nostalgia and power worthy of Mr. Dynamite. A-

Get on Up is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 18 minutes.