THE SHAPE OF WATER: an operatic romance (and it’s inter-species)

Sally Hawkins in THE SHAPE OF WATER

The Shape of Water is an epic romance from that most imaginative of filmmakers,  writer-director Guillermo del Toro.  The Shape of Water may become the most-remembered film of 2017.

The story is set in 1962 Baltimore. Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a mute woman who lives in a dark apartment above an aging downtown movie palace.  She and her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) work as a janitors on the graveyard shift at a government research laboratory.  The Cold War adventurer Strickland (Michael Shannon), a tower of menace, has captured an amphibian creature from the Amazon and has brought him in chains to a tank at the laboratory.  The male creature, in the approximate form of a human, has dual breathing systems, so he can survive both under water and on the surface; it develops that he also has intelligence, feelings and even healing powers.

The scientist Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) wants to study Amphibian Man to discover how his species could benefit humanity.  Strickland, on the other hand, wants to rush into killing and dissecting the creature.  Strickland is a sadist, who enjoys brutalizing Amphibian Man with his cattle prod.

Elisa is repulsed by Strickland’s torture, and she feel compassion for Amphibian Man.  She starts showing Amphibian Man some kindness.  As Amphibian Man becomes more trusting of Elisa, he feels gratitude for her kindness.  She cares about him, too, first with pity and then with the fondness of a pet owner.  As Amphibian Man’s intelligence and feelings become more apparent, the two become more equal, and their mutual fondness blossoms into passion.

But Strickland’s nefarious plans force Elisa and her supporters into a race against the clock to save Amphibian Man.  And so we’re off on a thriller, with a heist-like rescue and a chase, culminating in an ending of operatic scale.

Now this is a romance that transcends species.  I totally bought into this.  If you can’t, the movie is less moving and much, much more odd.  Romance is often consummated sexually, and this one is, too.

Sally Hawkins is not conventionally pretty, yet del Toro didn’t make Elisa a stereotypical spinsterish ugly ducking.  Elisa is vital, with a rich inner life, a wicked sense of humor and cultural interests, and who expresses herself sexually.  She may only be a night janitor with a disability, but that doesn’t define her.  Elisa’s defiant gaze at Strickland is one of the movie’s highlights.

Hawkins’ performance is a tour de force.  Shannon makes for a formidable villain, especially when he clenches his own gangrenous fingers.  Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer and Nick Searcy (Art Mullen in Justified) are all excellent.

Richard Jenkins’s performance as Elisa’s neighbor Giles is very special.  This is a very vulnerable man, with his sexuality trapped in a closet, his growing sensitivity to his own aging and his career as a commercial artist becoming obsolete.  With his episodes of resolute denial spotted with instances of inner strength, both the character and the performance are very textured.  And Giles’ eccentric reactions to the story are very, very funny.

I highly recommend Guillermo del Toro’s interview on NPR’s Fresh Air , in which he discusses many of his choices in developing the story of The Shape of Water, including shaping the character of Elisa and the inspirations from The Creature from the Black Lagoon.  In the interview, del Toro explains that, if this movie were made in 1962, Strickland would have been the hero, the Cold Warrior protecting humans from the alien creature.  Instead of course, the heroes of The Shape of Water are a woman with a disability, a woman of color, a gay man and a commie spy and, of course, a monster.

None of the characters have any reason to envision that white male supremacy, oppression of gays or the Cold War would end, or even be tempered, in their lifetimes.  It’s a graphic time capsule, with the grand movie palace empty, pushing out a sword and sandal epic to compete in futility with the small screen offerings of Dobie Gillis, Mr. Ed and Bonanza.  It’s a world in which the coolest thing imaginable is a teal 1962 Cadillac De Ville.

Here’s where Guillermo del Toro’s imagination triumphs. This story could not be told as well in a novel, on stage or in any other artistic medium. It has to be a movie.

This is filmmaking at its most essential and most glorious. Del Toro, along with production designer Paul B, Austerberry and art director Nigel Churcher, create a set of vivid and discrete worlds, each with its own palette. There are Elisa’s and Giles’ dark apartments, the brooding institutional green of the laboratory and the bright mid-century modern domain of Strickland’s family.

This is a beautiful movie.  Between del Toro’s filmmaking genius and Hawkins’ performance, The Shape of Water is a Must See, one of the best movies of the year.

Cinequest: LOOP

LOOP
LOOP

In the trippy Hungarian thriller Loop, Adam, a jumpy small-timer, and his inconveniently pregnant girlfriend Anna seek One Last Big Score by double-crossing a ruthless and merciless bad cop, who is stealing the hormone oxytocin from a hospital and flipping it on the black market. At first, it seems like we are watching a heist-gone-wrong neo-noir. But very soon (and before Adam himself figures it out), we start to notice that time and sequence are jumbled. Different realities are sometimes lagging, sometimes jumping ahead, and sometimes concurrent. For example, Adam fast-forwards a contemporaneous video of himself and sees himself murdered!

It all becomes a malevolent Groundhog Day as Adam’s story keeps replaying itself in a loop. He keeps learning from each replay and seeks to relive the sequence to get better results. How many loops will it take for Adam to survive with Anna?

Adam is personally transformed by the threat of losing Anna, and his character gets more sympathetic as the movie goes on.

We become pretty sure that Adam will figure out the puzzle. Ultimately, Loop is more intellectually interesting than thrilling. But it’s worth it just to appreciate Loop’s brilliant construction by writer-director Isti Madarász.

The final scene is very, very clever. Loop’s North American premiere was hosted by Cinequest.

Cinequest: PRODIGY

PRODIGY
PRODIGY

The psychological thriller Prodigy begins with a psychologist (Richard Neil) being brought to a secret government “black site” to interview a dangerous prisoner.  When he receives an orientation, he and we expect to see a superhuman sociopath like Hannibal Lector.  But he enters the secure room to face a freckled-face nine-year-old girl (Savannah Liles).  Her arms are pinned to her chair with restraints.  We learn that there is an understandable reason for this.

She is abnormal in every way – in her super intelligence, in her telekinetic powers and in her capacity for performing monstrous and lethal acts.  The two embark on a game of wits with very high stakes.  There’s a deadline (literally) so the game is also a race against the clock.

It’s the first feature for writer-directors Alex Haughey and Brian Vidal, and Cinequest hosts Prodigy’s world premiere. Haughey and Vidal have bet their movie, in large part, on the performance of a nine-year-old actor.  Savannah Liles is exceptional as she ranges between a very smart little girl and a monstrous psychopath and between a vulnerable child and a person who has made herself invulnerable.  It’s a very promising performance.

In the Cinequest program notes, Pia Chamberlain describes Prodigy as “reminiscent of a cerebral episode of the Twilight Zone, which is pretty apt.  Just like the best of Rod Serling, Prodigy’s compact story-telling takes us to an environment that we can recognize, but which has different natural laws than the ones under which we operate.

Filmmakers have shocked us before with the juxtaposition of innocent looking children and their heinous deeds  Sometimes those children have been created fundamentally evil (The Bad Seed, Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen) and sometimes possessed by evil (The Exorcist).  Prodigy takes a different tack – exploring how a trauma can produce monstrous behavior and whether evil behavior is reversible.

Prodigy is a thinking person’s edge-of-the-seat thrill ride.  I’m looking forward to the next work from Haughey and Vidal.  You can view the trailer here; note that this trailer is in color, but the version of the movie that I screened is in black and white.

ARRIVAL: communicating in an unknown dimension

ARRIVAL
ARRIVAL

In Arrival, Amy Adams plays a linguistics professor at a Midwestern college who is drifting, having not recovered emotionally from the death of her child and the failure of her marriage.  When space aliens come to earth (!) with very unclear intentions,  she is deployed to figure out how to communicate with them.

Now if aliens (meaning living creatures in the universe who are not us) ever DO visit earth, I guarantee that we will be surprised at their appearance.  I can’t imagine what they will look like, but they won’t look like the ones in The Day the Earth Stood Still, E.T. or Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  Here, Arrival hits a home run.  These aliens don’t look how we would expect, they don’t sound like we would expect and they don’t communicate like we would expect.

More central to the story, the aliens don’t think like we do.  For them, time is not linear, which adds the mystic element that defines Arrival.  Will our linguist learn how to communicate with these advanced beings who don’t seem to have language as we understand it?  Will she connect with beings that think in different (additional?) dimensions?

Arrival is directed by Denis Villaneuve, who made Incendies, rated at the #1 slot on my Best Movies of 2011, as well as the thrillers Prisoners, Enemy and Sicario.  His skill at thrillers pays off in the scenes with the aliens, when we are constantly on the edges of our seats.  The people are actually going INTO the alien spacecraft?  Holy Moley!

I loved Amy Adams in Arrival, as I tend to do in everything she does.  Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg are also solid.  The Wife pointed out that Renner succeeds in an unusual movie role – a hotshot with a healthy ego who recognizes that someone else has the better idea and becomes collaborative.  But Arrival is about the story, not the performances.

Arrival is real science fiction.  So many so-called “sci-fi” movies are really just war movies, revenge dramas, survival tales or Westerns that are set in the future or in space.  Fortunately, we have recently had some truly thoughtful sci-fi including I Origins, Her and, now, Arrival.

Every viewer will be transfixed by the first 80% of Arrival.  How you feel about the finale depends on whether you buy into the disconnected-from-linear-time aspect or you just get confused, like I did.

Least Convincing Movie Monsters

Killer Shrew mask

Tomorrow, June 10, Turner Classic Movies is airing two films on my list of Least Convincing Movie Monsters.   We’ll get to see The Black Scorpion and The Killer Shrews.

In The Killer Shrews, the voraciously predatory mutant shrews are played by dogs in fright masks. Yes, dogs. As you can see from the bottom photo, the filmmakers have also applied shaggy patches to the sides of the dogs and ropy rat tails to their backs. [SPOILER ALERT: When humans escape from their island, the killer shrews die of overpopulation.]

The Killer Shrews is only #3 on my list.  Visit Least Convincing Movie Monsters to see the two even sillier movie monsters.

Killer Shrews shag and tails

HIGH-RISE: the villain is an oligarchy

Tom Hiddleston in HIGH-RISE. Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.
Tom Hiddleston in HIGH-RISE. Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.

The dystopian sci-fi satire High-Rise, adapted from a J.G. Ballard novel, makes a droll and cynical comment on our species.  Taking place in the near future, the very wealthy live on the top floors of a self-contained high-rise, just above the middle class.  Human greed and jealousy creates scarcity for the residents – not Third World-type scarcity, but scarcity of amenities like swimming pool access and power brownouts.  Class competition erupts and a morbid descent into murderous chaos ensues.  We plunge into this complacent, and then hellish, world from the perspective of a young middle class striver (Tom Hiddleston).

The designer of the complex of high-rises (Jeremy Irons) lives in a luxurious penthouse with a staggeringly pastoral garden.  The character’s name is Royal, but he’s not the ruler.  (We actually come to wish that he were benignly in charge.)  And despite his trappings, Royal is not the omnipotent Bond-type villain.   The villain turns out instead to be an oligarchy of the One Percent, along with the darkest aspects of every character’s humanness.

Tom Hiddleston is fine, and the rest of the cast is solid.   The two standouts are Jeremy Irons as Royal and Sienna Miller, dressed in Carnaby Street retro, as a deliciously voracious man-hunter.  The wonderful Elisabeth Moss is wasted in a role where she just doesn’t have much to do.

I saw High-Rise at the 59th San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF). It opens in Bay Area theaters tomorrow.

DVD/Stream of the Week: THE MARTIAN – an entertaining Must See

Matt Damon in THE MARTIAN
Matt Damon in THE MARTIAN

The space adventure The Martian delivers what the best big Hollywood movies can offer – a great looking movie that convincingly takes us to a place we’ve never been, inhabited by our favorite movie stars at their most appealing.

In The Martian, Matt Damon plays Mark Watney, a member of a scientific expedition to Mars who is (understandingly) left for dead when his team must make an emergency escape from the Red Planet. The next manned mission to Mars is scheduled to land four years later 1000 miles away and he only has a four months supply of food, so his chances don’t look promising. But Mark Watney is a character of irrepressible resilience, with a wicked sense of humor, and he immediately embarks on solving the many individual problems that stand between him and survival. NASA leadership (Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean and more) and his team en route back to Earth (Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Michael Pena) all try to help.

Directed masterfully by Ridley Scott, The Martian pops along and there’s never a dull moment. It helps that the character of Watney is very funny.

I’m not highly scientifically literate, but the science in The Martian seemed to be at least internally consistent. I do think that – in real life – the NASA team would have immediately come to the solution thought up in the movie by the geek in the Jet Propulsion Lab.

The awesomely desolate Marscapes are fantastic. It’s all CGI, but you can’t tell – it looks like it is shot on location.

Here’s why The Martian isn’t a great movie:

  • Other than Damon’s Mark Watney, the other characters are types, getting all of their authentic texture from the performances instead of from the writing.
  • Never for a moment does the audience think there’s any chance that The Martian is really going to kill off Matt Damon.

But, overall, The Martian is so entertaining, it’s a Must See – even for folks that usually pass on science fiction.  You can rent The Martian on DVD from Netflix now and from Redbox on February 9.  You can stream it on Amazon Video, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

THE MARTIAN: an entertaining Must See

Matt Damon in THE MARTIAN
Matt Damon in THE MARTIAN

The space adventure The Martian delivers what the best big Hollywood movies can offer – a great looking movie that convincingly takes us to a place we’ve never been, inhabited by our favorite movie stars at their most appealing.

In The Martian, Matt Damon plays Mark Watney, a member of a scientific expedition to Mars who is (understandingly) left for dead when his team must make an emergency escape from the Red Planet.  The next manned mission to Mars is scheduled to land four years later 1000 miles away and he only has a four months supply of food, so his chances don’t look promising.  But Mark Watney is a character of irrepressible resilience, with a wicked sense of humor, and he immediately embarks on solving the many individual problems that stand between him and survival.  NASA leadership (Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean and more) and his team en route back to Earth (Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Michael Pena) all try to help.

Directed masterfully by Ridley Scott, The Martian pops along and there’s never a dull moment.  It helps that the character of Watney is very funny.

I’m not highly scientifically literate, but the science in The Martian seemed to be at least internally consistent.  I do think that – in real life – the NASA team would have immediately come to the solution thought up in the movie by the geek in the Jet Propulsion Lab.

The awesomely desolate Marscapes are fantastic.  It’s all CGI, but you can’t tell – it looks like it is shot on location.

Here’s why The Martian isn’t a great movie:

  • Other than Damon’s Mark Watney, the other characters are types, getting all of their authentic texture from the performances instead of from the writing.
  • Never for a moment does the audience think there’s any chance that The Martian is really going to kill off Matt Damon.

But, overall,  The Martian is so entertaining, it’s a Must See – even for folks that usually pass on science fiction.

DVD/Stream of the Week: EX MACHINA – a thinker’s Must See sci-fi

EX MACHINA
EX MACHINA

The intensely thought-provoking Ex Machina is a Must See and one of the year’s best films. Set in the present or the very near future, we meet the genius Nathan (played with predatory menace by Oscar Isaac) who developed the worlds top search engine when he was 13 and is now fantastically wealthy. Nathan lives in an extremely remote wilderness with his apparently mute housekeeper Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), and brings up one of his smartest software engineers under the pretext of winning a contest for a week with the boss. But Nathan really has brought in the young coder Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) to test his latest invention – a machine equipped with artificial intelligence.

Specifically, Caleb is tasked with the Turing Test (named after Alan Turing, the subject of The Imitation Game) – he is to converse with the machine to determine whether it’s thinking and behavior is indistinguishable from a human’s. Nathan and Caleb reference that a chess-playing computer may be very efficient, but does it know that it’s playing chess and does it know what chess is? Nathan says that – if he has succeeded – he has the greatest advancement in the history of the world; Caleb rejoins that it would be the greatest invention in the history of gods.

That raises the issue of playing god. If a being – even one that is human-created – is self-aware, conscious and has feelings and its own thoughts, then who has the right to end its life or take away its liberty? And can it seek liberty on its own?

We care about these questions because the machine, named Ava, is so, well, human. Ava is played by Alicia Vikander, an actress with an uncommonly sensitive face. Vikander’s performance is top-notch, and like Caleb, we are soon seduced into liking her and then NEEDING to protect her.

Ex Machina makes so much so-called science fiction pale in comparison, because it really challenges the audience with the moral implications of a real scientific concept. Not everything set in the future is really SCIENCE fiction. Gravity, a superb movie, was basically a survival tale, and Star Wars was a Quest Fantasy and Avatar was basically a remake of the Western A Man Called Horse. Most movies set in the future are just dumb excuses to put a lot of explosions on-screen. The few recent examples of truly thoughtful sci-fi include I Origins and Her.

Ex Machina is both a great-looking movie and a stellar example of economic filmmaking. There essentially only four characters and one set. Computer graphics aren’t used for empty action eye candy, just to allow an actress to credibly play a machine. Nathan’s house/laboratory looks amazing, and the overall art direction and production design is stellar. The stark landscape surrounding Nathan’s hideaway was shot in Norway.

This is the first directing feature for writer-director Alex Garland, and it’s a triumph. He wrote the screenplay for Danny Boyles’ brilliant 28 Days Later, one of my Zombie Movies for People Who Don’t Like Zombie Movies.

Ex Machina is on my Best Movies of 2015 – So Far. It’s available on DVD from both Netflix and Redbox and streaming from Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.

EX MACHINA: a MUST SEE thinker’s sci-fi

EX MACHINA
EX MACHINA

The intensely thought-provoking Ex Machina is a Must See and one of the year’s best films. Set in the present or the very near future, we meet the genius Nathan (played with predatory menace by Oscar Isaac) who developed the worlds top search engine when he was 13 and is now fantastically wealthy. Nathan lives in an extremely remote wilderness with his apparently mute housekeeper Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), and brings up one of his smartest software engineers under the pretext of winning a contest for a week with the boss. But Nathan really has brought in the young coder Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) to test his latest invention – a machine equipped with artificial intelligence.

Specifically, Caleb is tasked with the Turing Test (named after Alan Turing, the subject of The Imitation Game) – he is to converse with the machine to determine whether it’s thinking and behavior is indistinguishable from a human’s. Nathan and Caleb reference that a chess-playing computer may be very efficient, but does it know that it’s playing chess and does it know what chess is? Nathan says that – if he has succeeded – he has the greatest advancement in the history of the world; Caleb rejoins that it would be the greatest invention in the history of gods.

That raises the issue of playing god. If a being – even one that is human-created – is self-aware, conscious and has feelings and its own thoughts, then who has the right to end its life or take away its liberty? And can it seek liberty on its own?

We care about these questions because the machine, named Ava, is so, well, human. Ava is played by Alicia Vikander, an actress with an uncommonly sensitive face. Vikander’s performance is top-notch, and like Caleb, we are soon seduced into liking her and then NEEDING to protect her.

Ex Machina makes so much so-called science fiction pale in comparison, because it really challenges the audience with the moral implications of a real scientific concept. Not everything set in the future is really SCIENCE fiction. Gravity, a superb movie, was basically a survival tale, and Star Wars was a Quest Fantasy and Avatar was basically a remake of the Western A Man Called Horse. Most movies set in the future are just dumb excuses to put a lot of explosions on-screen. The few recent examples of truly thoughtful sci-fi include I Origins and Her.

Ex Machina is both a great-looking movie and a stellar example of economic filmmaking.  There essentially only four characters and one set.  Computer graphics aren’t used for empty action eye candy, just to allow an actress to credibly play a machine.  Nathan’s house/laboratory looks amazing, and the overall art direction and production design is stellar.  The stark landscape surrounding Nathan’s hideaway was shot in Norway.

This is the first directing feature for writer-director Alex Garland, and it’s a triumph.  He wrote the screenplay for Danny Boyles’ brilliant 28 Days Later, one of my Zombie Movies for People Who Don’t Like Zombie Movies.