The Shape of Water (2017)

2018 #256
Guillermo del Toro | 123 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English, American Sign Language & Russian | 15 / R

The Shape of Water

Oscar statue2018 Academy Awards
13 nominations — 4 wins

Won: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Score, Best Production Design.
Nominated: Best Actress (Sally Hawkins), Best Supporting Actor (Richard Jenkins), Best Supporting Actress (Octavia Spencer), Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Costume Design, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing.

I still can’t quite believe a creature-feature fantasy romance won Best Picture. It remains surreal to see a genre movie conquer the Oscars like that. Even The Lord of the Rings, for all its so-Fantasy-it-defined-the-genre-ness, has a lot of the “historical war epic” in its form (not to mention the genre-transcending cultural impact that film trilogy had), and so its win seems less striking than this out-and-out monster movie. Naturally, The Shape of Water doesn’t actually conform to the commonly-understood connotations of what a “monster movie” is, and therein lies what makes it something fresh, and therefore Best Picture material.

In fact, even “Fantasy” isn’t quite the right term for The Shape of Water — “fairy tale” is nearer the mark. It begins with voiceover narration talking about a princess as the camera glides underwater into a room where everything is afloat, including a sleeping woman… until everything gradually settles to the floor, an alarm goes off, and she wakes up — and now it’s just a real room. Except, even then, it’s not really real — it’s storybook-real; movie-real. Almost literally, in the sense that her apartment is above an old-fashioned movie palace. It’s a gorgeously designed set, but it doesn’t feel like somewhere someone would actually live — but it’s only just out of kilter, which is part of why it’s so fantastic. In case you missed it up top, the film also won an Oscar for production design, and that was certainly deserved.

Dreaming

Anyway, the woman in question is Elisa (Sally Hawkins), whose reality could hardly be more distant from that of a fairytale princess: she’s working nights as a cleaner at a government facility, wiping up the splattered piss of “clever men”. She’s also mute, communicating via sign language to her friends, coworker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and down-on-his-luck neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins). Things change when a mysterious new project arrives at the facility. Well, it’s no surprise to say that turns out to be a… kind of… merman… human/fish… being… It’s accompanied by head of security Strickland (Michael Shannon), who hates its guts and desires nothing more than to inflict pain, and scientist Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who is more sympathetic, for his own reasons. But it’s Elisa who, almost accidentally, comes to bond and communicate with the creature, in secret; but as their connection grows, she realises something must be done about its predicament.

I’ve read some reviews that berate Shape of Water for its straightforward storyline — I’ve described a fair chunk of the plot just getting to that point of conflict, and you can probably infer much of the rest. But I think such criticisms miss the point. For one thing, it is not fiction’s only goal to shock us with plot twists. There’s more to storytelling than just surprises, and Shape of Water certainly has more to it. For another, it is quite clearly a fairy tale — albeit an adult-minded one — and those go more-or-less one way. And even then, the events that I thought would form the film’s climax happen at the halfway point, so this viewer was at least somewhat surprised.

Toxic masculinity

So what is there instead? Characters, for one. We don’t get too much backstory on any of them — which is interesting, because apparently del Toro wrote lengthy summaries for the main characters, some running to 40 pages, which were provided to the actors to read and use if they wanted. Whether they embraced them or not, they are all well-judged performances. Hawkins, Spencer, and Jenkins got the nomination nods, but it would’ve been equally at home in the hands of Shannon or Stuhlbarg. And that’s not to mention Doug Jones, who conveys the creature’s emotions with physicality and movement alone — aided by superb prosthetic and CGI technicians, of course. But while the film’s primary focus is on the interspecies love tale he features in, each supporting character has their own subplot to help sketch their personality, and provide meaning and resonance to the main story.

That’s where theme comes into it — intricately linked to the characters, because this is all about outsiders and otherness. The fish-man is the most obvious “other”, with Elisa positioned second (as alluded to earlier, she seems to only have two or three friends and acquaintances she can actually communicate with); but there’s also Zelda, a black woman, and Giles, a gay man — and this is ’60s America, making those statuses even ‘lower’. Plus there’s Dr. Hoffstetler, but that would be a spoiler. Suffice to say, his unique predicament is given a more nuanced portrayal than you’d normally find in American media. All of this exists in counterpoint to Strickland, who’s basically the physical embodiment of toxic masculinity. For a film set in the ’60s, with a lot of Cold War overtones — and in a Fantasy environment, with a supernatural romance at its core — The Shape of Water certainly has a lot of timely relevance.

Something fishy goin' on

But, while you can hold it up as a mirror to the here and now, it also has a timelessness — like all the great fairy tales, of course. It transcends its ’60s setting and its 2010s production to really be about values of humanity — of acceptance —that are always pertinent. By tucking these messages into a fantasy that is most assuredly aimed at adults (it practically contains a laundry list of “things not suitable for children”), del Toro has given depth and meaning to an outlandish movie that, yeah, fundamentally, as the jokes all go, is about a woman fucking a fish.

5 out of 5

The Shape of Water is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Godzilla (2014)

2015 #31
Gareth Edwards | 123 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & Japan / English | 12 / PG-13

GodzillaThe second attempt at a US re-imagining of Godzilla received mixed reviews last summer, though there can be little doubt that it’s much more successful than the first, Roland Emmerich’s 1998 attempt. Where that movie basically starred a generic dinosaur-esque creature, here British director Gareth Edwards (director of the exceptional, five-star low-budgeter Monsters) has endeavoured to stay faithful to the style and structure of the original Japanese movies starring the titular beast, albeit brought in to the Hollywood fold with slick storytelling and a modern CG sheen.

In many respects, Edwards’ work is the real star of the film. Other elements are successful, but sometimes fitfully so, and it’s his choices and vision at the helm that hold the whole together. This is none more obvious than in the way the movie treats the titular beast — essentially, it’s a giant tease. It’s a slight spoiler to say when he first turns up on screen (the unknowing, like myself, will expect him in one specific bit considerably earlier), but we’re made to wait for it… and then Edwards abruptly cuts away. Godzilla disappears off under the water, heading for the next plot location, and he’s off screen for yonks. When he does (literally) resurface, we’re again teased with glimpses, and any full-on shot is a quick few frames before jumping to something else.

Some viewers and/or critics have questioned this as a bizarre attempt not to show the monster, but they’re entirely missing the point, and Edwards’ genuine filmmaking technique. It all becomes obvious in the finale (or should, anyway, but clearly some people don’t get it): after over an hour and a half of teasing us, there’s an almighty brawl, and Godzilla is shown off in all his glory. Edwards isn’t trying to hide the monster, he’s saving it. What is THAT?He’s denying us shots of it not to punish the viewer or to trick us, but literally to tease us, to build excitement and suspense and desire for the final battle. Too many people aren’t used to this — modern blockbusters have trained them for non-stop show-us-all-you’ve-got action from start to finish — and that’s a shame, and their loss, because Edwards’ method is superior to, and ultimately more entertaining than, 95% of other similar blockbusters.

It’s fair to say that around the monster action is a fairly rote plot. The human characters get some drama early on, but then are largely swept away by events. I can’t say I minded this too much — I don’t come to a Godzilla movie for the emotional relationships of the characters. At any rate, I’ve seen an equal number of reviews that criticise the film for not making more of the Aaron Taylor-Johnson/Elizabeth Olsen storyline, to those that think there’s too much of it and it should have been dropped. I guess it depends what you want from the movie — for me, Edwards almost hits the Goldilocks point of getting it just right, though I think Olsen is ill-served by how little she has to do.

The cast is full of actors who you might say are better than this — Bryan Cranston, David Strathairn, Sally Hawkins, Ken Watanabe, Juliette Binoche — which, again, is a bone of contention for some. Why are such quality actors in this? Why are they given so little to do? Again, this is a decision I think worked. For one, they’re actors you’re not used to seeing in this type of movie, which immediately brings a freshness. For another, no, the script doesn’t give them all it could. But because they’re such good actors, they bring it anyway — Hawkins and Watanabe, in particular, bring all kinds of layers to their characters Layered looksthat simply aren’t present in the functional dialogue they have to work with, simply in the way they stand, the way they look at things… It’s not the focus of the film, it’ll pass many people by (indeed, it has), but I think there are some fine performances here. Not awards-winning ones, obviously, but in the hands of lesser actors, they would’ve been so much poorer.

If the human drama isn’t always up to scratch… actually, I’m going to stop myself there, because this is a blockbuster about giant monsters — how many of those have human drama that’s “up to scratch”? Very few, if any. I’m not saying that to excuse the film, but rather to point out that the fact it manages any at all (and it does) is a greater success than most of its ilk achieve. Nonetheless, the stars of the show are the action sequences. Rather than assault us with them, Edwards keeps them nicely spaced out. Each one feels different from the last — not an insignificant feat for a movie about a giant monster that stomps on things, which is more or less what these movies usually do ad infinitum. They’re clearly constructed, cleanly shot… I don’t always mind ShakyCam, but it’s too easy to do, and as such is most often used unintelligently. This is proof that a well-executed classical style is the way to go.

Perhaps the best thing of all is the sense of scale. I believed in the monsters’ size and the effect it had. That was something I never got from Pacific Rim (as I noted in my review). Some have claimed the monsters’ relative size shifts around, or that their effects on the environment are inconsistent (at one point Godzilla’s arrival causes a veritable tsunami; Godzilla-scalelater, he slips quietly into the bay). Maybe, maybe not, but they always look big — more importantly, they feel big. There are various reasons for this, including Edwards’ shot choices: we often see them from a human perspective on the ground; when we do see wider shots, they’re from suitably far away, or high up, like a helicopter shot (if it were real…) Too many directors shoot their giant monsters with angles and perspectives as if they’re human-sized, which makes them come across as human-sized even when there’s a building next to them, never mind when they’re in places without reference points (coughatsea,PacifcRimcough). Edwards never does this, and it pays off. More than once I regretted that I can never be bothered to go to the cinema any more, because I bet this looked stunning on the big screen (I know I’m certainly not alone in this feeling).

Another point worthy of praise is Bob Ducsay’s editing. It’s hard to convey in text exactly why, but the size of the monsters is used to wondrous effect when it comes to scene changes. For instance: we might be in part of the story following Olsen’s character. The monsters appear fighting in the background, so we follow the action. In the last shot of that particular sequence, the camera pans down to find Taylor-Johnson and pick up his thread of the story. The film does this multiple times throughout; it’s a distinct style, even. Written down like this it sounds kind of cheesy and forced, but it isn’t in the slightest: it’s subtle, seamless; I’d wager it goes unnoticed by most, even, but I was impressed.

Godzilla clearly isn’t a perfect film, but Edwards has done a great job of taking the essence of Toho’s long-running character (celebrating its 60th anniversary in the year of this film’s release) and rendering it in a Hollywood blockbuster style, one that’s pleasingly more classical (as it were) than the crash-bang-wallop instant-‘gratification’ style of In Marvel movies, they're brother and sistermost present big-budget summer tentpoles. That it got a little lost and under-appreciated in a summer of mega-hits is a real shame — it may not quite match summer 2014’s high points of X-Men: Days of Future Past or Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but, for this viewer at least, it edged closer to them than to Marvel’s two widely over-beloved offerings.

And it wraps itself up as a completely self-contained film to boot — bonus! A sequel is forthcoming, however, just as soon as Edwards is finished with his Star Wars rumoured-prequel. I think both films are something to really look forward to.

4 out of 5

Godzilla debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 4pm and 8pm.