Film Review: “The Shape of Water”

Starring: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon and Richard Jenkins
Directed By: Guillermo Del Toro
Rated: R
Running Time: 123 minutes
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Guillermo Del Toro is known for his love of monsters, creatures, ghosts, ghouls and the macabre beauty of it all. That love takes on a new meaning in “The Shape of Water,” where Del Toro conjures up classic cinema vibes with the setting, cast, and trademark visuals throughout his latest film. After years of scaring and provoking thought, it appears that Del Toro is instead reflecting, not only on himself, but his influences.

On paper, “The Shape of Water” is a curious, if not off-putting, love story between Elisa (Hawkins), a woman made mute by an injury, and an amphibious creature, played by Doug Jones under heavy makeup. Elisa first spots the creature at her janitorial job at a secretive research center. She comes across the creature as it arrives at the base, after recently being captured in a South American river where it was worshipped as a God by local tribesmen. Curiosity gets the best of Elisa as she sneaks in to see the creature first-hand. She quickly becomes enchanted, spending her lunch breaks in the enclosure, to feed it hard boiled eggs and share her love of music with it.

The love story, as usual, has a deeper meaning that speaks volumes, but is unappealing to those who will simply see something else that’s a little too much for average audiences. It’s not necessarily a complaint of mine, but it is a scenario that’s a little rough to warm up to. It also lacks the benefit of necessary build-up and wordless romance that might not be Del Toro’s strong suit. If you can get past the strange romantic entanglement, there is a lot of beauty in Del Toro’s script.

Beyond that, there’s the evil in the world that inadvertently tries to tear the two apart. The creature’s captor, Richard (Shannon), is a dangerous control freak. He takes out his own insecurities on employees and looks to kill what he does not understand. His inflated sense of self-importance is compensation, but he’s looking to attain more power and work his way into the hierarchy of the military and other powers to be.

Because this takes place in the 60’s, there a sense that Elisa and the creature represent the counterculture to Shannon’s violent character. Very few people aid Shannon in his pursuit, while those around Elisa go against their common sense and assist in her attempts to break the creature out of confinement. It’s once the creature is out and Elisa gets to spend some alone time that I begin to feel conflicted about the attitude and direction of the film.

Del Toro’s “Beauty and the Beast” take for adults hits and misses in its third act when everything comes crashing together. There are signs of a cinematic masterpiece in “Shape of Water,” but too often Del Toro seems to cheapen the message about love for those without a voice and those who are alien in a “normal” society. It’s a tricky juggling act that would have been tough for any director, but Del Toro does make it work with his gothic imagery and performances from his cast. “The Shape of Water” should be a stronger film under Del Toro’s direction, but it’s still an emotionally resonant film.

Film Review: “Gifted”

Starring: Chris Evans, McKenna Grace and Jenny Slate
Directed by: Marc Webb
Rated: PG-13
Running time: 1 hr 41 mins
Fox Searchlight

Our Score: 4 out of 5 Stars

Here’s one for you: What do you get when you pair up the star of the Captain America films with the director of a couple Spider-man movies? I have no idea what your answer is but mine is you get one hell of a fine film.

Frank Adler (Evans) seems like your normal single dad. He lives with his daughter, Mary (Grace) outside St. Petersburg and repairs boats. But this is not your typical family and, as the formerly home-schooled Mary prepares to head off to public school, you can sense the fear, and anticipation, in both of them. You begin to understand the worry when, after challenging her teacher (Slate) after being asked to add one plus two, Mary herself is challenged, dropping jaws all around when, using only her brain, she quickly computes 53 x 127. Now do you see why the film is called “Gifted?”

A perfect gift just in time for Easter, “Gifted” could have easily been a two-hankie made-for-television Lifetime movie. However it rises thanks to the work of the cast, especially soon to be 11-year-old McKenna Grace. You may recognize her as the President’s daughter on television’s “Designated Survivor,” but her limited work on the series will not prepare you for the tour-de-force performance she delivers her. Whether interacting with Frank (who we soon learn is actually her uncle), her kindly neighbor Roberta (Octavia Spencer) or her overbearing Grandmother (Lindsay Duncan), Mary is the emotional heart and soul of the film. Evans is equally strong here. If the only time you’ve seen him is when he’s wearing Spandex, you may be surprised by the emotional depths he reaches here. As the film progresses, and we learn more about the lives on-screen, the deeper our own emotional depths are reached. You find yourself struggling to understand the decisions made, sensing how each one will affect the other.

If you have no desire to watch Vin Diesel drive a car this weekend (guilty!), I recommend you give “Gifted” a try. You won’t be disappointed.

Film Review: “Hidden Figures”

Starring: Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson and Kevin Costner
Directed by: Theodore Melfi
Rated: PG-13
Running time: 2 hrs 7 mins
20th Century Fox

Our Score: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

As 2017 begins the good people at Fox have graced us with the inspirational “Hidden Figures,” the first “feel good” film of the New Year.

As the Cold War looms, the United States and the Soviet Union are in a battle to be the first to enter the heavens. The Russians dispatch monkeys, dogs and whatever else will fit in a space capsule high up into the atmosphere, hoping to be the first nation to conquer the blackness of space. As the stakes get higher we join the proceedings at Langley Air Force Base, in Virginia, already in progress. It is here that we meet three of the best “computers” that NASA possesses: Katherine Johnson (Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Spencer) and Mary Jackson (played with good, old fashioned sass by newcomer Janelle Monae). They are African-American brainiacs whose job is to compute figures for the space program. Of course, this is Virginia in 1962 so they are kept in the “colored computer” room. When a “computer” is requested to help plan the flight of astronaut John Glenn doors are opened, though at a snail’s pace.

Uplifting, if not a little heavy handed, “Hidden Figures” is based on the true story of three very remarkable women and all three stars make the wise choice of not being stereotypical in their performances. Though the fact that they are black is an important part of the story, they could have been green as far as the upper brass at NASA is concerned. They’re not told that a BLACK woman has never sat in on a briefing. They are informed that ANY woman has never been and probably never will. However it is the proudness the ladies show in both their race and gender that carry the film along. In supporting roles, Jim Parsons may find himself typecast forever in scientific roles as he plays one of the main planners of the Glenn mission while Costner is quite credible as the man who must make the decisions necessary for a successful mission. It took me until the end credits to recognize Kirsten Dunst, who co-stars as one of NASA’s HR people. She is also strong here. The film does get a little heavy handed at times, including a scene where Costner takes aim at a sign reading “Colored Restroom,” ripping it off the wall and assumingly ending racial separation as far as bathrooms are concerned.

With the recent passing last month of John Glenn, “Hidden Figures” is a solid tribute to his courage as well as the courage of the women behind the man.