“The Shape of Water” film review

Absolutely enchanting! Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water is a beautiful modern fairy tale told through a classical means. From the provocative first scene to the endearing final moments, this film explores the human condition in an innovative way that highlights the spirits of kindness, generosity, and love. In a film that could have so easily played out like many other-worldly science-fiction love stories, this story demonstrates the power of cinematic storytelling full of brilliantly developed characters and excellent direction from Del Toro. Positively gripping. The Shape of Water provides audiences with a fresh perspective on the “monster movie” genre by taking you on a whimsical journey into the belly of a government research facility during the Cold War where you meet characters you love and love to hate along the way. As with many of his other films, Del Toro once again crafts an imaginative experience through the creation of memorable characters grounded by solid writing, direction, and cinematography. It seems like “genre films” are becoming a thing of the past, because so many want to exist in multiple planes; however, for all the elements at its heart, The Shape of Water is a classic monster genre film but breaks new ground.

Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a mostly isolated mute young lady who works in housekeeping at a remote, underground government research facility near Baltimore. With only her starving artist neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) to keep her company at home and her close friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) to watch over and speak for her at work, she leads a rather mundane life but longs for music, adventure, and romance. Taking place during the Cold War in 1962, Elisa’s encountered the strange and questionable over her time in and out of cleaning labs. Her nondescript life will be forever changed when she discovers the lab’s newest secret–a mysterious amphibian-like creature who lives in an aquarium tank. Over the days, Elisa feels compelled to visit the creature as the two of them develop a trusting bond. When the creature’s very life is at stake, Elisa must work quickly to construct a plan for his safe evacuation.

The Shape of Water has one of the most innovative openings to a film in that it juxtaposes a serene, calming yet mesmerizing sequence of underwater shots during the opening title sequence against a rather provocative first scene. Del Toro will successfully have your attention for the entirety of the film. It isn’t often that we get fairy-tale like narration at the beginning of a monster movie, and Del Toro’s choice for the beginning narration was absolutely perfect. It not only provided strategic exposition, but set the tone of the film. What we are about to watch may contain elements of monsters and mysteries, but it is a modern romantic fairy tale. Horror and science-fiction have often been used as conduits for filmmakers to explore the human condition and all its imperfections and growth; so by combining elements from both to create an innovative monster movie, Del Toro provides audiences with a fantastic opportunity to use the film’s diegesis as a mirror to our modern lives. Although the “beauty and the beast” style love story is central to the film, the film also comments on topics such as race, marriage, and class during the 1960s. There is also a side story that alludes to how members of the LGBTQ community were treated in the workplace and within the community. An incredibly comprehensive plot that never loses focus on the main story.

What an excellent cast! Sally Hawkins brings such endearing and powerful subtlety to her mute character. Her commitment to Elisa is so exquisite that you will swear that you can hear her voice through her sign language. Much in the same way we explored interspecies communication in last year’s Arrival, we witness just how the movement of hands and facial expressions know no bounds when establishing relationships with those with whom we cannot verbally communicate. In many ways, this movie is a combination of Beauty and the Beast, TV’s Swamp ThingArrival, and a little Creature from the Black Lagoon. Hawkins’ exceptional performance may very well land her an Oscar nomination, and quite possibly a win. Doug Jones’ creature is a brilliant combination of monster and lover. From the moment you encounter him, you will feel a human-like connection to his character. Like with Hawkins’ Elisa, Jones’ creature exhibits the power of subtlety. That seems to be a common element of this film: subtlety. So often the techniques of the pioneers of cinema are forgotten. Hitchcock proved over and over again that the camera itself can create suspense. Of course, he took many of his techniques from silent cinema where the camera was instrumental in visually communicating so much. Del Toro utilizes this power of the camera to not only visually create emotions but to work through actors to allow subtle powers of character to enhance the experience of this movie.

Beyond our central characters, Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and Giles (Richard Jenkins) have mini-movies of their own. And indirectly, their mini-movies have an impact on the larger story; however, these side stories never eclipse the central plot and only serve to bolster the overall experience. Spencer’s character enables audiences to explore marriage in the 1960s and Jenkins’s character provides a platform for discussion regarding how ostracized members of the LGBTQ community were before more modern times. There is also a scene where a classy looking black couple was denied seating at a diner. So many societal themes that can be used as a framework through which to understand the time in which this story takes place, and now the characters can be used to explore modern themes as well. Each and every chiefly supporting player has a significant impact upon the central diegesis of The Shape of Water. Del Toro took special care in integrating every element and making sure each aspect of the story was never just filler or for shock value. Each character, each scene, each camera angle moves the story forward.

The reality of love and relationships juxtaposed against an imaginative backdrop grounded in a literal view of life in the 1960s comprise this world created by Guillermo Del Toro. Whether you enjoy an excellent monster movie or old-fashioned romance, you will enjoy The Shape of Water. The brilliance of this film can be found in how this modern fairy tale is told through classical means. I also enjoyed the references to classic Hollywood movie musicals and dramas that can each be seen in the plot of this film. No image is ever wasted in Del Toro’s film. If there is one negative critique, the second act is a little drawn out and could have been trimmed a little, and some added suspense would have been appreciated in the second act as well.

“Pawn Sacrifice” movie review

Pawn_SacrificeOf chess and men. Pawn Sacrifice is based on the true story of chess prodigy Robert “Bobby” Fischer and his quest to become the world’s greatest chess player. The game at the center of the movie takes place during the height of the cold war against the USSR. Director Edward Zwick crafts a gripping story complete with beautiful cinematography and a brilliant cast. Toby Maguire brings a neurotic charisma and acute anger to the infamous chess player that few could have done so successfully while staying true to the real life Bobby Fischer. Although watching a chess game sounds like it would make for a dreadfully boring and static story, screenwriter Steven Knight (et al) provides a screenplay reeling with intense psychological “chess” moves while remaining focussed on the game that “captured” the eyes of the world. Not surprisingly, the pretentious and unrevealing title kept general audiences from watching it, even though it was initially released during the autumn movie graveyard of September. If there was ever a mystery as to why Fischer’s mental stability greatly suffered as a result of the tournament, this movie sheds light on the obsessive compulsive struggles of a man who was focussed on beating the Soviets at their own game.

American and world-renown chess legend Bobby Fischer faces his greatest challenge yet: the world’s best chess grandmaster Soviet Boris Spassky. From the time he was 12 years old, Fischer began to capture the attention of the chess community of New York and soon the whole country. It was clear that Fischer was truly a prodigy who was destined for greatness in the strategic calculating game. In addition to having a brilliant mind for planning, predicting, and observation, he equally suffered because of his strength. Finding it nearly unbearable to tolerate anything that even slightly aggravated him, Fischer became as notorious as he was talented. Representing the United States, Fischer sees this as a strategic opportunity to outsmart and beat the Soviets, as the game is symbolic of the actual cold war that both countries were involved in. Follow his personal journey of triumph and defeat as he must play the most important game of his life with millions of people watching–some wanting him to succeed while others want him to fail.

The greatest strength in this bio pic is that it takes an otherwise boring game to watch; and creates an atmosphere of intrigue and suspense that parallels both the Cold War itself and the personal/interpersonal relationships between Fischer and his staff, family, and the public. What’s even more astonishing is that this somewhat fictional counterpart to the documentary on Bobby Fischer was able to be sourced for a feature-length narrative film. Unlike the documentary, Pawn Sacrifice goes back to the childhood and adolescent years of the prodigy in order for the audience to make a better connection with his character than can typically be done in a documentary. While the famous 21-match game takes up nearly half the screen time, there is still sufficient material, focussing on the development of Fischer, that it creates an atmosphere that draws you into the game in the latter half of the movie. Although the movie is about Fischer and chess, the degree to which Fischer shows dedication, immense passion, and uncompromising intellect can serve to make a connection with anyone who is passionate about a lifelong dream or aspiration.

One of the elements of Fisher’s upbringing that played a huge role in his anti-communistic paranoia is his mother’s communist activism. Sadly, that part of his life is merely touched upon and not explored very much. Spending more time on his mother’s activism and his hatred of anything remotely communistic could have provided more support for his bizarre behaviors during the tournament against the Soviets. While Fischer is at the center of the movie, he has two excellently written side kicks: (1) a patriotic attorney who attempts to keep Fischer on the right track as an American symbol and (2) a chess grandmaster priest who coached Fischer when he was younger and one of the only players to ever beat him. The character dynamics make the group intriguing to watch. Each so very different, but require the other in order to journey towards the chess world championship. It took amazing determination and long-suffering resilience to attempt to contain the unpredictable and extremely temperamental Bobby Fischer.

If you are looking for a movie to inspire you to be a better chess player, then you may be a little disappointed because you will see much more slapping of the time clocks than the movement of the pieces on the board; however, Zwick does cinematically work in some movements and strategy into the diegesis of the film. Thankfully the movie is shot beautifully and possesses an excellent pacing with strong diegetic structure. There is also some wonderful production and set design that will likely get overlooked since the game is really the focus and mostly occurs in very nondescript rooms. Pawn Sacrifice highlights one of the most famous chess games in all of modern history while getting a glimpse into the mind of a genius turned expat in the end.

“Bridge of Spies” movie review

BridgeofSpiesA spy movie with very little in the way of intrigue and espionage. Touchstone, DreamWorks, and 20th Century Fox’s Bridge of Spies is a very traditional biographical film. There is nothing innately wrong with it, but there lacks anything truly remarkable or memorable either. Tom Hanks plays a very Tom Hanks character and Spielberg provides us with a very classy historic movie. Perhaps it is all just as well because the Cold War was a war of information and not high powered action. And, that is pretty well what you get in this movie. The most thrilling scenes are ones that are already in the trailer. Even James Donovan’s (Hanks) testimony before the U.S. Supreme Court was anti-climactic. Despite the fact it is based on a true story, for cinematic purposes there should have been more emotionally trying scenes or surprise. We seldom get Cold War era movies, so this is a nice addition to historic/bio pictures. Although the descriptive “thriller” has been attached to this movie, I do not find sufficient evidence in the movie to support such a claim. It is a moderate drama–neither heavy nor lite. Perhaps if John Grisham had written a book on this event and that book adapted for the screen, the film would play off more accurately as a spy thriller. As it stands, it is a historic drama. Nothing more, nothing less.

Bridge of Spies is about a Cold War era spy swap in the late 1950s in East Berlin. Suspected Soviet spy Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance) is apprehended by the FBI in New York and placed under the counsel of successful insurance attorney James Donovan (Hanks). In an effort to show due process, even to suspected spies, the U.S. government provides Abel with a trial by his peers. Following a conviction, Hanks persuades the sentencing judge to allow Abel to live in the event they need him as leverage to trade for captured suspected American spies in Soviet Europe and Russia. Quite the brilliant move because an Air Force pilot and graduate student were both captured by the Soviets shortly after the apprehension of Abel. Follow Donovan as he makes his way to one of the most dangerous parts of Europe during the height of the Cold War in an effort to successfully negotiate a spy swap.

There really isn’t much to add besides what I have already mentioned in my opening. This movie is very par for the course. Hanks and Spielberg provide us with the quality that we are accustomed to receiving from them. I was never bored during the movie, but I was never on the edge of my seat either. Typically, I look to espionage movies for some sense of surprise or intrigue; but, this one plays it like a typical drama based on a true story. As this is not a story or event that many Americans likely know about, it provides insight into what many of the operations during the Cold War may have been like. I do feel that the dialog and character development were lacking. Hanks and the rest of the cast pretty much remain static through the whole movie. Often in movies based on true stories, I like to see dynamic character arcs or redemptions. What I find in this movie is a realistic depiction of this event that likely felt more intense at the time than what is shown of the screen. Perhaps that is it. Maybe, I would have liked the movie a lot more had there has been a pronounced thrilling nature or contained emotionally intense scenes.

If you are looking for a thrilling movie of government espionage, then this is not it. If you are looking for a well-produced biographical movie based on a true story, then this is it. I am certain that Tom Hanks plays the role of Donovan accurately and I commend him for bringing this real-life American hero alive for the screen. At the end of the day, this is a good example of an accurate biographic motion picture and Spielberg proves that he can deliver a classy true story as well as he can an action-adventure movie.