MOVIE BUFF-ET: ‘The Shape of Water’ proves worthy of its 13 Oscar nominations

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Earlier this week, “The Shape of Water” garnered 13 Academy Award nominations including one in each of the six major categories, and after soaking in director Guillermo del Toro’s lush and lovely film, I can understand why.

The film is simply enchanting.

On the surface, the movie is a cross between “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.” Admittedly, that sounds like an unlovable mutt of a movie, but in the hands of a storyteller like del Toro, it becomes a layered, adult fairy tale that’s not just an allegory for our time but perhaps one for all time.

The basis of the movie is how an outsider longs for and eventually finds love in one of the most inconceivable, unconventional and yet winning ways.

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The plot is evident to anyone who has seen the film’s trailer or commercial for the film. A cleaning lady at a secret government facility falls in love with an incarcerated Amazonian river “god” that possesses incredible healing powers coveted by the most powerful nations in the world.

A fairly conventional sci-fi plot, for sure, but like any story, the plot isn’t as important as how the story is told, and del Toro tells this story beautifully, thanks to his careful direction, a wonderful cast, sumptuous cinematography by Dan Laustsen, and a wonderful score by Alexandre Desplat that wraps you up like a warm blanket.

The rich visuals and the warmth of the score enveloped me as a viewer from the opening scenes and didn’t let me go until the credits scrolled.

Sally Hawkins’ performance as Elisa Esposito is the beating heart of the film, though. She plays a mute cleaning lady with a delightful disposition yet a determined will.

Under del Toro’s loving direction, Hawkins shows us so much about her character without saying a word. Her eyes and face along with her body language are so expressive and yet disciplined. She emotes, but it’s not too broad for modern cinema, like many silent-movie performances of the 1920s would be.

Elisa works at government lab during the early years of the Cold War and is good friends with co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), who translates sign language for her at work. Spencer continues to be delight in every role she takes, and while her part is used for exposition, it’s almost unnoticeably done because the character she creates is so rich and amusing.

Elisa lives in a room above an old-time movie theater and shares a friendship with Giles (Richard Jenkins), a middle-aged, struggling commercial artist. Their bond is almost familial, with each taking care and doting on the other.

Each of the three performances are so hear-felt, genuine, and funny that I connected with them almost instantly. Each of them longs for love under different and difficult circumstances, but still have a joy about them despite living mundane lives. Each of their performances earned them Oscar nominations.

In contrast to their layered characters, Michael Shannon plays the cardboard villain of the film, Col. Richard Strickland. He is a “winner” at life, and if you can’t see it yourself, he’s the type that will flat out tell you or show you through with his various intimidation tactics in his office, the lab, or even the bathroom.

He’s a needy, selfish man, consumed with power and full of false confidence. He attempts to fill the emptiness of his soul by controlling and dominating others. If he can’t control you, then he wants to demean and squash you.
Shannon is so good in these type of despicable, self-loathing roles that his work can be taken for granted. He didn’t get an Oscar nod for his part, but it is a fine performance, one that contrasts and helps delineate the other characters perfectly.

Michael Stuhlbarg also lends fine, yet subtle support as Dr. Robert Hoffstetler, who dares to clash with Col. Strickland over their amphibian captive, whom the Americans and the Soviets both desire to exploit.

Doug Jones, who specializes in performing in prosthetic costumes as all sorts of odd monsters and aliens, plays the creature, who Strickland and Hoffstetler are studying and torturing. Elisa stumbles upon the creature while cleaning in the lab where he is held captive, and they are instantly fascinated by each other, quickly bonding while eating boiled eggs.

Jones’ performance is very good, but it pales in comparison to the best Hollywood creature performances by the likes of Boris Karloff in the Frankenstein movies of the 1930s, Lon Chaney as the Phantom of the Opera in the 1925 adaption, or Fredric March as Mr. Hyde in the 1932’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

The heavy prosthetics and/or CGI used on Jones’ face makes the creature’s reactions less authentic than the make-up used on Karloff and March and by Chaney. That’s surprising considering how much del Toro loves classic horror films, but that is a minor criticism in such a strong film. Jones’ performance in no way harms the film, it just doesn’t stand out.

While at its heart, “The Shape of Water” is a love story, the film features plenty of action and Cold War intrigue. There is a tense escape sequence and the inevitable showdown between man and monster that de Toro turns on its head.

In truth, Shannon’s Strickland and what he represents proves to be the monster of the film, and that is not incidental. While subtle, the film is no doubt a political statement by the Mexican director.

“The Shape of Water” is such a textured and layered film that it is imminently re-watchable. Del Toro lovingly laces the film with homages to classic B movies from the sci-fi, horror, and G-Men genres of the 1940s and ‘50s, as well as referencing at least a half dozen fairy tales with story points and images. Yet, none of that fan service gets in the way of him telling his subversive love story.

While the movie is a fairy tale, it is not for the youngsters. The film features sexual content and violence that befits its R rating.

(R) 2 hr. 3 min.

Classic Corner

The Creature from the Black Lagoon

Not being released until 1954, “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” missed the hey days of the Universal Monster movie franchise of the 1930s and 1940s, but the film about an expedition to the Amazon River Basin that discovers an amphibian Gill Man, who might be the proverbial missing link, ranks among the best of the studio’s classic monster movies.

Hollywood put scores of rubber-suited monsters on the silver screen in the 1950s and early 1960s, but none were more iconic, scary, and cool than the Gill Man. Two actors portrayed the Creature on screen in the film. Ben Chapman, a 6-foot-5 stuntman, played the monster on land, while Ricou Browning, who later went on to direct, produce, and write, was the stuntman who portrayed the creature in the stunning underwater sequences.

Browning, 87, is revered for his underwater cinematography skills and is the only remaining living actor who played one of the the Universal Monsters still living. He was instrumental in writing and directing the “Flipper” TV series and movies of the 1960s, and his work is notable in the underwater sequences of the James Bond film “Thunderball.” His latest screen credit was coordinating marine stunts for the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire” in 2010.

There are many fine underwater sequences in the film, but perhaps the best features Browning’s Gill Man swimming underneath the film’s female lead Julie Adams, who grew up in Blytheville, Ark., mimicking her swimming motions. It’s a great sequence that’s reminiscent of scenes of Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan swimming with Maureen O’Sullivan’s Jane in the 1930s Tarzan films.

The film is dated and definitely not scary by today’s standards, but it is a lot of fun if only for the great design of the Gill Man costume and the underwater stunts by Browning.