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Review: The Shape of Water

The impudent, unruly streak that so often gives Guillermo del Toro’s films their pulse has been airbrushed away.

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The Shape of Water
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Though set in Baltimore in the early 1960s at the height of the Cold War, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water truly takes place in Movieland: that generic realm of borrowed fantasies where The Majestic and Amélie are also set. Movieland is beautiful in a wax-museum way—colorful, velvety, derivatively iconic, and consciously reminiscent of classic studio-era features—but there’s nothing in this dimension that suggests a spontaneous feeling or particularized texture. A diner in Movieland isn’t just a diner, but the diner: the mom-and-pop pie-and-coffee shop of your Norman Rockwell-fed dreams. Ditto the movie theater, which features a vast palace with red seats so luscious that they steal scenes out from under this film’s characters.

Del Toro’s Baltimore is also governed by an aquatic color theme, which establishes a link between the city and the brackish water world inhabited by the Amphibian Man (Doug Jones), a humanoid sea creature who suggests a sensitive and elegant relative of the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Del Toro connects water to sex and domesticity, alluding to the comfort that the Amphibian Man presumably experienced in the Amazon and which Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute janitor for a secret government facility, has never known.

The lab where the Amphibian Man is imprisoned is a triumph of sensual gothic set design; a murky pool supported by a vaginal sewer grate could have been imagined by H.R. Giger. The set is bathed in swampy, silvery greens and blues, which increasingly permeate the film’s other locales as rain approaches, connoting Elisa’s sexual awakening with the Amphibian Man, while serving as a deus ex machina to whisk her and him away from the cruelty of a paranoid and intolerant patriarchal society. Said cruelty is embodied by Strickland (Michael Shannon), an official who seems to have arrived at the lab solely to work the Amphibian Man over with his cattle prod.

The Shape of Water has been made with a level of craftsmanship that should be the envy of most filmmakers, but the impudent, unruly streak that so often gives del Toro’s films their pulse has been airbrushed away. For all of this film’s impersonal gorgeousness, there isn’t a memorable image along the lines of the red soil from Crimson Peak or the shot of Federico Luppi’s Jesus Gris licking blood off a bathroom floor in Cronos. Del Toro’s sentimental side takes over here, leaving the audience with a plot that fuses E.T. and Free Willy with a frustrated woman’s daydream of sexual salvation.

Though its narrative hinges on bestiality, The Shape of Water is studiously devoid of kink. Throughout, Del Toro is skittish about the practical implications of his concept, which the filmmaker utilizes for social platitudes, equating the Amphibian Man’s otherness with real-life alienation and prejudice. After sleeping with the Amphibian Man for the first time, Elisa tells Zelda (Octavia Spencer), a fellow cleaning woman, that his penis folds out of a crevice within his body, which she communicates through sign language. This is one of the film’s best moments, reveling in the pleasure that the drab Elisa is allowed to derive from discussing something naughty.

Del Toro, though, doesn’t dare to show the practical physical challenges that might be inherent in Elisa coupling with Amphibian Man, relying instead on generically cuddly images of the lovers embracing, and later springing a pastiche musical number straight out of The Artist. The wildness of broaching sexual taboos—explored in films as diverse as Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, Jack Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon, del Toro’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army, and Vincenzo Natali’s Splice—is ignored by The Shape of Water, which preaches of the power of romance without acknowledging the work and joy of adjustment that goes into fostering and maintaining love.

With the exception of the extraordinary Jones, the actors are boxed in by archetypal characterizations. Elisa would be poignant if we hadn’t seen her suffering, starry-eyed romantic countless times before in other films, and if her poignancy wasn’t unrelentingly capitalized by del Toro and Hawkins. Elisa’s neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), is another dear and solitary daydreamer, a gay man who’s defined by his gayness, loneliness, and dreaminess. Zelda’s an African-American woman who experiences a romantic isolation that’s different from that of Elisa and Giles, living in a marriage that’s calcified into monosyllabic routine. Mostly, though, Spencer is tasked with playing another character who offers the protagonist sassy common sense.

The film’s heroes are so tolerant that they don’t think to question the notion of a woman hooking up with a member of another species, which could be the wellspring for a lively, dirty punchline or two. Del Toro is aiming for critique via contrast, proffering a rosy vision of romantic acceptance that’s pointedly unpalatable to a real-life society governed by boundaries and biases. But such critique isn’t earned because del Toro isn’t willing to acknowledge uncertainty or emotional or moral fallibility on the part of his heroes, shifting all of humankind’s unsavory characteristics over to Strickland and other American and Russian military personnel. Why doesn’t Elisa, presumably romantically alone most of her life, feel terror once she’s found love?

The Shape of Water doesn’t allow you to discover anything for yourself. Elisa masturbates in her tub to a timer each morning, indulging a resonant ritual that’s connected, via an egg motif, to the Amphibian Man. One of Strickland’s gimmicks is that he chews hard candy while torturing people, and del Toro provides him with a speech in which he explains why he chews hard candy while torturing people. A moving and initially unspoken visual rhyme—between the scars on Elisa’s neck and the Amphibian Man’s gills—is underlined during the climax. Elisa’s name evokes Audrey Hepburn’s character in My Fair Lady, and even Zelda’s middle name has been chosen so that Strickland may deliver a bad-guy speech ridiculously synching the film’s narrative with the story of Sampson and Delilah.

For all its conceits, themes, and symbols, The Shape of Water fails to impart a sense that its antique tropes have been adopted for a purpose. People, smitten with the film’s banalities, will claim that it has “heart.” But del Toro’s heart beats louder when he allows himself to play, dreaming his own dreams and respecting his heroes enough to sully them.

Cast: Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Michael Stuhlbarg, Nick Searcy, David Hewlett, Stewart Arnott Director: Guillermo del Toro Screenwriter: Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures Running Time: 123 min Rating: R Year: 2017 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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Review: A Land Imagined Is a Noir-Tinged Rumination on Identity

Writer-director Yeo Siew Hua suggests that becoming another person is as easy as dreaming it.

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A Land Imagined
Photo: MM2 Entertainment

Yeo Siew Hua’s A Land Imagined begins with an extended montage of looming buildings and structures, as well as work sites of Singapore’s vast land-reclamation projects. This simple visual motif effectively captures not only the sense of insignificance that comes with living in an urban center teeming with people (workers appear like dots within the wide shots), but also lays the groundwork for the film’s sudden shift in perspective.

Yeo’s Golden Leopard-winning film opens in dreamy noir-like fashion before blooming into a sobering social drama concerning the lives of Singapore’s ignored and exploited immigrant and working-class communities. After a police detective, Lok (Peter Yu), spends the first third of A Land Imagined searching for a missing construction worker, Wang (Liu Xiaoyi), Lok’s partner rhetorically asks why looking for a lowly laborer is worth the time and taxpayer money. Yeo makes an empathetic rebuttal to that thought by subsequently launching into a depiction of Wang and his downtrodden existence immediately before his disappearance.

Wang, though injured, can’t afford to miss work, so he continues to drive a shuttle for other workers. Through the depiction of Wang’s grinding daily routine and search for a side hustle, Yeo shows how the man is at the mercy of his employers. In keeping with the strain of noir from Lok’s storyline, the company Wang works for and whom the dredged land is ultimately for is an eerily nebulous entity, like something out of a Fritz Lang production. Wang appears as an unwitting pawn in a larger scheme, though, paradoxically, the moments of relative escape spent with a fellow worker, Ajit (Ishtiaque Zico), and the mysterious Mindy (Luna Kwok), the manager of a cybercafé Wang frequents, prove that he leads a life of his own.

The presence of the Bangladeshi Ajit in A Land Imagined and the fact that the undocumented Wang hails from mainland China are just two factors that point to Yeo’s grasp of Singapore as a globalized state with shifting notions of identity—an understanding that’s complemented by the film’s narrative structure, which shifts perspective between Lok and Wang throughout. Each character operates on the fringes of Singaporean society and deals with similar feelings of estrangement. At one point, Wang tells Mindy after a late-night swim at a local beach that the sand comes from various different countries around Singapore. And this idea of the island nation as not having a set identity is one that’s cannily rhymed to the film’s structure.

The shift back and forth between the narrative’s central characters, and how one of those characters is affected by the life of an itinerant worker, brings to mind João Dumans and Affonso Uchoa’s Araby, but A Land Imagined doesn’t contain itself completely to the realist tradition of that film. Yeo adopts a more ethereal approach, even implying early on that Lok’s storyline is a projection of dreams that Wang once had. The elliptical narrative, coupled with the explicitly noir passages—marked by stylized and shadowy cinematography—that follow Lok and Wang around a hazy and languid cityscape, give the impression that A Land Imagined exists in a kind of dream state. The film may be coy about definitively stating if Lok is Wang’s dream-self, but this question is ultimately irrelevant. In a diverse land where identity is inherently foggy, Yeo suggests that becoming another person is as easy as dreaming it.

Cast: Peter Yu, Liu Xiaoyi, Luna Kwok, Ishtiaque Zico, Jack Tan, Kelvin Ho Director: Yeo Siew Hua Screenwriter: Yeo Siew Hua Running Time: 95 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Out of Blue Plays Out Like a New-Age Law & Order

Carol Morley’s film wants to blow our minds, but it succeeds only at rousing our boredom.

1.5

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Out of Blue
Photo: IFC Films

Carol Morley’s Out of Blue begins with images of a supernova as an ostensibly brilliant astrophysicist, Jennifer Rockwell (Mamie Gummer), wonderingly intones that we’re all made of stardust. This meaningless observation, cribbed from Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” is an appropriate opening to a film that proves to be every bit as trite, over-reaching, and goofy as its opening lines. With its endless references to black holes, the multiverse, and Schrödinger’s cat—the last of which is outlined in detail not once but twice—Morley’s film wants to blow our minds, but it succeeds only at rousing boredom.

Loosely based on the novel Night Train by Martin Amis, Out of Blue attempts to combine the heady philosophizing of True Detective with the metaphorical surrealism of Twin Peaks, but Morley’s writing is so ham-handed and her directing so nondescript that the film ends up feeling more like a protracted new-age spin on Law & Order. It doesn’t speak well of Out of Blue that the film is at its most compelling when it’s just straight-up ripping off David Lynch’s stylistic idiosyncrasies, such as in a dream sequence where Jennifer lip-synchs to an old-timey country song on a bandstand that looks nearly identical to the Roadhouse stage.

The film’s plot is also suspiciously reminiscent of that of Twin Peaks: An enigmatic detective, Mike Hoolihan (Patricia Clarkson), investigates the brutal murder of a pretty young blonde (Gummer), which brings her into contact with an assortment of local oddballs. Out of Blue, though, lacks the regional specificity of Lynch’s series—Morley’s film is set in New Orleans but you wouldn’t know that from what’s on screen—and its eccentrics, some of them played by fascinating character actors like Toby Jones, Jacki Weaver, and James Caan, are vaguely drawn. But the biggest misstep is Mike herself, a cipher who spends much of Out of Blue muttering clues under her breath and staring into the middle distance.

Of course, Mike has a dark past herself, one which is intertwined with the mystery she’s trying to solve. Clarkson does her best to imbue the role with a certain offbeat gravitas, but Mike is too confusedly conceived to generate any real interest in her backstory, much less to carry the narrative. Morley hangs a lot of eccentricities on the character—she drives a vintage car, listens to the Eels, and, in one particularly baffling scene, climbs on stage at a strip club and starts writhing on the dancers—but none of these cohere into a comprehensible whole. All the way to the end of Out of Blue, Mike’s quirks exude a grab-bag-like feeling, ensuring that she remains an enigma amid the comings and goings of so many wacky side characters and all the pseudo-metaphysical blather of Morley’s muddled script.

Cast: Mamie Gummer, Patricia Clarkson, James Caan, Jacki Weaver, Toby Jones, Aaron Tveit, Jonathan Majors, Alyshia Ochse, Gary Grubbs, Yolonda Ross, Lucy Faust, Brad Mann, Thomas Francis Murphy, Carol Sutton, Lawrence Turner Director: Carol Morley Screenwriter: Carol Morley Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 109 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Genesis Lyrically Captures the Heartache of Sentimental Education

Philippe Lesage’s film understands that we submit ourselves to the perils of affection because of its outweighing graces.

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Genesis
Photo: Productions l'Unite Centrale

Writer-director Philippe Lesage follows up The Demons with another coming-of-age saga that fixates on the relatable, if grim, blues of self-awakening. Primarily following the teenaged Guillaume (Théodore Pellerin) and his college-aged sister, Charlotte (Noée Abita), Genesis charts how both are shaped by their experiences with sexual desire, subtly observing their behavior and, occasionally, the darker side of affection.

Guillaume commands much of the film’s attention. From the first shot, in which he stands on a desk in his all-boys boarding school and leads his mates in a barroom shanty, it’s obvious that Guillaume is a charismatic class clown who knows how to force all eyes onto himself. Yet the teen can also be withdrawn and introverted, and his relationships with his friends and teachers are constantly in flux. His puckish behavior is often celebrated by classmates and even some teachers, like the sardonic Perrier (Paul Ahmarani), who in one class invites Guillaume to do his impersonation of him, which the teen performs with hilarious specificity and to the initial delight and then discomfort of the professor.

Wounded by the boy’s exposure of his flaws, Perrier subsequently singles out Guillaume for harassment, berating him without cause and even screaming at the kid over the slightest perceived transgression. Guillaume’s peers are less extreme, but the same kids who applaud his classroom antics are also quick to ignore him inside their shared dorms or in social situations, content to simply use him for amusement during class time.

Guillaume’s awkward relationship to others at the boarding school is exacerbated by his closeted sexuality, which isolates him from the heteronormative activities of his friends. In one scene, Lesage films the boy in slow motion as he wanders through a house party surrounded by boys and girls kissing, trying to fit in by cautiously snaking his arm around a girl, who casually shrugs him off as he keeps walking. Like much of Genesis, the moment is at once thematically obvious and beautifully moving, with the sudden swell of morose pop transforming the scene into a lyrically intense expression of the boy’s sentimental education. The impeccable blocking places the other kids in every square inch of the room save for a pocket of dead space around Guillaume, poignantly emphasizing his loneliness.

Charlotte, by contrast, seems to have an easier time of things. More carefree and confident than her brother, she’s at first hampered only by her inane boyfriend, Maxime (Pier-Luc Funk), who broaches the subject of an open relationship with a forced sense of casual suggestion, only to later sobbingly backtrack after she kicks him to the curb. Charlotte ends up with the older Theo (Maxime Dumontier), whose charming demeanor and respectfulness suggests actual maturity. When Lesage films Charlotte in a club using the same slow-mo style that he did for Guillaume’s glum traipse through the house party, the tone is considerably brighter, with the young woman free and ebullient about her contentment.

Soon, however, Charlotte must also contend with the fallout of various sexual stresses. Lesage grapples with matters that are all too common to darker coming-of-age stories, and he captures the film’s most harrowing scenes in single takes. Yet if the filmmaker doesn’t shy away from plainly depicting such horrors as sexual violation, he avoids wallowing in the misery he piles onto his characters. Guillaume and especially Charlotte suffer, but Lesage pulls focus onto the aftershocks of trauma rather than the traumatic events themselves. Sometimes Genesis even ducks reinforcing the bleakest of expectations, as in a scene of Guillaume baring his soul to his classmates that ends in a surprisingly warm fashion.

Indeed, the bright colors and sedate direction of Genesis isn’t an ironic contrast for the difficult content within but a cue for the perseverance of hope in trying times. That optimism is borne out in the final act, which shifts focus to Felix (Édouard Tremblay-Grenier), the protagonist of The Demons, now a cheery teen attending what appears to be a bible camp. As he plays guitar with counselors and plays around in camp, he gravitates toward Beatrice (Émilie Bierre), a young girl who’s clearly as interested in him as he is in her. Compared to the more vicious heartbreak facing Charlotte and Guillaume, Felix and Beatrice’s budding feelings are presented innocently and sweetly. Their first flirtations end the film on a hopeful note that suggests that not all stories of young self-discovery need be solemn, and that we submit ourselves to the perils of affection because of its outweighing graces.

Cast: Théodore Pellerin, Noée Abita, Édouard Tremblay-Grenier, Maxime Dumontier, Jules Roy Scicotte, Pier-Luc Funk, Paul Ahmarani, Antoine Marchand-Gagnon, Émilie Bierre Director: Philippe Lesage Screenwriter: Philippe Lesage Running Time: 130 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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