Tuesday, January 30, 2018
Creature Watch: The Shape of Water (2017)
Format: Drafthouse, S. Lamar
From the first time I saw the trailer, I very much wanted to see The Shape of Water (2017).
As happens so often with films that arrive during the melee of the holidays, I wasn't sure I'd actually get to see it during its theatrical run, especially when I got sick twice in December. But the film has done well at the box office and had a sustained run, bolstered now by it's nomination for something like 13 Academy awards.
Pretty good for a Creature from the Black Lagoon love letter. Or, more accurately, Revenge of the Creature.
Let's be upfront about a few things.
I am a big fan of the first Creature from the Black Lagoon movie, and then feel the series takes a nosedive in quality right off a cliff. But my living room features a signed photo by Ms. Julie Adams (menaced by The Creature in the first film), sent by a talent who is still surprisingly active on social media and who seems like a fantastic person.
Second: I am no fan of the Academy Awards. It's always more interesting as a reference point looking to the past to see "what the hell were they thinking when they gave the award to movie X, when Movie Y was clearly the best picture of that year?" However, watching a movie that has been nominated feels like an undue burden for the viewer (or gives some films unearned credibility). But I know people have their reasons for liking them. I just don't get it. At all.
In theory, I should love everything del Toro does as a filmmaker. He's devoted to much of the monster stuff I have an affection for - but admittedly, I'm not a monster super-fan. I've not seen that many of his movies. I liked Hellboy well enough. Pan's Labyrinth was a visual feast with a beat-you-over-the-head story. But Pacific Rim landed with a thud. They sure thought about some visual niceties, but both the Jaeger concept and the actual narrative felt like it needed some rethinking (that ending was dumb as hell - and that is not a good time to lose the audience).
That's enough preamble, waffling, etc...
So... going in, I was okay with Shape of Water, even if I looked at the trailers and said "oh. Well, you can kind of tell everything that can and will happen in this movie. But if I'm wrong, that could be fun."
Only I wasn't wrong. The trailers strangled the movie in the crib, leaving the viewer with more or less what you'd expect based in equal parts on the movie's straight line narrative and partly the on-the-nose casting choices that telegraphed what the characters were like and what they'd do (I mean... poor Michael Shannon...). And, frankly, the movie's poster itself gave away a major plot point.
Yes, it's a fairy tale for adults - it's certainly R-Rated. Nudity, sex, violence and profanity are with us in spades, and I wouldn't take anyone under the age of 15 to see it. But even that didn't really make me blink.
What you do have to grab onto, then, is the execution of the movie from a technical standpoint. And, here, I think, we can say some terrific things.
We may have on-the-nose casting, but everyone's pretty great. I'm mostly unfamiliar with Sally Hawkins (unless you count 2014's Godzilla, so let's not), and - certainly her mute janitor is both endearing and buyable.* Richard Jenkins plays a fellow outsider as an ad-man artist whose line of work is drying up as photos are the new thing in print advertising, and - he's a semi-open homosexual in the early 1960's. Shannon plays Shannon. Octavia Spencer plays Octavia Spencer. And even Doug Jones is still in Doug Jones mode, lines or no - but if you already know his work...
The movie knows how to stay well within the period setting, has brilliant sets and even somewhat acknowledges the failing world of film that was occurring as TV came in (Jenkins lives above a theater, and he still would rather watch old movies on TV). And if it weren't gorgeous, it wouldn't be Del Toro.
I was certainly never bored during the film (and after shot-gunning two Fifty Shades movies in a row, I can speak to boring movies), but... somehow the movie never managed to jump from technical marvel to developing an emotional connection - with me. And I don't think my heart is made of pure ash quite yet, but I'm always willing to hear that argument. Maybe it was that the story felt too rote and the ending inevitable. Maybe they rushed things along at too quick a pace - which I suspect was a big part of it. Because for all the declarations of love in the film, how these two characters actually relate to each other, how they depend on each other, that you absolutely must believe that they positively deserve to be together despite all the odds - that never happens.
It is a movie working in myth and archetype that doesn't work in metaphors or analogs, and maybe it could have been more than it was.
What I'd argue is that the movie is a collection of lovely waterglobe moments, perfectly imagined vignettes with very strong connective tissue from a plotting standpoint, but never from a standpoint that had me white knuckling for the characters (their fate a fore-ordained conclusion), or even particularly invested.
Or maybe it's just me. Cold, dead-hearted me.
So. Circling back to my forewarnings: The Academy nominated a movie about a lady and the Creature from the Black Lagoon falling for each other. And that sets up a subroutine where you start saying "why?"
It's pretty readily apparent that the movie isn't just a lovenote to Creature, it's a love note to movie fantasies and movie musicals. Ie: The Shape of Water is a movie that hugs Hollywood and states that those fantasies provide spiritual sustenance (something I think they do, but let's not get derailed). And if Hollywood has demonstrated anything in its Academy nominations of late - it's that they love a movie about movies. Argo. The Artist. Birdman. and you know they would have voted in La La Land if they thought it wouldn't be too embarrassing.
I'd argue that I, Tonya was as well acted, actually had something to say and will stick with the audience for a while (and will continue to be found for audiences for some time since I think it's not exactly threatening Last Jedi for domestic box office) and didn't get much attention at all. In the next couple of years, this movie will fall into that gray area where del Toro's films inhabit, of genre content with a strong visual vocabulary that isn't the high-school emotionally stunted stuff of Burton and isn't the howling, alienating madness of Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. It's going to be a "huh..." footnote in Awards history. Sorta like Birdman, The Artist and Argo.
Now, it is not the movie's fault the Academy showered it with attention. I am sure del Toro just wanted to make the movie he wanted to make as well as he could. And, on many levels, visually, technically... it was a good two hours at the movies. I'd tell many people "yeah, it's better than you'd think. Check it out!" And I'm hardly one to think genre film should be living in a gutter. I just hope content elevates itself beyond stuff that all feels as familiar as a childhood tune.**
I do want to say: if I'd seen this movie in high school, I would have lost my goddamn mind over it. It's romantic-ish. It's about outsiders. It fetishizes movies and musicals. It's a period piece. It has boobs. I don't know if I would have noticed or cared about the things that didn't work for me now, and the comforting, fairy tale nature of the story would have felt fresh and welcome to me then. That, I would have argued, is the point.
And this is why I think The Shape of Water is probably a pretty good litmus test for whether or not your heart has ossified.
*I open the floor to debating if she looks like a cousin to PJ Harvey, so she's got that going for her
** Or like Splash.