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Guillermo del Toro’s Take On Gill-Man In Love

Now playing at more multiplexes than art houses in my area:

THE SHAPE OF WATER

(Dir. Guillermo del Toro, 2017)

When Guillermo del Toro turned down the chance to remake (or reboot) the CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON for Universal’s “Dark Universe” series he definitely made the right decision.

And that’s not just because the pending franchise has gotten off to a very shaky start with last summer’s THE MUMMY flop, and is in danger of being scrapped altogether, but because there’s no way he would’ve been able to build upon the concept to make such a beautifully bizarre love story thriller as THE SHAPE OF WATER under a big studio banner.

Del Toro, co-writing with Vanessa Taylor, infringes on no copyrights here, as the amphibian man here is never referred to as “Gill-man,” but it uses the basics as obvious jumping off points for the premise of “what if the creature got the girl?”

Set in 1962 Baltimore, the film is told from the point of view of Sally Hawkins as Elisa, a mute cleaning lady who works the night shift at a secret government laboratory. We get a look into Elisa’s lonely world up front as we see her eat pie with her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a depressed, closeted artist who loves watching old musicals on TV. Elisa and Giles live in rundown apartments above a movie palace theater, so del Toro works in his love for cinema there too.

At Elisa’s work, where she converses in sign language with her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer, again playing the help), she learns that a aquatic creature is being held in a huge metal water tank at the facility, and that it’s being tortured by Colonel Richard Strickland (a deliciously creepy Michael Shannon) who captured it in South America.

Elisa makes friends with the amphibian man (played by actor / contortionist Doug Jones) by feeding it hard boiled eggs, and teaching him how to sign, and a romance forms. When she finds out that they’re going to dissect him, over protest by scientist Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), she plots to help him escape.

The escape sequence, among other elements, gave me flashbacks to Ron Howard’s 1984 rom com SPLASH, which had Tom Hanks falling for Daryl Hannah as a mermaid who he rescues from a secret lab, but that did nothing to hinder the spell this film so sweetly casts.

Back at Elisa’s apartment where the fish guy mostly stays in a bathtub filled with salt and some chemicals that Hoffstetler gave her, they consummate their relationship. While the movie contains much grotesque imagery concerning such things as Strickland’s bitten off fingers, and a cat being eaten, the love scenes are as tasteful and touching as scenes between amphibians and humans can possibly be.

You just may need to suspend disbelief considering such premises like that by putting towels under the door you can fill the bathroom of a crumbling apartment completely to the ceiling with water, but if you can do that you’re in for some visual treats courtesy of cinematographer Dan Laustsen.

Without speaking, Hawkins puts in a wonderfully communicative performance that shows fluid chemistry with Jones’ creature, and has a great moment standing up to Shannon’s evil Strickland.

She is a large part of what makes the small, dark off-kilter fantasy THE SHAPE OF WATER del Toro’s most emotionally affecting work yet.

Maybe this means that more established filmmakers should turn down franchise work to go off on their own to make movies inspired by concepts they wouldn’t be allowed to do in those big studio entries. I mean, it sure worked for del Toro.



More later…

One Last Christmas Eve Blow-Out In THE NIGHT BEFORE

Now playing at a multiplex near you:


THE NIGHT BEFORE (Dir. Jonathan Levine, 2015)


Sure, the premise of this Seth Rogen joint is pretty flimsy – i.e. three friends have one last Christmas Eve blow-out and farcical hilarity ensues – but after giving the silly stoner spin to such subjects as the apocalypse, cancer, and Kim Jong-un, I’m cool with that, as long as they keep the laughs coming.

And that they do, right from the get-go with a very welcome voice-over appearance by Tracy Morgan reciting rhyming lines in the familiar style of the classic Clement Clarke Moore poem from which the film derives its title. This gives us the set-up that back in 2001, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character Ethan lost his parents in an automobile accident, and in an effort to cheer him up, his friends Isaac (Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) initiate a hard partying holiday tradition that later comes to include an ongoing quest through the streets of New York City to find the elusive, mysterious Nutcracka Ball, considered “the Holy Grail of Christmas parties.”

In the present day, Isaac is a successful lawyer whose wife (Jillian Bell) is about to give birth to their first child, Chris is a pro football player who’s just started to get a taste of stardom, and Ethan is stuck in a rut as a struggling musician who has to take work that involves dressing as an elf and serving hors d’ourves at a corporate party on Christmas Eve.

The job is humiliating but things look up when while working coat-check Ethan happens upon 3 tickets to the Nutcracka Ball. Ethan gleefully steals them, quits his job, and runs off to find his friends. Meanwhile, in one of the movie’s most implausible moments (of which there are many), Isaac’s wife Betsy gifts him a neatly packaged box of hallucinogenic drugs and encourages him to go wild at his get-together. Yeah, sure.

So the fellows don tacky Cosby-style Christmas sweaters (Ethan’s has a standard line of red reindeer, while Isaac’s has a Star of David and Chris’s a black Santa – see above) and hit a karaoke bar, where they perform Run-DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis,” and run into Ethan’s ex Diana (I forgot to mention that the guy is still reeling from a break-up) played by Lizzy Caplan.

Caplan, who, as a veteran of Party Down, THE INTERVIEW, HOT TUB TIME MACHINE, and going way back with these guys to the Freaks and Geeks days, is well acquainted with such sausage party shenanigans, is accompanied by Mindy Kaling (The Office U.S., The Mindy Project), who gets her phone mixed up with Isaac.

This leads to Isaac, who’s gone goofy by consuming most of the drugs in his gift box, getting dick pic texts and not knowing how to respond.

In true Seinfeldian-fashion, each character has their obsessive hang-up – Isaac’s is that he’s too fucked up to function, Chris is wanting to score weed for his team’s quarterback that he’s trying to impress (this is one of the film’s clunkiest scenerios, which involves Mackie chasing Broad City’s Ilana Glazer as an evil drug stealing freak), and Ethan’s is, of course, wanting to get back together with Diana.

And in a wonderfully unexpected appearance, a hilariously deadpan Michael Shannon shows up as the guy’s high-school pot dealer, Mr. Green. This marks the second time that Shannon has stolen a movie away from Gordon-Levitt (see: PREMIUM RUSH). Shannon kills it here – every line is a stone cold gem – so much so that he ought to have his own comedy vehicle some day.

The only thing that matters in a movie like this is if it’s funny, and THE NIGHT BEFORE has some of the funniest moments of any comedy I’ve seen this year, and it has a warm, fuzzy heart that conveys way more genuine Christmas spirit than, say, crap like the dysfunctional family comedy LOVE THE COOPERS (currently #3 at the box office).

The joyous energy that Rogen and gang, including screenwriters Jonathan Levine, Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir, and longtime collaborator Evan Goldberg, bring to this round of crude gags, dick jokes, drug jokes, wacky mishaps, pop culture riffs, and surprise cameos, is crazy infectious.

THE NIGHT BEFORE is way better than THE INTERIEW, but a notch below THIS IS THE END on the scale of output of from the Apatow alma mater. It may have lazy plotting, some overly obvious set-ups, and much silliness just for silliness’ sake, but it brings so much in the way of laughter, likability, and an undoubtedly sincere theme of friendship, that it more than makes up for those faults.

It did make me wonder how much longer the 33-year old Rogen can make these man-child has to face growing up movies. He’ll probably yet again take a cue from Apatow, and do ‘em til the big 4-0. As long as he keeps bringing the funny, that’s fine by me.


More later…