The Shape of Water–E.T. Meets Aqua Man


The Shape of Water

The Shape of Water (2018  Academy Award for Best Picture) is written and directed by the Mexican wunderkind, Guillermo del Toro (of “Pan’s Labyrinth”). Part-fantasy, part-political commentary, and part-love story, “The Shape of Water” is difficult to categorize.   The Shape of Water, an adult fairy tale of sorts, is both deeply familiar and suggests magical realism.

The opening scene, an aquatic beneath-the-sea dreamscape, leads us into a floating world of teal green water, gliding past chairs, lamps and tables, all swirling in the interior of the flooded apartment of Eliza, a mute janitor (the awesome Sally Hawkins), who lives a very spartan and lonely life.  The Shape of Water

Set during the Cold War, an alien aqueous creature worshipped as a god in the Amazon, has been captured for weapons research and is subsequently mistreated in a top-secret military research lab in a race against Russian scientists. The addition of a sensitive Russian biologist, Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg of “Call Me By Your Name”,”The Post” and “Fargo”) , who recognizes the humanity of the amphibious anomaly, gives a surprising twist to the Cold War plot.

In The Shape of Waterthe damage is more psychological than physical.  Eliza’s face has been inexplicably burned some time in her past. Both she and the underwater sea creature, as well as her friends, are outcasts in a cruel, unforgiving world. “The others” — those with ethnic, racial and class differences, gays, the disabled, communists— are outsiders and misfits like Aqua Man. The way those “others” are woven together is a minor wonder and a parable for resisting authoritarianism and valuing diversity.

Because of her muteness, Elisa is looked at by others as something less than fully human, a type of alien herself. Her interest in the Aqua Man evolves into a deeply empathetic relationship, stirred less by curiosity than by recognition and identification with his plight. Think ET–an innocent befriending an alien.

Her neighbor Giles (in a wonderful performance by Richard Jenkins), a gay struggling aging artist , and Zelda (a sometimes hilarious Octavia Spencer), her co-worker on the cleaning crew, are her only social connections. Until she meets the Amazon amphibian.

Scientists in lab coats and military officers march officiously past their cleaning carts, rendering Elisa and her friend Zelda invisible at best and insulted more than occasionally. Richard Strickland (an always astonishing Michael Shannon), who is a government official in charge of the research project, carries an electric cattle prod, urinates in front of Eliza and Zelda, and genuinely enjoys sadism towards the Aqua Man. Now who is the monster, the dangerous alien?

Tension builds as one of the Russian research scientists is ordered to assassinate the amphibious creature before the Americans do. Here The Shape of Water pivots from a spy thriller with an ET vibe to a hodge-podge of 1940’s dance musicals (“La La Land” anyone?) and old film clips of musical numbers starring Shirley Temple, Betty Grable, Carmen Miranda and the Glenn Miller Orchestra among others. What happened to the main story? This not only didn’t hold this viewer’s attention but was a major disconnect.

Sadly, Shape of Water does not represent storytelling at its best. The drama is derivative of ET, and while water is ever changing in its shapelessness, only Elisa brings enough form and feeling to allow us to disavow the plot holes, offkilter sidetracking, and lack of backstory to understand some of the other major characters’ flaws.

Nonetheless, this is a career high for Sally Hawkins, who must   communicate emotion with sheer physicality, since she plays a mute woman. And her performance is extraordinary.

Worth watching for Sally Hawkins and her colleagues Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, and Richard Jenkins. Not so much for the story!

Call Me By Your Name…”And I’ll Call You By Mine”

Based on the novel by André Acimen and directed by Luca Guadagnino, Call Me By Your Name delivers a universal coming-of-age narrative. The two main characters’ relationship serves as a mirror through which viewers can recognize their own vulnerability and youth’s promise of love.

Against the backdrop of the Northern Italian countryside in the 1980’s, Call Me By Your Name is a beautiful portrait of the complexity of human desire and sexuality. Elio (the Academy Award-nominated Timothée Chalamet), is the adolescent son of a Jewish archaeologist and a French-Italian mother. Oliver (Armie Hammer, also nominated for an Academy Award), is a research assistant mentored by Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg). Invited to the professor’s home to gather data on ancient Greek sculpture during the summer, Oliver embark on what would be considered a morally-questionable romance, as he and the teenage Elio explore not only homosexual love but also love between an adolescent and an adult ten years older. Call Me By Your Name normalizes this relationship as simply a romance between two men that seems to exist completely outside of time. The two pass the summer under the glittering Italian sun, portraying both the brilliance of the landscape and the idyllic, albeit ephemeral, nature of summer love and heat.

Chalamet and Hammer deliver amazing and sensitive performances that truly capture the struggle of sexual exploration and identity. Call Me By Your Name reveals the subtle complexities and intense sexual attraction between Elio and Oliver, thus helping the viewer to really understand their romance as well as the games they play.. The character of Elio, in particular, proves incredibly raw, insightful, and even alluring—almost an archetype of male youth, mirrored in a pivotal scene where Elio’s father admires the erotic male sculpture of ancient Greece, stating that the art “dares you to desire them.” In his relatable, sometimes clumsy efforts at winning the affections of Oliver, Elio showcases his vulnerability, anguish, and self-actualization. These struggles are poetically articulated in scenes with Elio’s parents who, rather than denounce the relationship, encourage his self-exploration. Elio’s father delivers an electrifying speech–“We rip so much out of ourselves”– that unapologetically combats conventional notions of masculinity and human desire, lost youth, as well as the aching heartbreak of unrealized dreams.

— Sam McKeown, Guest blogger

Currently a graduate student at the American University of Paris exploring different methods of storytelling through food, Sam’s blog can be found at:

Memento–Remembrance of Things Past

Wesley Saunders, Guest Blogger

[Professional basketball player for Kataja Basket of Finland, Harvard ’15. Stop by his  Instagram: @saunders.wesley and watch his  Youtube at]

Memento movie

Memento (2000), a psychological thriller, is one of director Christopher Nolan’s earliest films, incorporating a couple of Nolan’s signature styles of film making– most notably a dual-plot line and non-linear narrative. Memento follows two distinct story lines, both narrated by the main character, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce). After a head injury sustained during a burglary in which his wife was raped and murdered, Shelby is no longer able to create new memories, only remembering events that occurred before the tragedy. Shelby is haunted by the memory of his wife and her final moments and takes it upon himself to solve his wife’s murder.   His mission: to exact revenge on the person who murdered her and left him with amnesia.

From the onset of Memento Nolan draws us into the first storyline (filmed in color), driven by revenge. In the first scene Shelby exacts revenge and from there, we are shown in reverse chronological order, not only the events that led up to his wife’s brutal murder but also his attempt to reconstruct the past he no longer remembers.

The second narrative is the story of Sammy Jankis (Stephen Tobolowsky) presented in chronological order and filmed in multiple black-and-white flashbacks. These flashbacks pre-date Shelby’s amnesia, taking us back to Shelby’s time as an insurance agent. During this time, Shelby was assigned a case in which Sammy Jankis suffers from the same type of short-term memory loss. Shelby uses Sammy as a way to understand his condition as well as a guide for what to beware of.

While both of these story lines are presented to us simultaneously, Nolan adds his next cinematic device. Similar to some of his later films — Batman Begins: The Dark Knight and The Prestige,– in Memento Nolan cuts, edits, and merges scenes, skewing the viewer’s perspective of time as well as memory. Some scenes are repeated multiple times, truncated only to be finished later on. All of this contributes to the mystique and the mystery of Memento, while also forcing the viewer to pay attention to minute details within each scene that may not have been previously noticed. This style of film making puts the viewer in the shoes of Shelby.

In some instances, the viewer shares Shelby’s confusion– not sure of what has already occurred, or what information another character may or may not have. We too in some ways experience his amnesia and try to put the pieces of the mystery together along with Shelby. Nolan does a masterful job of placing us in the mind of the main character and of giving us an idea of the inner struggle and frustration he faces. By the end of Memento we are left with some answers but many more questions. We have been on a journey of how memory functions, an involuntary process of discovery and concealing.