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!

“Olive Kitteridge”—Scenes from a Marriage, or A Bitter Edge

Olive Kitteridge

The HBO mini-series based on Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Olive Kitteridge” delivers big time! With a stellar cast led by the astounding Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins, we see the two main characters Olive and Henry vacillate between love and despair, kindness and absence of human connection. Scenes from a marriage with a bitter edge.

The main character, Olive Kitteridge, is intentionally the most puzzling and difficult to empathize with. She is more an anti-hero than a protagonist you identify with and hope for. There are glimmers of her compassion as the story winds on in this four-hour drama, but the darkest moments are the most unforgettable in the first half of the narrative. Like “August: Osage County”, the mother is a child’s worst nightmare. Olive, like Violet Weston, has been damaged so deeply by the family she loved, that the only ones she can care for are strangers or acquaintances. Those closest to her suffer the most.

Her husband, Henry, is sympathetic at the beginning but a slender bridge between his kind, supportive side and his darker, minefield of neediness slowly reveals itself.

Themes of suicide, depression, cruelty, infidelity, desperation, aging and love run through “Olive Kittredge” like a never-ending storm, with bursts of lightning and thunder and an intermittent, quiet drizzle that gives the viewer a needed relief from the piercing agony in this family’s lives and those of other townsfolk in the small Maine town, refuting the belief that small communities care for each other.

This intergenerational saga is a portrayal of a miserably unhappy couple and their son, in which each is obsessed with his or her own happiness but has no clue how to achieve it. The emotional center of the narrative centers on how neither Olive nor Henry is aware of what impact they have on others, nor how they are not always right.

But as twenty-five years of marriage pass, a growing awareness, especially on the part of Olive, surfaces and she slides into a begrudging insight.  The last lines resonate with emotional power and are impossible to forget—A seventy-five year old Olive mutters: “The world baffles me, but I do not want to leave it yet.” Perhaps her unhealed wounds are starting to heal.

This is a powerful, very dark production rich in character and language, adapted from a mesmerizing literary source!