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The Shape of Water – Review

17 Dec

Anyone who’s read my reviews knows that I’m a huge fan of Guillermo del Toro. I recently reviewed one of his earlier films, The Devil’s Backbone, and gave it all the praise it rightfully deserves. What makes del Toro’s movies so excellent you might ask? It’s the way he uses fantasy and horror to show that sometimes the scariest parts of life aren’t the creatures we create, but humanity itself. It’s truly hard not to feel for the characters in his films or get lost in the sweeping cinematography or awe at his outstanding creature effects. Now we have The Shape of Water to add to his continuing filmography of magical fantasy pieces that hold a mirror up to the world. It’s everything you could possibly want with a movie written and directed by Guillermo del Toro.

Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute janitor at the Occam Aerospace Research Center. Her only friends are Zelda (Octavia Spencer), another janitor at the research center, and Giles (Richard Jenkins), a washed up artist struggling to get back on his feet. Elisa’s life completely changes one day when a new “asset” (Doug Jones) is brought to her work by the sadistic Col. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), who makes it quite clear early on that he’s not a man that can be trusted or related to in any way. After some investigating, Elisa learns that the asset is a humanoid amphibian that’s capable of learning, understanding, and emotions. The two become very good friends, but Strickland’s intentions of killing the creature and dissecting it soon become clear. Elisa can’t allow that to happen, so with the help of Giles, Zelda, and an undercover Soviet scientist named Dmitri (Michael Stuhlbarg), rescues the Amphibian Man and brings him to Giles’ home until they can release him. As Elisa’s relationship to the Amphibian Man grows, Strickland’s mission to find him and kill him becomes more and more obsessive and dangerous.

There’s so much packed into this movie, it’s sort of hard to know where to start. The first thing that I really started picking up on was how strong the characters were. By strong, I mean they all felt real and had their own small quirks that made them all unique. Michael Shannon’s character was always biting down on the same green hard candy, Octavia Spencer’s character was constantly going on about her husband and how much her feet hurt, and Richard Jenkins’ character has his love for old film stars and anxiety about his hair. One of the main themes of this movie is togetherness and relationships, and seeing these rich characters’ personalities meshing and clashing added something really special to the movie and it made the idea of relationships feel solid.

While The Shape of Water is definitely about the power of relationships it also dives into the realm of political fears and conspiracies, accepting people’s differences, and understanding of the positives and negatives that shape our world. This really is a fully developed movie, but I’m always going to see The Shape of Water as a love story. It’s a story of romantic love, love between close friends, and also the dangers of the absence of love. Elisa may not have much, but the people around her all love her, even if it’s only her neighbor and a friend from work. Col. Strickland, on the other hand, has lost all connection with love of any kind. His family is the perfect nuclear family living in suburbia who still get excited whenever he walks in the door. To him that feeling is nonexistent and that clouds and darkens who he is as a human being and how he treats other humans, and in this case, humanoids.

This film is filled with some of my favorite performances of this year. Sally Hawkins is downright incredible as Elisa and she hardly speaks a word in this movie. She doesn’t even have to, and we all know exactly what she’s trying to say. Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins are great side characters to Elisa and Doug Jones once again shows his talent with work like this. Michael Shannon is my favorite actor, and even I was surprised with how he treated his character. My only real complaint about this movie was some of the writing. The reason the government wants to dissect the Amphibian Man is because of space research? I can’t say I really see the connection and leaving it as open as possible might have been better than giving a vague reason why. It just seemed kind of like an afterthought in del Toro’s grand scheme.

The Shape of Water is one of Guillermo del Toro’s finest works. He’s created a unique love story that’s also filled with fantasy, espionage, comedy, and an often dark and sad examination of character. Some of the writing could have used a little more attention, but this is still a movie that’s making my brain work on overdrive. The characters and their performers were all top notch, the creature effects were brilliant, and the connections between all of the characters felt organic for better or for worse. The Shape of Water is truly an excellent movie.

Final Grade: A

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Altered States – Review

4 Feb

The mind is one of the most amazing things to really think about. It’s a complex, almost abstract, biological machine that is strong, yet can be destroyed very easily. Enter drugs.  To some, they are a demented tool used by disturbed individuals for their own sadistic pleasure, yet others see drugs as a way of tapping into areas of our mind that we may not even know exists. Altered States is a strange and intelligent movie that explores drugs and their effects in a way that I’ve never seen done before.

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Edward Jessup (William Hurt) is a professor with a unique interest in abnormal psychology. At first, he’s interested in how schizophrenics react, through drug research and sensory depravation, to supposed altered states of consciousness. It doesn’t take long for Jessup, himself, to begin experimenting using the sensory depravation combined with a strange, mind bending mushroom brought back from Mexico. After months of doing this research, and using the drug multiple times, Jessup begins to notice something strange about himself. He appears to be devolving.

As far as narratives go, Altered States is not a very easy movie to 100% understand what exactly is going on. The story itself isn’t very twisted, but it is, arguably, pretty convoluted. A strange Mexican drug that, when mixed with sensory depravation, makes you devolve? I dare you to find something remotely like this. While it may be a little hard to buy into at first, it is intriguing, and you begin to really get lost in the story and all of its impressive visual effects. The effects, however, are a whole different story all together.

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Released in 1980, I figured that the special effects would look really cool, but also pretty dated. I’m a fan of older special effects, like what is seen in John Carpenter’s The Thing, but there are instances where these kind of special effects are distracting due to their aged look. Luckily, Altered States looks fantastic. They do look a little aged in their own way, but it sort of works great with the movie. If this was remade, and all of the effects were CGI, I feel like the “trip scenes” wouldn’t have impacted me as much as they did. Speaking of CGI, this was one of the first movies to really implement it, even though it was just for a quick scene towards the end of the movie. This particular effect looks pretty primitive, but it is a pretty important step for special effects in the film world.

I don’t feel like Altered States really gets the recognition it deserves. It was recognized back then as a great exercise in film making with two Academy Awards for Best Sound and Best Original Score. It lost Best Sound to The Empire Strikes Back, which I will admit, is pretty understandable. We are talking about one of the greatest sequels ever made. Still, I find it upsetting that it isn’t really remembered today. I hypothesize that if you were to try to bring Altered States back into pop culture, it wouldn’t be received very well because of how bizarre it is.

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Altered States is a really good science fiction/horror film. It can’t really be compared to a film of the same genre like Alien or its sequel, but it is definitely a lot better than I expected, and a really good movie in general. It’s quite a bizarre narrative with some of the weirdest scenes you will ever see in the movies. Unfortunately, the story can be a bit difficult to really buy into and the ending is a bit of a let down, but it’s still a trip worth taking if you think your mind can handle it.