Tag Archives: movie review

The Shape of Water

You know that feeling when you’ve been submerged in another world for two hours, and when you surface, everything seems less appealing, more mundane?

I’d assume that most people who read books, or watch movies, or undergo other intensive, immersive experiences offered by art are fairly familiar with it. I’d also assume that, given how much practice we’ve had in dealing with it, we’d be better at the surfacing by now. That the rush up for air is less a headlong, pressure-induced splurge than a measured, calm rise air and the ‘real world’. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m still fairly horrible at handling it, yet another way in which I disappoint myself as a human being.

My latest immersive experience (all the puns intended) was with Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water. I’ve been waiting to see this movie for months; it seemed totally up my alley, based on promos. Happy to report that unlike with some other movie experiences this year (sigh, Spiderman Homecoming) my excitement was not misplaced.

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The Shape of Water is a gorgeous fairytale, and I use that term with all the literary weight it carries. At its heart, it is just that—the story of a princess ‘without a voice’ who finds her prince, and must overcome hurdles, some institutional, some personal. The means she uses range from the strangely mundane (towels) to beautifully fantastical (no spoilers). She receives help from her misfit friends, and faces danger from the powers that be. She is very much the hero of our story, the damsel and the saviour both.

Both del Toro and numerous reviewers have been going on about how revolutionary Shape is, the biggest reason being the fact that instead of the conventional, handsome prince, it’s the monster, an ‘amphibian man’, who gets the girl. In an interview, del Toro speaks about how watching The Creature from the Black Lagoon inspired him, how one brief shot of the heroine swimming in the water, the monster lurking beneath, made him hope that they would ‘end up together’. Shape is his fulfillment of that wish, and it’s a beautiful fulfillment yes, but I’m not sure the ‘monster gets the girl’ trope is all that revolutionary by now. Vampire and werewolf love stories have been dominating the big and small screens for years, some darker and less sparkly than others. The moment they decided to make Dracula sexy instead of horrifying, the monsters won.

the shape of water

What I found most ‘revolutionary’ about the movie wasn’t the monster, but the princess herself. It’s a cliche now to say that fairy tales are not exactly the best places to see a woman use her agency. Many princesses are confined to towers, to sleep away centuries, or pay the price for the errors of others. When they do make decisions, it tends to go very badly, and resulted in entire kingdoms being swallowed by thorns, or having to marry warty, demanding frogs. There’s little they do besides look beautiful (without any effort, because no woman in a fairytale has ever had to wax or get her upper lip and eyebrows done) and wait for reward in the form of a handsome prince. Sometimes that prince is a corpse-kissing wanderer in the woods, and at others he’s a book-loving softie hiding behind a fierce facade. Whatever the case, he’s the hero, despite the women being, ostensibly, the centre of the story.

How does Shape rewrite this? Not only is our princess Eliza (Sally Hawkins) riddled with might be seen as ‘defects’ in a traditional fairytale (she is a mute cleaning lady), but those very limitations are what give her power. Her relative invisibility (as the ‘help’, and a not especially glamorous woman) allow her to slip, unnoticed, into places she might not otherwise be allowed to enter; her ‘difference’ is what foregrounds her desire to befriend and rescue the stranger (Doug Jones, encased but not unexpressive in a rubber suit) trapped in a tank. ‘He sees me,’ she signs to her neighbour, seeking to explain his importance to her. The ‘monster’ does not see her flaws; he accepts her entirely for who she is, and having been alone all her life, Eliza feels nothing but compassion, fascination, and eventually, love for this being who has no peer that she can see, or imagine.

To watch Shape is to drown, for what might be a disappointingly short time, in a world that’s markedly similar to ours. There are evil security officials (a great and convincingly horrible Michael Shannon), warmhearted, caring friends (Octavia Spencer, playing to type), Cold War politics all drenched in del Toro’s fantastical colours. There is homage to the sweeping Hollywood epics of the past—both the historical fare that plays in the largely-abandoned theatre below Eliza’s apartment, and the black and white musicals that fuel her romantic daydreams. It’s worth pointing out how art—in this case, music and movies—is what really connects the monster and the maiden, and puts them on the path to communication. Del Toro’s movie is both an homage to that art, as well as a seductive object itself. It reels you in, and submerges you, and when you emerge, the world above seems a little colder, a little less magical, than the depths you’ve left behind.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find them, or, The Potterverse Extravaganza, Ep. 1

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The leading man of Rowling’s latest venture, Newt Scamander, has cut an odd path through the  Potterverse. The first mention of him comes in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, when his name appears on a list of text books that Harry has to buy for school. It’s hardly the  most interesting  thing in a chapter that functions as ours, and Harry’s, first major immersion in the  wizarding world, so most fans would be forgiven for paying no attention to him at all. Indeed, his book would probably have suffered the  fate of One Thousand Magical Herbs and Fungi by the appropriately named Phyllida Spore, had it not been for Rowling’s deciding to give his work physical form, and release it to the  Muggles. Thus, in 2001, we got our hands on Scamander’s seminal work, which carefully documents and introduces to its readers the  fauna of Harry’s world: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

eddieHow does a textbook translate into film? It’s a bit of an odd proposition, no matter that the  textbook itself is part of an immensely popular franchise. In her first outing as a screenplay writer, Rowling has done a brilliant, characteristically magical job: Fantastic Beasts veers quite a bit from its academic origins, and is, instead, a romp through 1920s New York City (specifically Manhattan), with some beasts thrown in for good measure. Tension is high in the City that Never Sleeps, with mysterious attacks leaving buildings and lives destroyed, and internationally feared wizard Gellert Grindelwald on the  loose. Relations with ‘No-Majs’ (that’s what American wizards call ‘Muggles’) are banned, and even so, tension seems on the  rise within American society, with a group known as the  Second Salemers preaching that ‘witches live among us,’ and are responsible for the  chaos in the  city. It’s too uncomfortably close to the truth for disgraced Auror, Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) to ignore, and when Eddie Redmayne’s charming, absent minded professorish Newt Scamander arrives in this mess, touting a briefcase full of illegal, magical creatures, she knows better than to simply ignore him.

Fantastic Beasts is a fun movie, and there’s few enough of those around. The greatest thing about Rowling’s writing is the  puzzle-box aspect of it: how you can unpack layers of meaning and theme from its seemingly simple sentences if you want to, but you could simply take it as surface value if you want to. The  latter reading offers more than enough to satisfy a viewer: an engaging storyline, packed with twists and turns, a well-realized world (though I did have some quibbles, which can be addressed later), good casting (hello Colin Farrell!) and truly superb visual effects. If there’s one thing a movie about magical beasts needs, its the  latter, and WarnerBros really didn’t stint on the  VFX budget.

As far as its place within the  larger Potterverse goes, there’s still some debate. Is Fantastic Beasts canon? Since it was written by J.K. Rowling (and no co-written, as Cursed Child was), the  answer seems to be ‘yes’. It’s certainly being positioned as an important brick in Rowling’s larger magical universe. WarnerBros has announced that there will be a total of five movies in this franchise, with Rowling adding that they will span the  timeframe of 1926 to 1945. Any Harry Potter fan worth their Floo Powder knows what the  second year signifies: while for Muggles, it heralded the  end of World War II, and the defeat of the  Axis Powers, in the  magical world, it marks the infamous duel between Albus Dumbledore and the Dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald, one that ended in Grindelwald’s defeat, and Dumbledore walking away with the  Elder Wand, the  unbeatable Hallow that Voldemort searches for with mounting desperation in Harry Potter and the  Deathly Hallows.

So if the  Harry Potter books chronicled the  second rise, and fall, of Voldemort, the  Fantastic Beasts movies will probably do the  same for Grindelwald. It seems evident we’ll see a young Dumbledore at some point, a wizard in his prime, and maybe even a few more of the  characters we’ve gotten much more ‘adult’ glimpses of in the  books: Horace Slughorn, Minerva McGonagall, maybe even a young and sinister Tom Riddle. The  possibilities are endless.

goldsteinsIf the  whole ‘point’ of Fantastic Beasts is to provide a lens through which to view this turbulent time in wizarding history, Newt Scamander seems like the  perfect protagonist through whom to do it. Apart from his obvious love for magical creatures, there seems to be very little that defines Newt. In the  course of the  film, it’s revealed that he was in Hufflepuff, that he was expelled from Hogwarts on account of a ‘beast’, and that he is friends with Albus Dumbledore. Oh, also that he was friends with someone named Leta Lestrange, but that she changed a great deal. He also seems to be a competent enough wizard, and has indeed performed one commendable feat that none can believe (not spoiling it here, though it’s important in the  context of the  movie). This is the  sum total of what we know of him, and the  way Redmayne plays him, it’s easy enough to forget that there is definitely more to him than that. Redmayne is wonderful as always, maybe too wonderful, slipping into the  background as Newt would no doubt want to do, allowing other characters, particularly Tina and her Legilimens (‘mind reading’) sister Queenie to take centre stage. Farrell’s Auror Graves is appropriately sinister and almost alarmingly powerful, and Ezra Miller, one of the  most promising young actors out there, is the  repressed, confused Second Salemer Credence, lured by the  magical world, and hungering to join it. Miller’s desperation and loneliness rings through the  movie, not at all dampened by the  unfortunate pudding bowl haircut inflicted upon him by the  make-up department.

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Unlike the  events of the  Potter series, which were centred around one young wizard, Fantastic Beasts is obviously keen on being much ‘larger’. It will sweep through a number of countries, no doubt, taking us to all the  places Newt ventures in search of magical creatures, a quest that unfolds against the  backdrop of larger political and cultural currents, the  rise and fall of governments and dark wizards, of old wars and new. If Harry Potter funneled the  conflicts symbolized by Voldemort and Dumbledore, and played them out within the  microcosm of one school and in the  heart of one boy, Fantastic Beasts dispenses with the  one boy altogether, and lets the  larger world splay itself across the  screen, as it does right from the  opening titles, newspapers flipping open one after the  other. Despite this, Rowling does a tremendous job of keeping the  eponymous beasts front and centre, refusing to let viewers forget them even as the  wizards convene in emergency parliaments and unleash powerful magic. The  question is whether she can keep this up for four more movies, or whether the  largeness of her own creation will swallow those little details, the  intricate pieces of her puzzle-box, whole.

The Potterverse is coming for you.
The Potterverse is coming for you.