[Screen It]


(2017) (Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon) (R)

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Sci-Fi/Fantasy: A mute cleaning lady develops a unique bond with an intelligent amphibian type creature that's been captured by the U.S. military in the early 1960s.
It's 1962 and Elisa Esposito (SALLY HAWKINS) is a mute cleaning lady who works alongside her friend and coworker, Zelda Fuller (OCTAVIA SPENCER), at a top-secret government facility in Baltimore. They pretty much keep to themselves, which isn't much of a problem for Elisa whose apparent only other friend is Giles (RICHARD JENKINS), a closeted ad artist who lives in the next-door apartment and is trying to get back into the business after losing his last job due to his drinking.

But her attention is drawn to a Creature from the Black Lagoon sort of amphibious being (DOUG JONES) that's been brought to the facility. While Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (MICHAEL STUHLBARG) is interested in examining the creature, government agent Strickland (MICHAEL SHANNON) -- who reports directly to General Hoyt (NICK SEARCY) -- seems more fixated on torturing it for answers, with his work carying over with him when he's back home with his wife, Elaine (LAUREN LEE SMITH).

Unbeknownst to nearly everyone there, a Russian handler, Mihalkov (NIGEL BENNETT), has a double agent working at the facility and they're planning on stealing away the creature or killing it to prevent the Americans from gaining any sort of insider knowledge from interacting with or possibly even dissecting it. The latter doesn't sit well with Elisa who's begun to develop an unusual bond with the creature that she views as an intelligent and kind being rather than a monster like Strickland and others. As everyone makes a play for the creature, Elisa does what she can to protect him.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
One of the most beloved fairytales of all time is "Beauty and the Beast." I have no idea how well (or not) it was received back in the mid 18th century, but since then it's enchanted many a reader and viewer over the centuries be that in written or viewed form. And that's despite the inherent bestiality component that's obviously always present, but usually forgiven or overlooked as the beast is usually just viewed as an uber hairy man suffering from a spell cast on him.

Others have done variations with the cross-species, love is blind tale, such as "Splash" where Tom Hanks' character fell in love with a mermaid played by Darryl Hannah. Again, few had problems with that coupling. But when people hear a description of or see a clip from "The Shape of Water" -- the latest fantastical and fantastic offering from Guillermo del Toro -- the first reaction from many is a scrunched up face accompanied by "Ewww!"

I'm guessing that's because this film's "beast" is an amphibious humanoid type creature that has an undeniable Creature from the Black Lagoon presence about him. If you can get over that appearance and don't mind the decidedly off-beat cross-species relationship that develops as the two-hour or so tale unfolds, you'll be treated to a unique (if decidedly adult, and then some) fairytale that's visually captivating, emotionally stirring and one of the best films of 2017.

Written by del Toro and co-scribe Vanessa Taylor, the story revolves around a mute woman (a mesmerizing Sally Hawkins) who works as a cleaning lady in an early 1960s top secret government facility in Baltimore. Her only real friends appear to be a co-worker (Octavia Spencer) and her next-door apartment neighbor (Richard Jenkins) who's trying to rebuild his advertisement artist career that was derailed by his past drinking.

That lack of other significant interpersonal contact and connection, along with her disability are likely what draw her to the loner creature (Doug Jones heavily made up) that was captured in South America and brought to the facility where it's being examined by a kind scientist (Michael Stuhlbarg) and tortured by a sadistic military man (Michael Shannon) who's looking to get intel out of the creature.

He obviously knows it's intelligent, as does Elisa who initially watches from a distance, and then feeds the creature eggs and eventually serenades it -- although that's not the initial intent -- with music from a portable turntable.

And that's where my only real complaint about the film comes into play. While I was able to buy into the notion of such a creature, I couldn't get around the fact that this cleaning lady was able to so easily get access to the creature, feed it, and play music aloud (in an echoey chamber no less) without anyone noticing. I know it's not a huge storytelling issue where suspension of disbelief is already required, but it took me out of the film as an all-too-obvious distraction.

Which is a bit of a shame because the direction in which the story ultimately heads easily could have provided an explanation in the form of the military wanting her character to meet, befriend and ultimately fall in love with the creature knowing what that would likely lead to next (something from which the film does not shy away from) and which would possibly give them exactly what they were after in the first place. I'm somewhat surprised del Toro and Taylor didn't take advantage of that obvious opportunity and thus explain away the distraction.

In any event, the rest of the film is something to behold, with strong performances from Hawkins and Jenkins (who should get award nominations) and solid ones from their supporting co-stars. Tech credits are excellent across the board, ranging from the production and costume design to Dan Lausten's beautiful cinematography and Alexandre Desplat's mesmerizing and melodic score.

Notwithstanding the occasional spell-breaking distraction I noted as well as the unique human-amphibian pairing, "The Shape of Water" is the shape of visual storytelling at some of its finest. It rates as a 7.5 out of 10.

Reviewed November 2, 2017 / Posted December 8, 2017

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