Meditation Park (2017)

Written and Directed by: Mina Shum


257925R1           Meditation Park is somewhat unusual for a piece of a western cinema. Its protagonist is a non-white (Chinese), somewhat elderly woman with limited English skills living in Vancouver. Her name is Maria and she is a soft-spoken housewife. Western viewers (myself included, but-for what I learned at a Q&A session after the movie) may miss out on the irony of her being played by one of China’s most famous actors, martial arts movie veteran Cheng Pei Pei. Meditation Park’s notability as a film, however, is by no means limited to the characters it presents. The film is a realistic one, limited by the mundanity of Maria’s life. It nonetheless manages to captivate audiences by stirring up drama in Maria’s world. Briefly she is caught up in a horror movie as a drone of telephone rings overwhelms her. Later, she is the star of a comic-detective film, stocking her husband by taxi in a very-makeshift disguise. More regularly, she lives in a low-key fantasy world, accompanied by her quirky and colourful parking-business friends,

Meditation Park is a story about marital infidelity. What gives it its unique character, however, is that Maria, for a variety of reasons is unable or unwilling to show the emotion we might most expect of her when she discovers her husband’s indiscretions: anger. Maria’s husband Bing (character actor Tzi Ma, last seen in Arrival) is initially presented as a jolly, loving partner, but as the film develops his traditionalist-patriarchal side becomes more apparent. Arguably both his good and domineering sides play a role in keeping Maria from wanting to confront him. Regardless, what matters is that Maria does not confront him, and instead, ambitiously pursues self help by trying to fundamentally alter her own life story.

Maria’s angerless lifestyle allows us to see her in a number of interesting emotional lights. We see her fear, her empathy and her social awkwardness. One side effect of her not being able to express anger at her mistreatment is that she can come across as a bit light-headed. Through her character, audiences thus get a best of both worlds experience. On the one hand, she is satisfying to root for as your typical loveable loser. On the flip side, we know she is not in fact a naïve or oblivious person and as such we do not see her smiles in the face of defeat as a sign of weakness but as melancholy indications of her predicament. If there is one tragic exception to this rule, it pertains to Maria’s English skills. While she has a heavy accent, she is effectively fluent and never struggles to understand the English speaking characters around her. She nonetheless remains convinced throughout the film that her English is not very good, perhaps a sign of the inferiority complex she has towards her husband.

If I were to offer one criticism of the film it is that it prioritizes resolving its plot over maintaining its artistry. There were two moments where I expected the film to end: a scene where Maria participates in a silent disco, and a subsequent scene where Bing breaks down discussing aging. Both scenes would have made for fitting conclusions consistent with what is unique about Maria’s character (she resists without directly resisting and remains optimistic and loving in the face of sorrow). Nonetheless, the film’s more conventional ending is certainly pleasant enough to watch, and I cannot complain too much about getting to spend a few extra minutes with its characters.

Meditation Park also stars Sandra Oh as Maria’s overworked daughter who is in a (mostly) happy, egalitarian marriage; and Don McKellar (star of my favourite Canadian film, Highway 61) as Maria’s mischievously opportunistic but heartbroken neighbour Gabriel. Enjoyable as an educational, visual and narrative experience, Meditation Park is a solid film, and will hopefully get more screen time than it has received so far.


Thoroughbreds (2017)

Written and Directed by: Corey Finley


Thoroughbreds_(2017_film) Whether or not you watched the trailer going into Thoroughbreds, there is probably something you will pick up quickly: this is a film about dichotomies. The film stars two young-women actors, playing even younger (16/17 year old) characters. One, Amanda (Olivia Cooke), is immediately presented as emotionally-lacking. The character throws around some potential diagnostic labels, showing that this is the lens through which her character is viewed, but dismisses them all and never mentions them again (making it clear we should not view her as a caricature of any one condition). All we are supposed to know about her is that she does not have feelings, at least not, according to her, sadness and joy. Her counterpart is Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) who is timid, initially unassertive and working as an SAT tutor for Amanda. Thus we have our initial dichotomy cold-and-dark vs empathetic-and-sensitive.


Savvy viewers, will quickly begin to question the dichotomy between the girls. In the scene immediately following Amanda’s explanation of her condition, she can be seen playing online poker. Despite her criminal past, Amanda appears to be well off with a supportive mother (Lily, it should be noted is blatantly well off, living in a mansion and attending private school). Therefore, it would seem Amanda is gambling for fun, suggesting she does experience something resembling joy. Moreover, while I am clearly no psychologist, I was instantly troubled by the problem of what it meant for a person to feel no joy. I have heard the phrase “pleasure principle” thrown around to describe human behaviour and it sounds right to me: we seek that which makes us happy: why, therefore, would a person do anything if they don’t feel happiness?


While Thoroughbnreds never answers the question of whether or not Amanda does feel joy and whether or not she is a reliable narrator of her own experiences, the film does ultimately complicate its initial dichotomy. Lily is quickly revealed to have troubles of her own and is willing to act as recklessly as Amanda does. Without saying too much, we go from seeing Amanda as free of feeling and Lilly as full of feeling to seeing Amanda as bold in the face of her feelings (or lack their of) and Lily as a prisoner of her feelings.

Another (false) dichotomy lies in the character’s relationship to neuronormativity. While Amanda may be undiagnosed, we know she has been labelled as worthy of diagnosis. Lily has not been subject to any such process. Therefore we are initially led (and many viewers will no doubt fall into this trap even as the film concludes) to see Lily and Amanda in fundamentally different lights: one is sick, one is merely troubled. This distinction between sick and troubled, however, is completely arbitrary and can be described as the result of different lucky breaks playing out in the two girls’ lives.


Class is yet another important dichotomy in Thoroughbreds. Lily’s mansion-dwelling does not simply provide the film with charming scenery, it also serves as a metaphor: a place in which the girls’ web of secrets can hide amidst the many artifacts. Furthermore, by protecting the girls with socioeconomic privilege, the film is able to avoid other complications from intervening with their stories, and thus cut to what it wants to cover: their psychologies. The class dynamics of Thoroughbreds, however, is played out most through the character of Tim (Anton Yelchin). While Tim is introduced in a negative light, having served prison time for statutory rape and currently making money by selling drugs to kids, he is generally portrayed as timid, pathetic and perhaps even pacifistic in comparison to the film’s protagonists. While it is unclear what his previous socioeconomic status was, for much of the film he works as a dishwasher. His character thus shows the different consequences criminal behaviour can have for people in distinct socioeconomic circumstances.


Innocence and horror have long walked hand in hand. Surely many readers can picture the trope of a child eerily asking you to “come and play.” This too is a dichotomy Thoroughbreds embraces and manipulates. Rather than having them be haunted house props or antagonists, this film puts unsettling children at its centre. We are made to be terrified by them, but precisely because we feel for them and do not want them to be terrifying. Unless you don’t like blood, or suspense (there’s far more of that than blood), Thoroughbreds is a must see

A Fantastic Woman (2017)

Directed by: Sebastián Lelio Written by: Lelio and Gonzalo Maza


A_Fantastic_Woman            How do you draw the line between politics and art? It’s not an easy question to answer, and in most cases its probably best left unaddressed. Until humans learn to fully articulate our sensory experiences it is a question we should simply explore through our instincts. A work is art when it captures us for what it is and not just what it saying.

Why do I ask this question? Because its gets at what is fantastic about A Fantastic Woman. The film tells the story of Marina (Daniela Vega) an opera-singing transwoman waitress whose partner Orlando (Franciso Reyes)’s family members become increasingly overt in their displays of violent transphobia. The film is not subtle in its politics. It shines a light on a number of issues including misgendering, the indignities transpeople face when asked to provide government ID, the objectification of transbodies and distrust between trans* communities and the police. The film is sufficiently subtle in exploring different manifestations of transphobia. Sometimes it’s the aggressive queries manchildren; sometimes it’s the saviourism of establishment feminists; and sometimes it’s the stands of religious moralists.

The film is also careful, however, to show that a non-transphobic world is possible. In addition to being close to her sister (Antonia Zegers) Marina also has friend in Orlando’s brother Gabo (Luis Gnecco), despite Gabo (like Orlando) looking the part of an establishment white cisman. While his presence is more subtle, its not much of a stretch to notice that Gabo’s presence in the film is not unlike that of Juan’s (Mahershala Ali’s character) in Moonlight.

So perhaps a Fantastic Woman’s accomplishment is that it’s the rare work that manages to be blatant with its politics without compromising its artistic merits. This is an accomplishment that rests on the film’s good pacing, its memorable characters and occasional ventures into magical realism. That said, perhaps there’s more to the film than meets the eye.

The defining act of transphobic marginalization in A Fantastic Woman is that a number of characters combine to prevent a transwoman from expressing her sadness. It is perhaps this characteristic that makes the pain Marina suffers so indignifying, her tormentors so frustrating and her wanderings so captivating. Marina is a freedom fighter, yet in her pursuit of freedom, the best prize she can take home is a dusky, cobweb covered trophy.

A Fantastic Woman’s melancholy direction doesn’t simply define Marina, but her tormentors as well. The film is set up so that we can believe (if not with certainty) that the transphobia hurled at Marina is itself motivated by grief. Perhaps it is long suppressed bigotry finally seeing the light, or perhaps it is brand-new feelings born from the circumstances. This quality gives the film both political and artistic depth. Politically, it represents the idea of peoples turning to fascism in hard times: of appeasing their sorrows by seeking to assert power over those even more marginalized then themselves. Artistically it gives audiences just a pinch of cognitive dissonance. While it is fairly clear we are not supposed to root for Marina’s tormentors, the fact that they have genuine sorrows, and cite their sorrows to justify their bullying of Marina just makes it the slightest bit uncomfortable to be fully against them (a discomfort we can believe Marina is bothered by as well).

It’s probably true that everything is “political.” It’s also true that “the political” need not just be about politics. A Fantastic Woman is such a work, and a model one at that; it speaks to the ills of this time, but also creates a melancholy interpersonal dynamic that transcends its context.


Ferdinand (2017)

Directed by: Carlos Saldanha. Written by: Robert L. Baird, Tim Federle and Brad Copeland

Ferdinand_(film)What makes a film good or not is subjective, that’s no controversial statement. Nonetheless, when writing criticisms, rationally or not, one senses a limit to that logic. I explored this idea in my thoughts on Call Me By Your Name, a film I wasn’t thrilled to watch but nonetheless could tell was a commendable oeuvre. By contrast, while watching Ferdinand, I was wrapped in cognitive dissonance. I liked what I saw, but I had a sense I wasn’t supposed to. Indeed, an after-the-film web search showed me that that Ferdinand is widely seen as a run-of-the-mill mediocre children’s film.

Ferdinand is based on a 1937 children’s book of the same name by Munro Leaf. Leaf’s book is the story of a gentle, flower-loving bull who is mistakenly viewed as having fighting potential when he is seen jumping around in pain from a bee sting. The film does not deviate from the book per se, as it is simply a much longer, more detailed imagining of the original premise. According to Tim Brayton of Alternative Endings, there in lies the problem. The original text of Ferdinand was a classic, he says, but a “demented goat,” “a meat-processing facility that has the internal logic of a 1950s Warner cartoon,” and “three hedgehogs whose primary contribution to the plot is musical numbers” are the epitome of mediocre filler.

Aside from his failure to recognize the moderate cleverness of including a calming goat as a sidekick, I don’t disagree with Brayton. For its humor Ferdinand relied on meh-slapstick scenes, German and Scottish accents, the arbitrarily blue and purple hedgehogs, and the antics of Lupe the goat who is essentially a poor-man’s Dory. What I believe Brayton, and Vikram Murthi miss, however, is that the appeal of Ferdinand lies not in its humor, but in its plot. Both critics describe the heart of the film as its clichéd, be-yourself message. This generalization misses the obvious, that Ferdinand is a story about a bull.

Despite its cute aesthetic, Ferdinand’s opening is thoroughly morbid. The film begins in the Spanish countryside at Casa del Toro, where young bulls butt heads, not ignorant to, but certainly naïve about the horrible end they are training for (the bull fight). These morbid stakes are raised further when we discover that these young bulls live at the same venue as their fathers. The calves, particularly Ferdinand’s bully Valiente (Jack Gore, Bobby Canavale as an adult), eagerly cheer on their father’s attempts to make the bullfights, Ferdinand (Colin H. Murphy, John Cena as an adult), being the exception to this rule. In his brief appearance, Ferdinand’s father (Jeremy Sisto) makes for one the of the film’s more nuanced characters. In gently explaining to his son that bulls are destined to fight, he illustrates how the film’s bulls are overwhelmingly trapped in a toxic-masculine, or at very least fatalist, culture without embodying any of said culture’s  brutish coldness.

That the bulls live with their fathers and not mothers is another interesting choice on the film’s part (in the book Ferdinand is raised by his mother). Ferdinand has always been perceived as a story that challenges traditional gender roles, since it stars a flower loving, pacifistic alpha-male. While Ferdinand the film includes somewhat prominent female characters (Lupe (Kate McKinnon), Una the hedgehog (Gina Rodriguez) and Nina, his adoptive owner (Julia Saldanha, later Lilly Day), its male-centric set-up is actually what makes its anti-patriarchal politics so effective . Rather than tempering their machismo with guidance from more level-headed and morally authoritative female characters, the bulls of Ferdinand must escape from the prison of their toxic masculinity themselves.

But, let’s go back to the importance of Ferdinand being about bulls. We have acknowledged that the film opens morbidly to a scene of bulls being raised for a bloody-sport and being brainwashed into being excited about this. We then get to know Ferdinand who realizes fighting is not for him, yet after an incident with a bee is forced back into the fighting world, despite his knowledge of the dangers that lie with it. The plots gets even darker as slaughter-houses are made part of the equation. The film’s approach to the slaughter house is not uninteresting. When one prominent character is sent away to be butchered, the other characters do nothing. While parents should rest assured that Ferdinand ultimately ends as a play-it-safe, feel-good kid’s film, it does truly force its viewers to accept the gnawing reality of the abattoir. The inside of slaughter-house, meanwhile, is presented as dark, empty, and functioning without the presence of humans. This is because part of Ferdinand’s darkness, with the partial exception of a matador, lies in its carefullness not to present humans as bad guys: the humans are simply following the rules of their society. There is unquestionably something sinister about the fact that Ferdinand and his fellow bulls are brought face to face with death, by the mundane, softspoken owner of Casa del Toro. It should also be noted that the imagery of the empty slaughter-house further enforces the film’s theme of self-imprisonment.

Ferdinand’s story may be simple, but it is one that flows naturally and compellingly. In that regard it’s worth comparing to Coco (which gets a 97% on Rotten Tomatoes, compared to Ferdinand’s 71%). While Coco’s premise and aesthetic may be more inventive than Ferdinand’s, parts of its story seems forced: namely the absoluteness of Miguel’s family’s opposition to music and the sudden-emergence-of and over-the-top-explanation-for Hector’s death. Is it fair that Ferdinand is seen as mediocre because of its second-rate comedy writing, while Coco is given a pass on its rushed-plot development? Or is this perhaps an example of how our pre-conceived biases (Pixar=good, Blue Sky=mediocre) shape our viewing experiences?

This is not to say I do not have problems with how Ferdinand was written. While it surprises me that Ferdinand’s dual terrors of human disregard for animal life, and the self-imposed prison of toxic masculinity was not more universally compelling, the writing of Ferdinand’s adult character undoubtedly watered down the effectiveness of the film’s plot. Ferdinand’s one flaw is not being aware of his own size (he essentially sees himself as a puppy). Aside from that, he is kind, courageous, and most importantly very aware of the futility of bull fighting. Unlike the less anthropomorphic version of Ferdinand in Leaf’s book, the film character is not a naïve, gentle-giant, but a model citizen who teaches the other bulls to stop being self-destructively competitive and to find self-actualization outside of the bullring. Were Ferdinand less self-aware, and thus less capable of engineering an escape plan, perhaps his plights would have seemed more overwhelming and thus more striking to critics. Even this criticism, however, I must bracket with nuance. The trope of the naïve-gentle-giant is not always a bad one, but the world needs to look beyond it. Do we want to live in a world where we assume giants are only gentle because they are simple-minded (in fairness to the original Ferdinand, it’s not so much that he’s simple minded, but that’s he’s a quasi-realistic bull who’s thoughts are thus inaccessible to us)?

In short, Ferdinand is not the most inventive piece when it comes to comedy or allegory. That said, if you can bring yourself to take it literally, not as a kids comedy for humans, but a potentially-tragic epic about bulls, you might find it more affective than some of its less forgiving reviewers. Regardless of what you think of the film, you should at very least check out the book and its fascinating history.

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Written and Directed by: Martin McDonagh

CW: This film deals with bluntly with sexual and domestic violence, and also addresses police brutality and racism (a focus of this review).

Three_Billboards_Outside_Ebbing,_Missouri            When you see a title as verbose as that of TBOEM (sorry, that’s what I’m to call it), you know you’re in for an unusual viewing experience. TBOEM is the story of Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), the mother of a rape-and-murder victim enraged at the failure of police to find her daughter’s assailant. She expresses her rage by renting three abandoned billboards on which she denounces the town’s beloved police chief William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). The billboards are mundane in their color-scheme and brutally graphic in their words. They are significant in that they come to mean something greater to Mildred than the direct political purpose they serve. That said, the quirk of the film lies not so much in the billboards, as in the conflict they stir.

Harrelson is well cast as Willoughby, a character whose personality lies somewhere on the spectrum of Albus Dumbledore (powerful man with a surprisingly gentle soul) to Long John Silver (megalomaniac who manages to have a gentle soul on the side). Whether Harrelson is more Dumbledore or Silver depends of course on what one assumes about the film’s subtext (ie what the Ebbing police were up to when the camera wasn’t running). Political assumptions aside (we’ll get back to that later), Willoughby’s gentleness certainly stands out. While other citizens of Ebbing, which seems be a town where everyone knows everyone, are quick to denounce the billboards, Willoughby humors them and speaks empathetically of Hayes. He is simultaneously affectionate towards his loose cannon colleague, Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell).

Willoughby’s gentleness enables one of the film’s notable characteristics: genre-bending. Willoughby speaks wryly and light-heartedly, despite delivering some quite heavy lines. The result of his characterization is that it frees the audience from having to simply experience TBOEM as a literal, realist story. Instead, audiences can appreciate the film as an exploration of how different kinds of police-in-small-town-storylines (fictional and real) in contemporary American can play out. Hayes’ son (Lucas Hedges) and friendly barfly James (Peter Dinklage) also make important contributions to the film’s wonderfully awkward gesticulations between its sombre and slapstick moods.

TBOEM is reminiscent of Coen brothers and Tarantino films. It features occasional outburst of violence that is swept under the rug with relative ease. This violence, much like in Tarantino’s political works, Jango Unchained and Unglorious Bastards, can be read as a metaphor for the intensity of its character’s feelings, the violent oppression they face and the urgency and validness of their causes. More so than in Tarantino films, however, the violence in TBOEM boils up at a moment’s notice, giving audiences the particularly uncomfortable experience of not knowing whether to take it literally or even that seriously. Some of TBOEM’s violence fits into the story at such a sharp angle that it comes across as a very dark form of physical comedy.

TBOEM also attempts to factor racism into its storyline. This is where the film gets sloppy. Martin McDonagh made a film in which a police department is criticized for not working hard enough to make an arrest. It seems that he worried his message would be misconstrued as a claim that the problem with America’s police is that they don’t police enough. Therefore, it seems, he threw in a number of references to racist (and homophobic) behaviour from Ebbing police officers, particularly Dixon, so that his film would not be interpreted as oblivious to these ills. McDonagh includes three black characters in his script, all of who appear just enough to be remembered, but not enough to be memorable. For example, one black character, Denise (Amanda Warren), is arrested for marijuana possession, as a way of illustrating police racism. Denise, however, is never shown objecting to or suffering through her incarceration. Rather, her suffering is objectified as a self-righteous talking point for her friend Mildred Hayes.

Others have criticized TBOEM’s approach to race on the grounds that Dixon is ultimately portrayed in a sympathetic light despite passing references in the film to his “torturing black people” (and no suggestion that his racial politics improve). The film’s quirky style leaves it unclear what exactly these accusations mean: are they to be taken literally, or as grain-of-truth-accusations from his critics. On the one hand, the accusations are repeated and never rebutted. On the other hand, they are referenced so casually, that it is hard to fully accept that they are true. I can therefore, on the one hand, understand the criticism the film has garnered. In real life, anti-black violence from police is readily brushed over, so it makes sense that some viewers could interpret the film as a reinforcement of this unjust order. On the other hand, this critique ignores that TBOEM is not exactly a realist film; let alone one with clear messages. Dixon should not be understood as a person, but as a post-modern character who simultaneously inhabits (perhaps exaggerated versions of) different interpretations of white American masculinity. The emergence of Dixon-as-hero (and not exactly an angelic hero) therefore does not erase the problem of Dixon-as-racial-oppressor. I suppose therefore, I would defend McDonagh from some critiques while readily acknowledging that these critiques are a justified consequence for the film’s failure to meaningfully develop its own black characters

TBOEM brings together a great cast of characters into a story with well written dialogue and excellent melange of tones. Whether it will ultimately be remembered as perhaps this year’s best effort in narrative constructions or for its political shortcomings (and, as always, I hope both viewpoints can be understood and held in appropriate balance by as many viewers as possible) is a question that remains to be answered, though I’m sure its one this year’s academy awards will not fail to bring to a boil.

Coco (2017)

Directed by: Lee Unkrich Written by: Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich

Coco_(2017_film)_posterCoco marks at least two major innovations in the history of Pixar filmmaking. One is that it is Pixar’s first “ethnically” themed film (well there’s Ratatouille and Brave, but  it’s Pixar’s first ethnically themed film where insensitive cultural representation was a risk). The other is that it is the first Pixar film to revolve around a child: 12-year-old Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez).

Coco’s Mexicanness is essential, as it takes place during The Day of the Dead: a holiday with traditions that are explicitly explained in the film. That said, Coco’s focus on a demographic of humans, should not be viewed as an abandonment of the Pixar tradition of making films about groupings-of-things. I once came across an internet meme that described Pixar’s approach as follows: “what if toys had feelings?, what if bugs had feelings?, what if monsters had feelings?….what if feelings had feelings?” Coco follows this pattern by asking “what if the dead had feelings?” Coco thus could have been a Tim Burtonesque movie: a tale of gory skeletons looking for meaning in a dreary world. By taking its cues from Mexican culture, however, Coco came up with a concept of the “dead” that is far more profound than the slapstick gore-fest it could have otherwise been. Coco’s dead are not defined by being corpses; in fact, their skeleton forms are quite cartoonish and retain humanoid eyeballs and hair. Rather they are defined by their relationship to the living: a drive not to be forgotten by those on the other side.

Coco’s being centred around a child, on the other hand, was a more questionable tactic. The compelling nature of many Pixar’s protagonists comes from the fact that they are flawed despite being superficially mature. Toy Story’s Woody is beacon of good citizenry who must relearn compassion when he discovers he is in fact highly jealous of challengers to his top-dog status. Finding Nemo’s Marlin must overcome his overwhelming fear of all things-potentially-dangerous. Up’s Carl deals with loss, by committing full heartedly to a goal he set earlier in life, forcing him to relearn how to find happiness when life sends him in new directions. While Coco’s Miguel can perhaps be a bit hot-headed at times, for the most part, he is a perfectly reasonable child, surrounded by often unreasonable adults. While admittedly, a child might be a good fit for a story that teaches about a cultural holiday (an adult would be less likely to need training in their own cultural traditions), Miguel in my opinion, is ultimately not as memorable as some of Pixar’s other protagonists. I would add, as a thought experiment, Coco might have benefited from centering instead around the skeleton Héctor (Gael Garcia Bernal). While Hector seems like a natural sidekick-type, his story is not unlike A Bug’s Life’s Flik (with some darker undertones). (I suppose this gives rise to the parallel thought experiment of what A Bug’s Life would be like if Dot, and not Flik, was its hero).

Plot-wise Coco is bolstered by the novelty of its world of the dead, and that world’s intricately imagined scenery. Its narrative itself is perhaps a bit too plain-stated early on and feels a bit derived from Monster’s Inc., Inside Out, and Up at later moments. That said, one recycled trope, a reference to A Bug’s Life’s Heimlich, is fresh and funny in the Coco context.

I often explain my love for A Bug’s Life as follows: though its premise is that it’s a story about bugs, it might be a good film even without Pixar’s “What if X had feelings formula.” A Bug’s Life is the story of a naïve but spunky inventor who accidentally hires an army of clowns to liberate his people from a colonizing bully: that sounds like it could be a good story even if it starred ordinary humans. Coco, on the other hand, is not necessarily more than its Pixar formula, as without its particular brand of vibrant skeletons (and a persistent street dog) its story would not necessarily stand out. Then again, that is a mere thought experiment, and as it actually is (with its skeletons) Coco is a fun, emotional film that like its Pixar predecessors will linger as a crowd pleaser for audiences of all ages.




The Shape of Water (2017)

Directed by: Guillermo del Toro. Written by: del Toro and Vanessa Taylor

The_Shape_of_Water_(film)Guillermo del Toro is known for his fascination with monsters. This fascination is not a simple aesthetic desire to create novel looking beings: rather they symbolize “the other” as in those we do not see as part of respectable, human society. He cites, for example, Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks, as an influence of his: a film that tells the stories of “circus freaks” from a sympathetic perspective.

This theme is readily apparent in The Shape of Water a story of Eliza Esposito, a mute janitor in the 50s who develops a relationship with a humanesque marine creature (Doug Jones) who is held captive at her workplace. Eliza (Sally Hawkins), explains her empathy for the creature by citing her own marginalized status. Meanwhile, the film’s antagonist, Strickland (Michael Shannon) is a US government agent who speaks in thinly veiled racist and sexist dogwhistles.

Thematically, therefore, The Shape of Water is a bit plain-stated. The film’s aesthetic, however, goes a long way towards making it a memorable work. The film is decidedly green. Eliza’s punches in a green time card (with help from her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer), to go into her green dungeon of a building, where she cleans green-tiled bathrooms with bubble-like wells of green soap. While the exact meaning of the color is somewhat ambiguous, visually it serves to make Eliza’s life look much like the creature’s: she too is submerged in murky, green depth. It should be noted here, that there is nuance to this connection. Showing Eliza in the shadowy green depths of her work helps create the impression she is drowning (while by contrast the creature of course needs to be in water).

Del Toro could have opted for his green aesthetic to be a mere mood setter, something many viewers might simply process unconsciously. Instead, however, he works the word “green” into his scripts. Giles, Eliza’s friend and neighbour, lovingly keeps neon green pies in his fridge, even as he doesn’t enjoy them. Strickland, by contrast, takes great interest in a turquoise Cadillac, but before buying it awkwardly seeks assurance from the car salesman that it is not green.

It is thus through color, that Del Toro truly enriches his story of otherness. Giles a non-disabled white man, at times stands in contrast to the marginalized and principled Eliza, yet his compassion for the green pie (an other of sorts), is symbolic of his goodness. Strickland, a less redeemable white man (he’s a bit of a caricature in fact, though that’s not really a flaw in the movie, as Strickland’s characterization is an essential part of the film’s 50s aesthetic), goes out of his way to make sure the borderline green thing he loves is not green: his behaviour is reminiscent of “straight” men going out of their way to point out that they are not gay.

While green is the film’s primary color, red is it’s secondary shade. Red tends to appear in the film in the form of blood. One interpretation of the appearance of blood is that it is an invocation of Shylock’s “doesn’t a Jew bleed” speech. Be they green-haters or lovers, Russians or Americans, humans or non-humans all of the film’s characters bleed red.

The Shape of Water is simultaneously a political, and apolitical film. Through depicting intersecting racism, sexism, homophobia and ableism, Del Toro made a movie that he saw as a response to the rise of (presumably) the alt-right. At the same time, the film, through its logic of everyone bleeds, tries to transcend political ideology in favour of humanism (perhaps anthropomorph-ism is a better word in the context of this film). While there is a cold war subplot to the film, and it is an American agent that comes across as the film’s villain, for the most part the Soviet-American conflict simply contributes to the film’s period commitment. The film’s “good” Soviet, like the film’s “good” Americans, stands in contrast with his mission-focused superiors, as opposed to with “American ideals,” and vice versa.

In short, The Shape of Water is a film of various “others” uniting. Chief amongst the others is of course the creature. While largely anthropomorphic in its design, and compassionate towards humans in its behaviour, the character was carefully designed so as to not make it 100% obvious that he can be embraced by humans. One small example of this is his stunning eyes, which though charming, are indeed more fish than human like.

There is one scene near the end of the movie where the creature’s loveableness is indeed put into question. While the script largely brushes over this incident, it adds important nuance to the film. Loving the other is easy when it simply means resisting the textbook bigotry of figures like Strickland. It’s more of a challenge when there are times where the other does truly seem like an other.

There is one final thing I should point out. The Shape of Water shares some notable similarities with a Dutch student film called The Space Between Us, To be honest, what caught my attention most when I watched the short film was not its similarities with The Shape of Water, but that despite being a student film it’s graphics were on par with Del Toro’s big budget effort. There are notable similarities between the films such as the design of the monster (fish eyes include), the context in which the janitor finds it, and muteness (albeit, the protagonist in the short film is metaphorically mute as a gas-mask wearing working class woman in a world of authoritative soldiers and scientists). I am not a strong believer in intellectual property and believe in the retelling of stories. I am also hesitant to jump to conclusions, given that when asked to comment on this issue, Del Toro notes he had been developing this idea along with novelist Daniel Kraus since 2011 (The Space Between Us was released in 2015). That said, it would be a shame for The Space Between Us to go under-appreciated due to its similarities to the newer film, and moreover, I see no problem in using a bound-for-success film to prop up the viewership of a less visible effort (both are good works).

The controversy aside, The Shape of Water is a simple, plain-stated story, but one that also provides a lot of room for dialogue and analysis. Whether you like seeing dark science-fiction, or simply find fish-eyed creatures, whose vulnerability is expressed through their gill-based breathing, adorable, you should enjoy The Shape of Water.