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THE SHAPE OF WATER

Producer: Guillermo del Toro and J. Miles Dale
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Writer: Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor
Stars: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, David Hewlett, Nick Searcy, Stewart Arnott, Nigel Bennett, Morgan Kelly, Lauren Lee Smith, Martin Roach, Allegra Fulton and John Kapelos
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures

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After expending entirely too much effort on big-budget nonsense like “Blade,” “Hellboy,” “Pacific Rim” and “Crimson Peak” (not to mention the TV series “The Strain” and the flop thriller “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark”), Guillermo del Toro has returned to his roots in offbeat, highly personal cinema with his best film in a decade—ever since “Pan’s Labyrinth.” While still feeding into del Toro’s love of the genre movies he adored while growing up, “The Shape of Water” proves a nostalgia trip with real emotional resonance, a fantastic fable of outsiders pitted against a cruel world that makes its viewers think as well as feel.

The film can be briefly described as a romance between the Creature from the Black Lagoon and a mute maintenance worker, but that would sell it short. In 1962, as the Cold War rages, an amphibian man (limned, in a remarkable “creature” suit, by Doug Jones) has been captured by the U.S. government and brought to a facility in Baltimore, where he is guarded—and mistreated—by a brutal federal agent named Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) while being examined by the far more sympathetic Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg). The goal is to determine how the creature’s anatomy might provide clues that might facilitate human abilities in space travel.

It’s top secret, hush-hush stuff, of course, but when Strickland suffers an injury that requires aid (as well as a cleaning job), two of the maintenance staff are allowed into the inner sanctum—mute, mousy Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) and her sassy buddy Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Elisa catches a glimpse of the melancholy creature, and feels it a kindred spirit of sorts. Using food and music, she secretly coaxes it into a relationship that blossoms into an interspecies friendship, and then something more. And when Strickland and his super-hawkish military superior General Hoyt (Nick Searcy) decide that the experiment should be terminated with extreme prejudice despite Hoffstetler’s objections, Elisa decides to intervene, enlisting her reluctant neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) to assist her in pulling off a great escape. (Others will eventually take roles in the mission as well.)

Given that this is a del Toro film, there are some elements—Strickland’s early accident and its aftermath, an impromptu lunch the creature grabs in Giles’s apartment, a last-act confrontation that takes a violent turn—that are somewhat gruesome. But they’re embedded in a rich, mesmerizing romantic fantasy with a heartfelt streak that extends to all of society’s outcasts. Visually it’s as gorgeous as “Crimson Peak” was, though the perfectly detailed color palette this time emphasizes blues and greens as opposed to the reds of the earlier picture (it’s impossible to overpraise the work of production designer Paul Denham Austerberry and cinematographer Dan Lausten), and aurally it’s equally magical, thanks not only to the period pop songs used as plot pegs but to the lovely, amazingly varied music by Alexandre Desplat, which stands out even among his long train of outstanding scores.

The centerpiece of “Water” is, of course, the relationship between Elisa, played by Hawkins with ineffable charm) and the amphibian man (with Jones bringing poetic grace to his every move). They are the ultimate unlikely couple, both of them isolated from society in distinct ways but drawn together by a bond of differentness. But the other characters are outsiders, too. Giles, beautifully played by Jenkins, is a gay man fired from his job at an ad agency that he’s desperately trying to win back; and when he attempts to make contact with the counterman at a pie shop (Morgan Kelly), he’s cruelly rebuffed. The same clerk refuses to serve African-American customers, which throws into relief the position of Zelda (played with typical energy by Spencer) at a time when casual racism, in contrast to today’s hidden variety, was rife. (Prejudice of any sort, in fact, is equated with some degree of dehumanization, which reaches its ultimate point in, for example, Strickland’s attitude toward the amphibian.) But even Hoffstetler, whom Stuhlbarg endows with a weary dignity, turns out to stand apart while Strickland himself, to whom Shannon brings a demonic degree of malevolent intensity, finds himself alone in the end.

As so often in del Toro’s films, one can’t help but note the director’s own cinematic obsessions at work. Elisa and Giles not only share a love of old Hollywood musicals, which they watch together on television—a plot thread that leads to a rhapsodically outrageous dance sequence that trumps even those in Herbert Ross’s sumptuous remake of Dennis Potter’s “Pennies from Heaven”—but just happen to live above a creaky old theatre where CinemaScope biblical epics play to near-empty houses.

But while such references could seem merely precious or cute, in this case they bring an added layer of feeling to a wondrous adult fairy-tale played out with impeccable cinematic control. “The Shape of Water” is a magical and moving experience.

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

Producer: Matt Damon, Kimberly Steward, Chris Moore, Lauren Beck and Kevin J. Walsh
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Writer: Kenneth Lonergan
Stars: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges, C.J. Wilson, Heather Burns, Tate Donovan, Gretchen Mol, Matthew Broderick, Josh Hamilton and Anna Baryshnikov
Studio: Roadside Attractions

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If ever proof were needed that it’s not the story, but the way in which it’s told, that matters, “Manchester by the Sea” provides it. The basic premise—about an irresponsible man who suddenly finds himself saddled with the task of looking after a youngster—is one that’s been used innumerable times, in fare ranging from syrupy Hallmark Hall of Fame-style tearjerkers to lousy comedies like Adam Sandler’s “Big Daddy.” Playwright Kenneth Lonergan’s third film—the first since “Margaret,” which was tied up for years in legal wrangles over the final cut before it got a limited release in 2011—differs from them all. In the hands of Lonergan and his exceptional cast, the deceptively simple story becomes a shattering tale of shared grief that carries a powerful weight of emotional truth. With all due respect to “You Can Count On Me” and “Margaret” (which was extraordinarily rich even in its compromised form), this is not only his best film, but one of the year’s best as well.

Lonergan constructs the film like a puzzle, shifting from present to past and back again to reveal, gradually, the whole picture. Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is introduced as a quietly sullen Boston maintenance man, who goes about his task of servicing several apartment buildings with a dogged efficiency broken only when he encounters any hint of complaint from a tenant. His tendency to break his usual laconic manner and abruptly lash out continues into his off hours, which he ordinarily spends alone in bars, nursing a beer: sometimes he’ll get into a fight over some perceived slight from another patron.

As flashbacks show, however, Lee was once a reasonably happy fellow in upstate Manchester, having an agreeable time with his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) and his young son Patrick (Ben O’Brien) on their boat, drinking with pals in the basement converted into a rec room, getting cozy with his wife Randi (Michelle Williams), doting on their young kids. They also reveal that though still a young man, Joe was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, a fact that led his high-string wife Elise (Gretchen Mol) to abandon him and their son. It’s not until the film is nearly at the half-way point, however, that we’re told—in a flashback of heartbreaking understatement—how Lee’s life came crashing down and why he is now so damaged.

Until that sequence Lonergan concentrates on the new tragedy Lee has to face—Joe’s sudden collapse, which forces him to drive up from Boston to the Manchester hospital. There he finds that his brother has died, and that he must tell Patrick (Lucas Hedges), now a rambunctious teen, of his father’s passing. Once again Lonergan stages the scene with remarkable sensitivity, from across an ice rink where the boy is practicing with his hockey team, as though it were a family matter on which it would be unseemly to intrude.

Patrick will react to the news with youthful bravado, going on with his usual activities—balancing two girlfriends, practicing with his bad rock band, arguing over “Star Wars” minutiae with his friends—while accompanying Lee in making arrangements for the funeral. But a major shock comes when they visit the lawyer’s office and learn that Joe has named Lee as the boy’s legal guardian. It’s a responsibility Lee feels totally incapable of assuming, and Patrick is no happier with the idea of having to leave town for Boston.

At this point one might expect “Manchester by the Sea” to devolve into a story of redemption, as Lee and Patrick are both saved by bonding with one another. But Lonergan is too acute an observer of life to go that route; he knows that there are wounds that cannot be so easily healed. That becomes clear when Patrick visits Elise, the mother he hasn’t seen in years, and her new husband (Matthew Broderick), hoping they might take him in, and even more so when Lee encounters Randi on the street, the baby she’s had with her second husband in a carriage, and they have a conversation of a sort that’s a small masterpiece of writing, direction and acting. The best one can expect, the film suggests, is a series of compromises—not the sort of message designed to warm the heart, perhaps, but one that’s real rather than fabricated.

The power of “Manchester by the Sea” rests on Lonergan’s script and direction, but their promise is realized by an extraordinary cast. Affleck is the anchor. His characteristic restraint and reticence can sometimes seem a drawback, but in this case they fit the character of Lee perfectly, creating a figure of apparent mildness that conceals both abiding sadness and coiled intensity. It’s an unforgettable turn. He’s matched by Hedges, who captures the combination of heedless energy and submerged apprehension that marks so many teens. Williams has less of an opportunity to shine, but her final scene alone creates an indelible impression. Chandler’s regular-guy persona also stands out, and Mol and Broderick play out their lunch sequence with the requisite stiffness. Mention should also be made of the sense of place achieved by the technical team—production designer Ruth De Jong, art director Jourdan Henderson, set decorator Florencia Martin and costume designer Melissa Toth; they fashion a totally lived-in ambience that cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes exploits—along with the gritty locations—to the full.

Some might quibble about Jennifer Lame’s editing or the music selections by Linda Cohen that accompany Lesley Barber’s original score. But the abrupt shifts in time are part of Lonergan’s narrative strategy, and one quickly accustoms oneself to them. And while Albinoni’s “Adagio” might seem an unfortunate choice, given its overuse elsewhere, it fits, as do the other music cuts.

It might seem from all this that the “Manchester by the Sea” is a downer of the first order, but it’s not. Lonergan leavens the darkness with a good deal of offhanded humor, once again of the sort that reflects how people like these really act and talk, elements that arise naturally out of the situations rather than out of the conventions of situation comedy. You leave the film not depressed but impressed by its clear-eyed honesty about characters who suffer terrible tragedies they must somehow learn to deal with.

Pauline Kael wrote about another film, “I’m a little afraid to say how good I think ‘Shoot the Moon’ is—I don’t want to set up the kind of bad magic that might cause people to say that they were led to expect so much that they were disappointed.” Critics are often faced with that possibility, and it certainly did work against “Shoot the Moon,” and more recently against “Boyhood.” So let’s end with something more low-key: “Manchester by the Sea” is as good as Angelina Jolie’s “By the Sea” was bad. If you’ve seen her film, you’ll know that’s high praise.