In Theaters

We all think we know what it means to fall in love, but do we really? Sometimes the reality differs markedly from what we expect, perhaps taking us in some highly unconventional directions. But, when we find that true love, no matter what form it takes, we’re generally willing to do whatever it takes to nurture and protect it, regardless of what we’re up against. Such is the case of an unlikely duo in the whimsical new fantasy/fairy tale, “The Shape of Water” (web site, trailer). 

As a custodial worker in a secret government marine laboratory in Baltimore in 1962, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) quietly goes about her job, performing her everyday chores and trading quips with her colorful, sassy co-worker, Zelda (Octavia Spencer). The banter tends to be somewhat one-sided, though, given that Elisa is mute, but she nonetheless never seems to have any trouble making her feelings known, especially when it comes to dealings with the facility’s intimidating new security chief, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon).

Despite the relative calm that has long prevailed at the lab, things change dramatically with the arrival of a mysterious new specimen, an amphibian being that looks like a cross between a man and a reptile (Doug Jones). Having been taken from its home in the Amazon, the creature has been brought to the facility for further study under the auspices of scientist Dr. Robert Hostetler (Michael Stuhlbarg). But the new arrival is more than just a scientific curiosity; it’s believed that the aquatic enigma may possess special abilities, some that might even be weaponized. These potentially significant, highly coveted qualities are much sought after by American military officials, especially now that the country is caught up in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, a threat that’s perceived as lurking everywhere – even in the lab.

Intimidating security chief Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon, left) questions custodial workers Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins, center) and Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer, right) about their work routine in a secret government marine lab in director Guillermo del Toro’s new romantic fantasy, “The Shape of Water.” Photo by Kerry Hayes, courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

When Elisa and Zelda are assigned to work in the area where the creature is housed, they get quite an astonishing eyeful. Not only do they catch a glimpse of the strange new being, but they also witness the unduly cruel treatment to which it’s summarily subjected, behavior that elicits a comparably brutal response. Elisa is shocked at what she sees and instantly takes pity on the wounded creature. So, when no one is around, she quietly sneaks into the lab to show the new visitor that there’s more to being human than inflicting harm on others. By exhibiting kindness and compassion, she conveys a very different impression of humanity, and the creature responds in kind. An unusual bond is forged, one that grows into an unconventional friendship – and more.

However, with various factions vying for control of “the asset,” as the creature is often called, its fate is soon up for grabs. And so, with such perilous uncertainty looming, Elisa decides to take action to protect her new friend. With the aid of her somewhat neurotic neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), and a few unexpected allies, Elisa undertakes a risky plan to shepherd the defenseless being out of harm’s way, an initiative that holds the promise to pay more dividends than she ever could have imagined. But will her efforts pan out?

When a defenseless laboratory creature is threatened, custodial worker Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins, right), along with her neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins, left), concocts a plan to protect it in the inventive new fantasy/fairy tale, “The Shape of Water.” Photo by Kerry Hayes, courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

The unusual relationship between Elisa and her Amazonian companion may defy convention, but who’s to say that it can’t work, that it’s outside the realm of possibility? Those who push past traditional barriers and challenge the prevailing wisdom might find that the uncharted territory is richly rewarding, even if it’s something others would never consider. After all, when the heart is involved, there’s no telling what might arise, and the outcome may prove to be quite revelatory, both in terms of what works for us – and the lengths we’ll go to in protecting it. 

Though at times a little predictable, “The Shape of Water” delivers the goods on so many fronts. Director Guillermo del Toro’s fantasy romance serves up an utterly charming tale with superb special effects, gentle humor, heartwarming sincerity, and a host of excellent performances, especially by Hawkins, Spencer and Jenkins. Think “Beauty and the Beast” (1991, 2017)  meets “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982), and you’ve got a good idea what’s going on here. It’s truly satisfying to see a film that genuinely lives up to its pre-release hype.

The film is attracting considerable awards season buzz, having snagged 14 Critics Choice Award nominations, including best picture, actress (Hawkins), supporting actor (Jenkins), supporting actress (Spencer), director and screenplay, along with an array of technical awards. In addition, the picture earned seven Golden Globe Award nods, including best dramatic picture, dramatic actress (Hawkins), supporting actor (Jenkins), supporting actress (Spencer), director and screenplay. It was also named one of the American Film Institute’s Top 10 films of the year.

Intimidating security chief Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon, left) often finds himself at odds with marine scientist Dr. Robert Hofstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg, right) in “The Shape of Water.” Photo by Kerry Hayes, courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Even when we believe we know what love is, we can’t really know until we find ourselves wrapped up in it, ensconced in the rapture of emotion that washes over and thoroughly envelops us. It’s an undeniable feeling, one that we never want to let go of, even when that seems destined to occur. But, when faced with such circumstances, something just might come along to sustain it, making it possible to truly live happily ever after.

A complete review will appear in the near future by clicking here.

Tapping Into Our Creative Spirit

Artists often struggle with their creativity, both in terms of birthing it and in determining where it comes from. It’s an elusive force, one that almost seems capricious in its appearance or absence. But is that truly the case? That’s one of the many questions raised and addressed in the engaging documentary, “Moving from Emptiness: The Life and Art of a Zen Dude” (web sitetrailer), a profile of Zen calligraphic painter Alok Hsu Kwang-han, available on DVD and video on demand.

Zen calligraphic painter Alok Hsu Kwang-han (center) instructs students in how to tap into their creativity in the engaging documentary, “Moving from Emptiness: The Life and Art of a Zen Dude.” Photo courtesy of Mother Tree Films.

When artists seek to tap their creativity, sometimes it flows freely, while, in other instances, it’s a case of pulling teeth. But why? According to Alok, creativity is not something that makes its presence felt when it deems fit. Rather, he contends, it’s something that arises from the emptiness that precedes the emergence of thought. It’s a force that’s available at all times and to which we have unlimited access – provided we allow ourselves to do so. And that, Alok maintains, is the key – opening ourselves up to receive that energy and let it flow through us. In doing this, the artist says we must let down our barriers to receive, a process that can be hampered by a variety of influences, such as beliefs, our past and an overreliance on our intellect, which may lead to a tendency to overthink things and ultimately inhibit our true creativity from coming through.

Through this enlightening profile, viewers learn the artist’s philosophy and see it come to life through his studio sessions and seminars with students. Alok discusses the many influences that have contributed to his work, including family life, spirituality and leaving himself open to receive. His ideas are reinforced and elaborated upon by fellow artist and significant other Raylene Abbott, as well as experts in the teachings of Zen Buddhism. The result is an insightful, playful, profound observation into the creative process, how it helps the artist discover an inner muse, the potential healing benefits of the work and how to tap into higher powers, quite a personal dividend from simply making a few brush strokes with ink and paper.

Zen calligraphic painter Alok Hsu Kwang-han explains his take on the creative process in the engaging documentary, “Moving from Emptiness: The Life and Art of a Zen Dude.” Photo courtesy of Mother Tree Films.

A Book Excerpt in the Spirit of the Holidays

During this season of giving, in the spirit of sharing, I’m pleased to present an excerpt from my award-winning book, Get the Picture?!: Conscious Creation Goes to the Movies (ISBN 978-1505570168, 2014), featuring my take on the perennial holiday classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946). Indeed, it wouldn’t be Christmas without this beloved film, and I hope you enjoy this review in the spirit with which it’s given.

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Finding Happiness by Finding Oneself 

“It’s a Wonderful Life”

Year of Release: 1946 

Principal Cast: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Henry Travers, Thomas Mitchell,

Beulah Bondi, Frank Faylen, Ward Bond, Gloria Grahame,H.B. Warner, Frank Albertson, Todd Karns,

Samuel S. Hinds, Bill Edmunds, Sheldon Leonard

Director: Frank Capra

Screenplay: Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett,

Frank Capra and Jo Swerling

Story: Philip Van Doren Stern

The search for happiness in life sometimes gets stymied by a lot of overwrought, self-induced frustration. We think we want something that never materializes, causing us to brood mercilessly, all the while overlooking the real joy we’ve created that’s right before our eyes. But, if we’re able to perceive things as they really are, we just might have a chance to discover true, unconditional happiness for ourselves. Such is the odyssey of the likable hero of the perennial Christmas classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

This is another of those cinematic icons that’s so entrenched in popular culture that it’s hard to imagine anyone not knowing its fabled story line. But, for the few who haven’t had the good fortune to see it, here goes.

George Bailey (James Stewart) has big plans for his life. He wants to build things, travel the world and make a name for himself. If nothing else, he wants to flee the confines of Bedford Falls, the “crummy little town” (as he calls it) in Upstate New York where he grew up. But, each time he tries to make his escape, something happens that locks him into staying put. For example, when his father (Samuel S. Hinds) suffers a stroke, George puts off his own plans to manage the affairs of the family business, the Bailey Building & Loan. And, just when he thinks he can crawl out from under that responsibility, other setbacks arise that keep him from moving forward. Over time, his mounting sacrifices take their toll.

As if that weren’t enough, George is forced into regularly matching wits with the town’s curmudgeonly robber baron, Old Man Potter (Lionel Barrymore). He owns practically everything in Bedford Falls except the Building & Loan, a definite sore spot for the greedy old miser. He wiles away the hours counting his money and hatching schemes to take over the one business in town he can’t seem to get his hands on, thanks in large part to George’s intervention.

Of course, not everything goes against George. He courts and weds his adoring wife, Mary (Donna Reed), starts a family and builds many long-lasting friendships with the citizens of Bedford Falls, mainly by making decent, affordable housing available to them through the Building & Loan.

But, no matter how well George takes his misfortunes in stride, life seems to keep tossing curve balls his way. The worst of these comes one Christmas Eve morning, when he’s suddenly thrown into a severe financial crisis that threatens to ruin him, his business and his family, launching George into deep despair and anguished desperation. He even contemplates making the ultimate sacrifice so that a life insurance policy payout will save the day for his heirs. It’s when that ominous prospect looms that the time comes for divine intervention, and it arrives in the form of a good-natured, though oft-befuddled cherubic soul named Clarence (Henry Travers), George’s guardian angel.

Clarence has a vested stake in the outcome of George’s ordeal, too. As a second-class angel in search of his wings, he must successfully guide George through his turmoil and restore his sense of hope to receive them. But how?

After Clarence succeeds in preventing George’s suicide, George grouses over yet another set of failed plans, lamenting that he can’t even kill himself properly. With his financial woes still unresolved, he sputters rhetorically that perhaps everyone he believes he’s let down would be better off if he’d never been born. That statement gives Clarence the inspiration he needs to help show George the way out of his troubles. He then proceeds to give George a glimpse of what the lives of those he’s touched would have been like if he hadn’t been born. As George watches this dark alternate reality play out before him, one in which those he cares about suffer miserably in his absence, he comes to see the magnitude of his contributions to bettering their lives, which makes his current problems and his long-unrealized plans seem trivial by comparison. He realizes, as Clarence says to him with the utmost sincerity and compassion, “You see, George, you really had a wonderful life.” George is thus reborn, his perspective renewed, his life reaffirmed. But, as good as all that is, it’s just the beginning. Things are about to get even better, in ways beyond anything he could possibly imagine.

From a tender age, George always had a good grasp on the nature of his value fulfillment. He was right on target in recognizing that he’d carry out big plans someday. Unfortunately, he doesn’t acknowledge their manifestation when it happens. He’s so hung up on envisioning the physical form his plans should take that he fails to recognize the materialization of their underlying intents when they come into being, and, when his expectations of form aren’t fulfilled, he’s sorely disappointed. Yet his creations surely are big, if not in scope then at least in terms of impact.

For example, the countless Bedford Falls residents who have affordable housing because of George would be leading very different lives if it weren’t for him, but he downplays his role in this. What’s more, he even gets to live out his dream of being a builder through the homes he constructs. But he again discounts this, seeing the houses as small potatoes compared to the bridges and skyscrapers he’d much rather be building. Even from the standpoint of being a good, helpful friend, George fails to see the significance of his efforts, including in life-or-death situations. No matter how he tries to dismiss the influence of his contributions, George does more to meaningfully enrich the lives of his peers than anything his so-called big projects ever could have.

What George needs to realize and appreciate his accomplishments is the metaphysical equivalent of a good stiff poke in the ribs, which is where Clarence comes in. Clarence helps lift the self-imposed fog that’s obscured George’s view of things, helping to give him vision about his visions, a clarity of perspective that has long been lacking. He helps George get out of his own way, to value the meaningful outcomes of his labors and not just the tangible results. With such a clarified view, George can then see how his beliefs and value fulfillment have been realized. Their form may not be what he anticipated, but their impact lived up to the expectations he carried around with him since childhood. With a fresh perspective now in place, there’s no telling what George could do next. He can revel in being himself and all the resplendent glory that goes along with that.

The payoffs to George for his newfound awareness are tremendous. Besides the satisfaction of knowing he accomplished what he set out to do (at least from an underlying intent standpoint), as well as the tangible and intangible rewards that come with that (which vastly exceed his expectations), he can take pride in having given life to his value fulfillment. George lives up to the nature of the concept in its strictest sense, too, for his actions benefit both him and others around him. What joy there is in creation like that! To see it manifest as abundantly as it does, and then to witness it benefit so many, is indeed a blessing.

Of course, an outcome like this is not unexpected when we’re aligned with our value fulfillment, for life’s true purpose is given realization. The degree of success that results from such an alignment is not surprising, either, for the support of the Universe is behind us when we’re in line with our value fulfillment. As films like “The Secret” (see Chapter 3) show, the Universe gets behind those who follow their aspirations with gusto and sincerity. In George’s case, that support takes the form of direct intervention, personified through the appearance of Clarence in his life. But, no matter how divine assistance manifests itself, it’s an integral characteristic of our Universe. As Jane Roberts and Seth wrote in The Nature of the Psyche, it abundantly provides the aid we require, overlooking no one in doing so. Or, put another way, “the Universe leans in your direction.”

It’s hard to imagine anyone not liking this movie, a contemporary fable presented with warmth, emotion, hopefulness and an overriding sense of compassion, magical in every respect. It seems like it should have been just the picture for battle-weary Americans to flock to in the wake of World War II. However, it received a tepid response when initially released, despite earning five Oscar nominations, including nods for best picture, best director and Stewart’s performance as lead actor. Amazingly, it went home empty-handed, and two of its strongest performances, those of Reed and Barrymore, were even overlooked as nominees. The only major recognition it received was a much-deserved Golden Globe Award for director Frank Capra.

By finding ourselves, we find our happiness, as George discovers, albeit a little late but better than not at all. And that, as I’m sure we can all appreciate, truly has the makings for a wonderful life.

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For a free extended downloadable PDF excerpt of Get the Picture?!, click here. And, for information about all of my books, including free downloadable samples, click here.

Happy holidays!

Copyright © 2007, 2014, 2017, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.