Tag: octavia spencer


Luce (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Julius Onah’s “Luce” is like a nesting doll. Just when you think you know what it is about and have it all figured out, it gives birth to another layer worth putting under a microscope. It possesses a keen understanding of human psychology and behavior, particularly the social contracts between parent and child; students and teachers; and peers who wish to maintain or improve their status. In its core, it is a drama. But it is told like a thriller. What results is a picture that commands utmost urgency. Every word counts. A certain look or deafening silence functions like a fire alarm. We find ourselves evaluating who knows what and precisely how much. We must think like the subjects in order to have a thorough understanding of them.

The first curiosity begins with the act of a concerned teacher having a meeting with the mother of the student with whom she suspects to be a possible threat to the school. Ms. Wilson (Octavia Spencer) assigned her students to pick a historical figure and write a paper using their chosen figure’s perspective. Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.)—model student, ace athlete, excellent debater, and soon-to-be valedictorian—chose Frantz Fanon, a theorist who believes in using violence against those he disagrees with. Ms. Wilson was so disturbed by what she read, she took it upon herself to search through Luce’s locker. She found illegal firecrackers—enough to create a shotgun blast. The screenplay by J.C. Lee and Julius Onah is correct in not allowing the viewers to read any portion of the paper. Doing so leaves plenty to the imagination.

The drama unspools from here onwards. Given that Luce was adopted by white, affluent American parents (Naomi Watts, Tim Roth) at the age of seven from a war-torn country in Africa, it touches upon race. Specifically, what it means to be a young black immigrant in America, the expectations one must grapple with in order to avoid being just another stereotype. It broaches the topic of parents’ hardships and sacrifices for choosing to adopt instead of having and raising a biological child. Specifically, what they lost, individually as well as a couple, in the process. It tackles the subject of knowledge, how we cannot un-know information and the numerous implications that come with it. Clearly, the material is not simply interested in shocking plot turns. It is interested in providing context; it aims to inspire debate.

From the moment we meet the Edgars, notice right away how they do not feel like a family. They live in the same house, eat the same food, converse, laugh, make jokes, travel together once in a while—but there is a disconnect. This is an excellent choice by the filmmakers. It shows that even before the first controversy, there is something… not quite right about the Edgars. Perhaps the revelation regarding the essay and the firecrackers is simply a catalyst of what must be brought to the forefront. But this is no ordinary drama. In the end, there is little catharsis. There remains great uneasiness, questions, pain. It is apparent that the work is not for those who wish to feel good in a traditional sense.

“Luce” is based on a play screenwriter J.C. Lee, and it shows. Confrontations evoke a strong personality to them. Words are memorable because they hurt like daggers. It is fond of close-ups, as if to savor every minute emotion. Rooms tend to have a feeling of coldness to them even when it is full of people. When characters recall traumatic memories, we paint vivid portraits in our heads. It is mesmerizing nearly every step of the way.


Ma (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

In the middle of the camp-lite psychological thriller “Ma,” directed by Tate Taylor and written by Scotty Landes, I wished the focus were on the adult characters instead of the teenagers. The reason is because veteran performers like Octavia Spencer, Juliette Lewis, Luke Evans, Missi Pyle, and Allison Janney can effortlessly elevate a tired plot toward a legitimate good time simply by injecting a fresh line reading, giving out pointed looks, and controlling body movements a certain way. These are qualities that the young cast is lacking. They provide passable performances, but their characters are clearly, and quite simply, lambs lining up for a slaughter.

It is apparent that Spencer is having a good time with her role. As Sue Ann, known by the party-loving teens as Ma because she allows them to lay back and let loose in her basement, she is almost always creepy and quite diabolical when triggered. And yet at times we are provided glimpses of her lonely life at home and how powerless she is at work. When she is humiliated, it is difficult to determine how she will react. Following this woman over the course of one day might have made a curios short film: veterinarian’s assistant by day, stalker and deadly killer by night. She is as quick to give a smile as she is at slitting someone’s throat with a scalpel.

Flashbacks involving Sue Ann being tormented by her peers in high school are uninspired. It might have been the wiser choice to remove these completely and focus on enhancing the script. Simply referencing traumatic details from the past could have been enough given the caliber of its experienced actors. Notice the power of reunions. For instance, we feel Erica’s embarrassment of having to cross paths with a former classmate after it was believed that she moved to California to live a life of success. Erica’s sense of failure is written all over Juliette Lewis’ face. Her body does not want to be on that casino floor, skimpy clothing and all. Even though she is a mother who is strong and proud to raise her daughter by herself, at that very moment she feels like trash.

Maggie, Erica’s daughter, is played by Diana Silvers, the new girl that the popular crowd (McKaley Miller, Corey Fogelmanis, Gianni Paolo, Dante Brown) welcomes into the their group. She has a memorable face, but the screenplay fails to create a memorable heroine. For too long she is shown as a passive observer; she begins to notice strange things at Sue Ann’s home and yet she continues to return and party in the basement. When the third act rolls around, we are supposed to care about her fate simply because she is the main girl and nothing else. Never mind the familiar horror tropes of being drugged and waking up to be tormented.

It is rare when solid performances manage to save a generic screenplay. “Ma” is no exception. While entertaining on the surface, I found little value—or excitement—in it. It is one of those movies that you allow to play in the background as you perform chores, check texts, or browse social media while occasionally looking up as decibels begin to rise.

The Shape of Water

The Shape of Water (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

Those with a penchant for strange love stories, especially the dark fairytale kind, will surely gravitate toward “The Shape of Water,” a pensive and melancholy look into the lives lonely and yearning individuals during the Cold War. It can be argued that perhaps the most interesting element of the film is that it works as a gargantuan metaphor for our basic need as a species to be loved and accepted, whether that someone be an ordinary citizen who just so happens to be a mute to a curiosity that is so exotic that the foreigner is considered an entirely different creature altogether. In a way, the work is a celebration of so-called freaks of society for they find a way to rise to the challenge and pave the way for the future.

Equally interesting is the structure of the picture. Unlike ordinary fantastic love stories, director Guillermo del Toro chooses for his project to have an extended exposition to the point where it takes up nearly half of the film’s running time. While this approach is certain to challenge viewers, especially those who crave unsubtle action right away, I found that this communicates the fact that the veteran filmmaker has a special confidence in the material. Unconcerned about time pressures or following expected beats and rhythms, del Toro ensures that we understand our heroine named Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a night janitor in a research center housing a humanoid amphibian to be used as a model for a weapon against the Russians, before any semblance of romance takes center stage.

Hawkins plays the mute character with such grace. It is easy to dismiss a performance when the actor does not say a word, but those who take the time to look closely and examine the intricacies of how she expresses a range of emotions will be rewarded. My advice: Occasionally ignore the yellow subtitles altogether. Instead, focus on her face, those eyes, the tension on her hands and fingers, how she holds her arms just so, and how she uses her mouth to expresses how she feels, what she thinks, and what wants to accomplish. A point can be made that it is more difficult to create a believable character, and keep her interesting, when one cannot vocalize.

Director of photography Dan Laustsen creates such a unique-looking world that it is almost like into a gem. Notice how hues of blue and green pervade the screen, not just in the laboratory where the tortured creature (Doug Jones) is kept but also the outdoors of rain-soaked streets, the gloomy apartments of singles who dream of an alternate life where they partnered, loved unconditionally. Partnered with del Toro’s direction, Laustsen’s cinematography, despite blues and greens usually pointing toward cold sentiments, can also communicate warmth, hope, and home. The penultimate and final scenes support this observation.

Despite the film having a running time of two hours, I found that this is not long enough. I wished to know more about the co-worker (Octavia Spencer) who always looks out for Elisa, the romantic struggles of Elisa’s aging homosexual neighbor (Richard Jenkins), and the villainous man (Michael Shannon) who caught the amphibian. While we do get one or two scenes that depict these characters’ personal lives, they come across rather episodic. Yet despite this shortcoming, “The Shape of Water” is absolutely worth a look-see.

Fruitvale Station

Fruitvale Station (2013)
★★★★ / ★★★★

“Fruitvale Station,” written and directed by Ryan Coogler, is based on the murder of Oscar Grant III (Michael B. Jordan), who left behind a wife and a daughter (Melonie Diaz and Ariana Neal, respectively), in the hands of a transit officer while coming home from San Francisco after having welcomed the new year.

There is no easy way to tell Grant’s story but the writer-director proves up to the task. By narrowing the film’s focus within a few hours of the twenty-two-year-old’s death, he creates a sense of urgency and unease in just about every scene. The point of them, I think, is to create a panorama of an unfinished life. It makes the senseless killing all the more appalling and maddening.

The lead performance by Jordan and supporting work by Diaz and Octavia Spencer, who plays Oscar’s mother, command attention. What the three performances have in common is that they are immediately people we know or can relate with. This is important because there is no conventional character arc designed for us to notice how a person changes over time. We know how the story will end and so the trick is to fill in the gaps with as many relevant details as possible. The screenplay’s approach is to give us a big picture of how Grant relates to those he loves.

Scenes between mother and son are balanced with honesty, pain, and tough love. Particularly impressive involves a flashback to Wanda visiting her son in prison in 2007. Wanda clearly does not want to be there but wants to be supportive nonetheless. When she sees her son lose his temper in front of a fellow inmate so easily, she is disappointed and tries to reel him in—this is supposed to be their time, not anyone else’s.

Spencer’s performance is restrained but calculated in that she does not have to act tough to come off tough. It appears as though she has chosen to rely on the history of the characters—details that are never shown on screen—as a template for us to gauge the chemistry of what the mother and son share. Equally good is Jordan. Take the same scene. Notice the way his eyes switch from rage to shame—the same shot, in a span of a second, no tricks—when his mother advises that he calm down. It becomes clear that these performances rely on each other in order for the scene to work.

Being from the Bay Area, I attest that the picture has managed to capture the rhythm and wavelength of the dialogue superbly. In addition, it presents minute detail not only in terms of what people wear but also in how they wear the clothes. It even gets the BART details right—like the shrill sound it makes when it approaches and leaves the station. As a result, there were times when I felt like I was watching a documentary, not a polished film.

“Fruitvale Station” offers a few stylistic details, like foreshadowing involving a dog, that do not always work but, as a whole, the performances are fresh and Coogler’s direction—an approach that is confident and straightforward—is solid despite a familiar framework.

The Help

The Help (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

Skeeter (Emma Stone), an aspiring writer, had recently graduated from college but was rejected from an NYC-based newspaper she really wanted to work for, so she decided to move back to Jackson, Mississippi to live with her cancer-stricken mother (Allison Janney). She figured she needed more experience as a writer so she applied and was hired at The Jackson Journal as a cleaning advice columnist. Disturbed by the racist remarks and treatment by her friends of their African-American maids, she figured she was going to write a book about their struggles, through conducting interviews done in secret, and expose the inherent ugliness of racism in 1960s America. “The Help,” based on a novel by Kathryn Stockett, was able to clearly communicate its big ideas for the majority of the time, like the hypocrisy in White folks trusting their Black maids to take care of their children and clean their houses yet they were deathly afraid of sharing the same bathroom, but it suffered from an inconsistent tone and subplots that belonged to a different movie. It was understandable, to a degree, that the material needed breathing room by means of comedy because the scars of racial discrimination remains a heavy and painful topic to endure. While some of them worked, for instance, the bit involving the secret ingredient in the chocolate pie baked by Minny (Octavia Spencer), a sassy maid recently fired by a contemptible woman named Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) because the latter caught the former using the inside toilet designed for the family instead of the one outside designed for the help, more than a handful of them felt quite forced, like Mrs. Walters (Sissy Spacek) and her dementia. I found it sad that Spacek, an actress of great range, wasn’t given much to do except to act kooky while delivering a powerful line or two during her moments of mental clarity with the aid of a tightly controlled, at times manipulative, score. Furthermore, I grew tiresome of the scenes when Skeeter was being cajoled by everyone to finally get a man. Her date with Stuart (Chris Lowell) might be considered as cute in the standard of romantic comedy given that their personalities initially clashed, but such cheesiness threatened to take away the social importance in the story that the filmmakers wanted to convey. I wanted to hear more stories from the various maids interviewed. More importantly, I wanted to see more interactions between Skeeter and Aibileen (Viola Davis), still grieving due to the death of her only son, beyond the aspiring writer just looking sad for the woman sitting in front of her. Skeeter was raised by a Black maid (Cicely Tyson) but the importance of their relationship was only occasionally placed under a magnifying glass. It was a decision that did not make sense because it was important we knew how Skeeter grew up to be such a strong woman who was able to see beyond the pigmentation of people’s skin. Based on the screenplay and directed by Tate Taylor, “The Help” had good elements in place but I wished it had been a stronger picture by means of eliminating the vestigial organs and delving more into subtleties of each character and convincing us why their stories, divorced from race, are worth sitting through.