Shape of Water, The (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.
Blue Jasmine (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★
Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) moves to San Francisco to live with her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), until she gets back on her feet. Jasmine is completely broke; her husband (Alec Baldwin), who had recently killed himself, was involved in fraud and they lost everything—the big mansion, the expensive cars, the bank accounts. Having been used to a life of privilege, the New Yorker must learn to live in a small apartment, earn her own money, and endure a sibling she never felt close to but is nice enough to take her in.
“Blue Jasmine,” written and directed by Woody Allen, is propelled by an electrifying performance by Blanchett. She is willing to try anything: allow herself to look ugly, create a most despicable character that—still—we hope will change or learn something throughout the course of the picture, and modulate the character’s broken mind as if she were living two realities. Just about every decision she makes to get us to feel closer to or feel repelled by Jasmine—often at the same time—is fresh so watching her perform is a delight.
It is easy to make fun of the character for hitting the ground hard. After all, she is not a very nice person. She talks about the responsibility of being rich and how it is important to be generous but her actions do not match what she preaches. When she was swimming in money, she treated her sister like they were not related. One of the scenes that got the most reaction out of me was when Ginger visited Manhattan. Giving Ginger material things—such a a ridiculously expensive Fendi bag—is easy for Jasmine, but giving Ginger some of her time—a tour around New York City, spending a birthday dinner together—is a lot harder for her. It is most ironic that this repugnant woman wants to be an anthropologist.
Hawkins’ Ginger provides a good foil for Jasmine. She is the nicer half—maybe too nice—and I found her likable, an energetic auntie that one looks forward to seeing during the holidays. Perhaps it is the point but I was frustrated with her at times. She is too much of a pushover, always yielding, never realizing she does not have to put up with any of her sister’s prolific neuroses. For once, I would liked to have seen her put Jasmine in her place. Interestingly, the the screenplay never goes in that direction.
“Blue Jasmine” has a few subplots which do not quite come together. The conflict between Jasmine and her stepson (Alden Ehrenreich) feels tacked on. There is a dramatic scene between them near the end but I was left more confused than impressed. Also, Ginger’s ex-husband (Andrew Dice Clay) is given big scenes but his background is not developed in such a way that enhances the otherwise good acting.
As usual, Allen excels in showing contrasts: Jasmine’s life in NYC versus SF, the extravagant interiors of the mansion versus a humble but homey apartment, the protagonist’s glistening face when everything seems to be going right versus her haggard look when everything is being burnt to ashes. The writer-director jumps back and forth between past and present so effortlessly that it never feels distracting. We are put inside Jasmine’s troubled psychology. She’s there but sometimes she’s not really there.
★★★ / ★★★★
Oliver (Craig Roberts) is interested in Jordana (Yasmin Paige) but like most teenage boys who think too much, he just cannot find the courage to ask her on a date. Since Jordana, equipped with a 60s haircut and fiery personality, takes pleasure in bullying others, Oliver’s plan is to bully the fat girl in their class. Meanwhile, Oliver’s situation at home is increasingly intense. His parents, Jill and Lloyd (Sally Hawkins, Noah Taylor), are going through a rough patch in their marriage. It does not help that Jill’s former-flame-turned-psychic, Graham (Paddy Considine), has recently moved next door and Jill appears to want to rekindle their connection.
“Submarine,” written and directed by Richard Ayaode, at least in its first thirty minutes, is painfully saccharine in its attempt to be unique, but it eventually proves to be better than its set-up because it is not just about a weird but intelligent kid who tries to make sense of everything going on around him. Its quirkiness is only its initial platform and it is eventually able to move on from it.
A few seconds after we meet the observant Oliver, he claims that the only he way he can survive sometimes is to live a life completely detached from reality. That is an important recurring theme: the way he spies on his parents’ lovemaking or lack thereof, his strong belief that his neighbors are ninjas, and certain expectations he has from Jordana even though they do not really know one another. (He considers sex as the defining point in their relationship.) It is fascinating that even though his attention is constantly on other people, there is a self-importance in his actions, not uncommon in teens attempting to try on different identities in hopes of finding one that might fit perfectly.
However, I wished the film focused more on Oliver’s underlying feelings of pain. While a lot of people tend to believe that teenagers only care about themselves and what feels good to them, I believe otherwise. I think teenagers are sensitive to all kinds of emotions–too sensitive to the point where a tiny, insignificant action or phrase can trigger unnecessary physical altercations and emotional turmoil. Oliver finds himself trapped between his parents’ passive-aggressive ways of dealing with conflict. Jill and Lloyd do not have screaming matches, just “discussions,” yet the silence that takes over the room while the family of three eat dinner makes things incredibly awkward.
And then there is Jordana and her mother with terminal illness. We are only given one scene with her and it involves three out of four people crying on screen. It feels uncharacteristically untrue to the rest of the picture’s tone. It is almost manipulative.
“Submarine,” based on a novel by Joe Dunthorne, is appropriately titled because Oliver is exactly that: surrounded by darkness and the unknown, under extreme pressure, while attempting to get to his destination. But what sets Oliver from a machine is his heart: a lot of the time he still aims to do good even if it means putting others’ wants before his needs.
Jane Eyre (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
After Jane Eyre’s father passed away when she was a child, she was sent to live with Mrs. Reed (Sally Hawkins), the aunt who had given up loving her because she often caused trouble. Mrs. Reed eventually sent Jane to a boarding school where her behavior was expected to be corrected. When Jane turns of age, now played by Mia Wasikowska, she works as a governess in Thornfield Hall where she meets the respected Edward Fairfax Rochester (Michael Fassbender). One of the reasons why people around them believe that they shouldn’t be together is money: he is rich and she is poor. Other than his attraction to her, there is another, darker reason which Mr. Rochester is willing to keep a secret no matter what.
Based on the novel by Charlotte Brontë, “Jane Eyre” surprised me in the best ways possible because it’s actually sexy, a quality I rarely expect from period films. Part of it is due to the performances. Wasikowska nicely embodies a plain beauty who can easily hide on the background. But when her character has something important to say, she has the ability to change her mannerisms in a nuanced way, whether it be brightening her eyes a little bit or just parting her lips so delicately that she gives off an air of aristocracy. It is impressive to watch her make small changes in her body language yet they are enough to make a statement and allow us to consider what she might be thinking.
Fassbender injects his character with complexity that we cannot help but be suspicious. While it is mentioned that he has a volatile personality, we are actually able to experience his fluctuating warmth and coldness. We want to like him because he is a good fit for Jane, but we approach him with reluctance because of the lingering possibility that he simply wants to use her. After all, he has no problem dangling her in front of his elegant company mostly consisting of women with vile tongues. I loved that each time Fassbender enters a scene, I never could predict how he will play his character.
When the two finally admit their feelings for each other, the cinematography comes into focus but it never overshadows the emotions. While it highlights the aspect of beauty in the way the wind rustles the leaves of trees, caresses the grass, and surfs through the characters’ detailed clothing. Meanwhile, thunderstorm and lightning can be heard and seen from afar which signals that maybe the beauty that we see is a transient, illusory thing.
There is an element of darkness despite the picture’s emotional highs so it kept me curious and cautious. The supernatural elements are deftly handed by the director. We hear ghostly whispers and voices, characters acknowledging curses and bad luck, and we even see unexplained phenomenon like chimney spewing out ash inside a mansion. However, these elements feel like a natural part of this specific story. It helps us to get into a certain mood when Jane goes about the mansion in the middle of the night holding only a candle in her hand and courage in her heart.
There are times when I felt as though the pacing of “Jane Eyre,” based on a screenplay by Moira Buffini and directed by Cary Fukunaga, is a bit rushed. I would have been happy, even if it means adding an extra thirty minutes, to have gotten to know more about Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench) and what she really thinks about Jane and Edward’s relationship. Furthermore, the scenes with St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell) toward the end feels tacked on. What is exactly the real connection between he and Jane?
Desert Flower (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Waris Dirie (Liya Kebede) settled in London after she escaped from Somalia when she was a teenager and arranged to marry a much older man. While working in a fast food restaurant, she was spotted by an acclaimed fashion photographer named Terry Donaldson (Timothy Spall). With the help of her modeling agent (Juliet Stevenson), booking the right jobs and getting Dirie’s VISA taken care of, and a friend named Marylin (Sally Hawkins), for moral support, Dirie worked hard to become an international supermodel. But being in high fashion and getting paid ridiculous amount of money didn’t grant her happiness. A smart and driven woman, she used her celebrity to shed light on the cruel practice of female circumcision. Based on Waris Dirie’s novel and directed by Sherry Horman, “Desert Flower” verged on melodrama at times but it remained a fascinating story of a survivor who trekked across a desert to achieve a better life. Perhaps it was meant to be melodramatic as to highlight the struggle that brought about the change in her. It was impossible not to root for the main character when she obtained food from trash because she didn’t have any money. On top of her poverty, she knew nobody in London and it didn’t help that she didn’t know much English. I absolutely could relate to the latter part–incapable of communicating and understanding clearly during the first few months I immigrated to America. The film was most powerful when the issue of female genital cutting was front and center. The quiet moment when Waris revealed to Marylin what happened to her when she was three years old was devastating. It made me consider how I would have reacted if I was in Marylin’s shoes. What can one really say to someone who’s gone through something so horrific? However, though the trauma of the surgery affected the way she interacted with others, I was glad that Dirie wasn’t simply portrayed in the film as a victim. It was ultimately an uplifting story because if it wasn’t for Dirie, perhaps the concept of genital mutilation would still be foreign to most of us. Kebede was a joy to watch because she commanded a subtle quiet power. The downplaying of the acting complemented the film’s more overt emotions. In the first half, her character’s demure persona reflected the way her body was consistently covered. She spoke softly and always looked down. In the second half, when she became a model, although she was still somewhat reserved, her confidence was almost overwhelming when she was in front of the camera. It was critical that Dirie’s transformation felt convincing. And it was. There were some criticisms, however, involving Marylin because she was mostly portrayed as a comic, claiming that the funny moments felt out of place. I’d have to disagree. Independent from the novel, I thought Marylin was a rather important figure in Waris’ journey in becoming a leader. The light-hearted sequences meant to communicate that just because people had gone through the cruel practice, it didn’t mean that they were incapable of experiencing joy and happiness. It will always be a part of them but it doesn’t necessarily define them.
Never Let Me Go (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Kathy (Izzy Meikle-Small), Tommy (Charlie Rowe), and Ruth (Ella Purnell) lived in Hailsham, an English boarding school led by Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling), all their lives. The three children shared a strong bond. Kathy and Ruth’s beds were next to each other so they learned to become friends over the years. Smart and artistic Kathy began to have feelings for Tommy who was kind-hearted but often rejected by his peers. Ruth, on the other hand, was one of Tommy’s passive tormentors but she wanted to make Kathy jealous so she began to spend more time with the social outcast. Miss Lucy’s (Sally Hawkins) arrival in Hailsham made an important impact in the trio’s lives because she revealed their true purpose. Many reviews kept their readers blind about the dark secret involving the children. I don’t think it’s necessary because the children being clones and future organ donors was just the template of this morally and emotionally complex story which was based on a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. The core of the story was how Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth (played by Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley, respectively, in later years) dealt with the revelation that they weren’t going to live long lives or realize any of their long-term dreams. It made me question how I would start living if I’ve been told that I could be notified at any time that someone needed my organs and I could possibly die for someone I haven’t met. None of the three tried to run away after their discovery. I was curious why they didn’t. Maybe they thought it was a selfish thing to do. Having made aware that they were clones, they were always on the lookout for Possibles, their look-alikes, the models in which they shared 100% of their DNA. The material made powerful implications that genes had more impact than the environment from which one was raised. For instance, Kathy’s belief that she was modeled from a prostitute or a pornographic actress because she had strong urges to have sex even as a child. She tried to stop those urges which made her shut down other important aspects of herself like acting on her attraction toward Tommy. Another moving element in the picture was Tommy’s misplaced expectations about a possible deferral from organ donations given that a couple was able to prove their love for one another. His willingness to look into the impossible reminded me of David’s quest to find the Blue Fairy in Steven Spielberg’s highly underrated “A.I. Artificial Intelligence.” Both characters wanted to be with someone they loved so desperately. They wanted to live a meaningful life so badly, they were willing to turn to the fantastic. “Never Let Me Go,” adroitly directed by Mark Romanek, was a poignant film that wasn’t solely about the ethics of organ donations and the cruel destiny laid out for the characters. Personally, I thought it was more about the powerless making small but critical decisions with the cards that they were given. The odds were against them, comparable to why we often find ourselves rooting for the underdogs in competitions.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Upon reading other people’s reviews, I got the feeling that Poppy (Sally Hawkins) was this person who was happy all the time and wasn’t at all affected by other people’s negative emotions. After actually watching the film, I believe she’s not like that at all. In fact, she cares so much about other people–her family, her friends, even complete strangers–to the point where she tries to make them happy when she senses that they’re having a bad day or they have something heavy in their minds. Her default emotion is happiness, which is unlike many people whose default is neutral, and that makes her really interesting and entertaining to watch. Writer and director Mike Leigh (“Vera Drake”) did a great job introducing an extremely charming and likable character right from the opening credits. What’s even more impressive is that he was able to tell an ordinary story surrounding a 30-year-old single elementary school teacher with great focus in the emotional aspects of different circumstances. By the end of the film, I truly got to know Poppy when she’s with her friends (Alexis Zegerman was hilarious as Hawkins’ sarcastic roommate), when she’s at work with her children, when she’s with her co-workers, when she’s with complete strangers, and when she’s by herself with her thoughts. Although the whole learning-to-drive aspect with Eddie Marsan as the angry driving instructor didn’t work for me because there were a lot of intense emotional outbursts, I did laugh a lot because I could relate to those scenes regarding my experiences behind the wheel for the first time. Instead of that, I wish the story had more time to focus more on the romance between Hawkins and Samuel Roukin. Since Poppy and her group of friends have been talking about where they are in their lives, including Poppy’s thoughts about whether she’s really happy with how her life has turned out, I thought that a genuine connection with someone of the opposite sex was an issue that needed more exploration. Still, this picture is very, very good and I was surprised that Hawkins didn’t get an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. While watching the film, she made me feel really happy and it’s not easy to carry a comedy movie with such consistency all the way through. If you’re in the mood for a bit of sunshine, “Happy-Go-Lucky” gets a very enthusiastic recommendation from me.