Octavia Spencer

The Shape of Water

30/01/18

The release of a Guillermo del Toro movie is generally a cause for some excitement, but The Shape of Water arrives in the UK already garlanded with 13 Oscar nominations – this year’s most nominated film. It’s an unusual state of affairs because fantasy movies rarely get much of a look in at the Academy Awards, apart from the occasional grudging nod for special effects and cinematography. It doesn’t take long, however, to appreciate how this film has managed to garner so much acclaim. It’s a gorgeous, multi-faceted allegory that isn’t adverse to taking risks – The Creature From the Black Lagoon dancing in a Busby Berkeley routine? Hey, no problem!

To my mind, there are actually two del Toros out there – the one that creates eerie fairytale fantasies like Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone, and the one that offers us the likes of Pacific Rim, where giant robots punch colossal lizards repeatedly in the head until (eventually) they die. Take a wild guess as to which del Toro I personally favour! I’m glad to report that The Shape of Water falls squarely into the former category.

We’re in Baltimore in 1962 at the height of the Cold War. Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a reclusive mute woman, works as a cleaner in a high security government laboratory, alongside her supportive friend, Zelda (Octavia Spencer). When a mysterious new life form – simply referred to as ‘The Asset’, arrives for safekeeping – it is accompanied by its keeper, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon, excelling in what must be his most repellant role to date). It turns out that the lab’s new addition is some kind of amphibious man, captured in the jungles of South America, where he is worshipped as a god – and it soon becomes clear that Strickland’s job is less to find out about this new acquisition than to make sure the Russians never do. Resident scientist, Dr Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), is interested in studying the creature, but the American military seems determined to view it as a suitable candidate for vivisection. Meanwhile, Elisa is beginning to establish a strange and deepening friendship with it…

The outline of the story itself may sound vaguely ridiculous, but it simply cannot prepare you for how utterly compelling del Toro’s film is. It’s a multi-layered affair, beautifully shot and cleverly scripted. Elisa is an outcast, watching from the edges of society, and her best friend Giles (Richard Jenkins), a graphic designer, is in a similar position, exiled from his regular place of work because he is secretly gay. The claustrophobic atmosphere of the early sixties is brilliantly conveyed. All-American diners seem friendly as they sell their day-glo green pies, but won’t allow black people to eat alongside their white customers. The old-fashioned cinema above which Elisa and Giles live plays to nearly empty houses every night because of the growing power of television, and yet every TV screen we see displays a series of classic movie comedies and sumptuous musicals. The Asset too is an outcast, a creature that doesn’t belong in this blinkered, paranoid world. Little wonder then, that both Elisa and Giles fall under his spell.

I cannot recommend this film highly enough. Every frame of it bursts with creativity, the performances are exemplary (special mentions should go to Hawkins – who manages to convey so much without the luxury of words, and to del Toro regular, Doug Jones – who makes us care deeply about his scaly bug-eyed character and about what will ultimately happen to him).

I appreciate that not everybody is going to love this as much as I do. It requires an almost total suspension of disbelief; this is in no way a realistic film. It’s a fantasy that deals in archetypes, a contemporary reworking of a tale that could have bled from the pens of the Brothers Grimm, juxtaposing scenes of beguiling sweetness with ones of graphic violence. I watch it spellbound. I had thought that del Toro couldn’t possibly improve on Pan’s Labyrinth, but you know what? I rather think he has.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

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Gifted

18/06/17

In this enjoyable tearjerker, Chris Evans hangs up his Captain America outfit in order to play something a little more down to earth – an ordinary joe. He’s Frank Adler, a freelance ‘boat-builder’ who has appointed himself guardian of his young niece, Mary (an extraordinarily accomplished performance from McKenna Grace) after her mother’s suicide. The two of them live together in a Florida trailer park with one-eyed ginger cat, Fred. Next-door neighbour, Roberta (Octavia Spencer) pitches in to help out with babysitting duties when Frank needs to hit the local bar. But problems occur when he decides he needs to enroll Mary in elementary school – up to now he’s been tutoring her at home. There’s a reason why Frank has been holding off on this. Mary’s mother, Diane, was a mathematical genius who devoted her life to trying to solve one of the infamous Millennium Prize Equations – and it soon becomes apparent that her daughter has inherited her skills, when Mary finds her school maths lessons laughably easy and treats them with contempt.

Her teacher, Bonnie (Jenny Slate) recognises her new student’s potential and informs the school’s principal. Before anyone has time to think about the implications of this, Mary’s Grandmother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan, playing a solid gold, pole-up-the-ass Brit) appears on the scene with plans to whisk Mary off to a special school where she can devote her life to  completing Diane’s unfinished project. Frank’s view is that Mary deserves to have an ordinary childhood and wants to keep her suitably grounded. Inevitably, he and Evelyn end up in court, fighting for custody of Mary.

This is undeniably emotionally manipulative stuff – and I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t have me in tears at a couple of key points. But there’s plenty here to admire, not least Tom Flynn’s witty and acerbic script, which knows just when to lift the tension with a well-placed zinger. Director, Marc Webb (best known for the 2012 Spiderman reboot) handles the subject with skill, managing to stay just the right side of mawkishness and always ensuring that his characters are believable – even Evelyn (herself a gifted mathematician who sacrificed her own career to have a family) has reasons for acting the way she does.

But ultimately it’s McKenna Grace who makes this fly. I’ve no doubt that she has a huge future ahead of her. Meanwhile, this is well worth catching if only for the novelty of seeing Evans wearing blue jeans instead of spandex.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Hidden Figures

17/02/17

Sometimes the biggest changes in history are achieved, not with violent rebellion but with quiet tenacity. Hidden Figures tells the real life stories of three remarkable mathematicians. Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji Henson) is a mathematical genius, who from an early age could perform the most complex equations without breaking a sweat. Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) is a natural organiser, able to turn her skills to all kinds of problems, even the complexities of an IBM computer; and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) is a sassy young lady who dreams of one day being a fully qualified engineer.

The three of them are enlisted to work for NASA, but it’s not as straightforward as you might suppose – for they are not only women, they are African-American women and this is 1962, a time when (incredibly) segregation still holds sway. They cannot share bus seats, toilets or even, as it turns out, a coffee percolator, with their white colleagues. Meanwhile, the Russians have just sent Yuri Gagarin into space and the race is on to be the first country to put an astronaut on the moon… And as John Glenn embarks on his historic flight into space, only a complex mathematic equation stands between him and disaster…

Theodore Melfi’s film skilfully captures the period detail and there’s a nicely judged performance from Kevin Costner as Al Harrison, the unfortunate man charged with heading up one of the most demanding projects in history. The main focus is on Katherine Johnson, her struggles with overbearing colleague Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) and her frankly racist boss, Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst, making the best of a difficult role). If the film occasionally has a tendency to stray into the realms of sentimentality, so what? This is an important and significant story, and even though these middle-class struggles may seem far removed from the historic marches of the  black civil rights movement, nevertheless the actions of these pioneering women paved the way for those who followed.

This is entertaining cinema with a powerful message, anchored by three excellent performances from the lead actors.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Fruitvale Station

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26/04/15

Fruitvale Station wasn’t in the cinemas for very long, so I missed it on the big screen, but this powerful drama works just as effectively on a more intimate scale. It tells the real life story of 22 year old Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) a Bay Area resident who was shot and killed in the early hours of New Year’s Day, 2009, by a police officer, responding to a minor disturbance on a tube train.

Ryan Coogler’s debut full-length feature occupies itself with the last day of Grant’s life, beginning with him waking up on New Year’s Eve and following events through to their tragic conclusion. It’s a stripped-down, high-powered production, just 85 minutes in duration, but one that it nonetheless compelling from start to finish. Jordan plays Grant as an affable charmer, with a tendency to get things wrong (on the day he died, he was coming to terms with the fact that he had lost his job at a grocery store because of persistent lateness.) A brief flashback to his time in prison is a little sketchy on detail, making you wonder is he really could have been quite as nice as he’s portrayed here, but as a searing plea for gun control the film works effectively and it would be a hard heart indeed that won’t be moved by its final, harrowing images.

Plaudits should also go to Octavia Spencer as Grant’s much-put upon mother (who heartbreakingly urged her son to take the subway into town in order to ‘avoid trouble’) and to Ariana Neal as his young daughter, Tatiana, who demonstrates acting ability beyond her tender years. Fruitvale Station may only be telling us something we know already – that the right to bear arms is a bad thing indeed – but the lesson is delivered in a confident, assured way, making Coogler a name to watch in  the near future.

4.1 stars

Philip Caveney