Tuesday, March 6, 2018

The Shape of Water
Star Rating: 3/4

            The Best Picture winner stands out as unique because it’s innovative but I wouldn’t go as far as to call it the film of the year. Even though I haven’t seen all nine nominees for the 90th Oscars ceremony, I stand by statement. However, what we have here is something quite illustrious thanks to Guillermo del Toro’s direction. If it weren’t for him, this film would have sunk neck deep.

            Taking place in the city of Baltimore in 1962, during the Cold War, the narrative follows Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a janitor for a government facility who is mute as a result of child abuse. She communicates through sign language and her translators are her next-door neighbor, an artist named Giles (Richard Jenkins) and her fellow employee Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer). One day, U.S. Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) enters the facility and brings in an unknown creature from a South American river (Doug Jones) for study which proves to be dangerous and aggressive. Elisa, struck with curiosity and fascination, attempts to learn more. She sneaks into the room where the creature is being kept and develops a strange bond with it, even going as far as to break it out of containment.

            I’m sure some people are wondering: how does this work? Structure-wise, I’ve heard people call this movie a fantasy version of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and it is, in a sense. The time period definitely adds to that feeling. In terms of evolving its characters though, that’s a whole other topic. Without dialogue, Sally Hawkins has to rely on her body language and portray her role like she was in a silent film. Through her movement and range of emotions, it’s safe to say del Toro brought the best out of her. Through gleeful dancing to the fragile look in her eyes to the stunned reaction of her face every time something horrible occurs, everything Hawkins needs to convey is done so very well.

            The main concept this film tackles is emptiness. Each character is empty in some case. Giles, played so on point by Jenkins, is a closeted gay artist struggling to be accepted by a world that already discriminates people based on color. Zelda, portrayed by a subtle yet well-casted Spencer, is having problems with her husband and believes no one is there for her. Both turn to Elisa. Despite being a confidant for both of them, Elisa still feels lonely as a result of her own condition and desires to fill that void for herself somehow. As for the creature, we don’t know if there are others of the same kind. The creature could be the only one in the world. It doesn’t speak and creates a connection with Elisa as they both believe themselves to be outcasts of the world. This connection is what makes this film seem like a pure fantasy picture and it does some good on that part.

            In addition to those characters, the character of Strickland also believes something is missing in his life. After Elisa helps the creature escape, he loses his faith in his responsibility and sense of himself being a man. As a colonel, he knows his objectives and now feels threatened with the interruptions that pertain to his work. Many of us have seen Shannon play antagonists before – 8 Mile (2002), Premium Rush (2012), Man of Steel (2013) – and boy is he one here. He is entirely convincing when he has to threaten others to the point where he is frightening.

            Once again, some call it ‘Romeo and Juliet’ with a monster while others call it a genuine fantasy film. Whatever the case might be, none of this would have been possible without Guillermo del Toro’s direction. He won the Oscar for a reason and now I see why. Much like Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), he combines elements of childlike fantasy stories while incorporating mature content into the mix. With his passion and imagination, he gives his latest work a magical quality which is only solidified by Alexandre Desplat’s score.

            The imagery del Toro presents us is either pleasing or horrifying, depending on the scene. Everything looks so authentic, especially the creature itself. I don’t know if Doug Jones put on a costume and applied makeup to his performance or wore a waterproof motion-capture suit, but when we see the creature, the final result looks incredible. The creature appears to be a mix between the alien from Alien (1979) and ordinary aquatic life and that actually adds some sort of realism to it.

            Now that I’ve said all the praise, here is my real qualm about the film: it’s weird. The concept of a human starting a relationship with something that isn’t is rather repellent and the pace is too fast for the overall final product. The Shape of Water reminds me of Spike Jonze’s romantic comedy Her (2013) in many instances. The protagonist there also fell for something that wasn’t human. Despite Her being a great one mostly due to Jonze’s tender and poignant approach toward the project, there were many times in that movie where I pondered laughing at all, even at times where maybe I was supposed to. Movies like these two can make people uncomfortable but that shouldn’t stop anyone from seeing The Shape of Water.

            The Shape of Water is worth the price of admission. I can say it may not have been the best of the Oscar nominees and I don’t know how it will be judged 10 or 20 years from now, but I suggest people give it a shot. Guillermo del Toro has given us a film about finding one’s self through the perspectives of fishes-out-of-water, which is literal in one aspect. With that being said, maybe people will fill a void with themselves after seeing it so they know what the recent fuss has been about. Fans of del Toro and film will definitely like it. As for the others, it’s up to them.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

A Fantastic Woman
Star Rating: 3.5/4

            A nominee for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars, A Fantastic Woman from Chile offers a meaningful look at transphobia through the eyes of a trans woman. The main character is known as Marina (Daniela Vega) who mourns the death of her boyfriend, Orlando (Francisco Reyes). Marina is told by Orlando’s family not to come to the funeral and to leave them alone in the planning process of the event. They also throw Marina out of the house she shared with Orlando and leave her homeless. The film is lovely to look at through its close-ups and lateral tracking shots that allow people to see in Marina’s perspective as well as through its use of color; one shot involves Orlando before his passing in a sauna with lights becoming different colors of the rainbow each second, representing being allies to the LGBT community. Its narrative is somewhat like Boys Don’t Cry (1999) but it’s reasonable for it to be like that. Through Marina, we get a character we will care for and root for, especially towards the end as she stands so poised despite everything she experiences in this tale. A Fantastic Woman shows how important it is to have the courage to be who we want to be and make our own choices. Whether or not it will change one’s views on the LGBT community though will be entirely up to them.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Lady Bird
Star Rating: 3/4

            One of the nine nominees for Best Picture, first-time director Greta Gerwig has presented audiences with a tale that reminds me somewhat of the old myth of Daedelus and Icarus. Lady Bird makes for good comedy and for good drama. However, despite all its praise, much of which it deserves, it does have some drawbacks. Its oddball sense of quirkiness and multiple plot points can throw us off to the point where the narrative seems somewhat unfocused. Aside from that though, it’s still paints a fascinating character study portrait.

            Our Icarus in this tale is Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), who insists on going by the nickname “Lady Bird.” Daedelus is her mother, Marion (Laurie Metclaf). Anyway, the first shot is of them laying side-by-side each other in a hotel bed. Their drive home from a college tour escalates into a heated argument. The rest of the movie after that is just about Lady Bird throughout her senior year of at her Catholic high school and the experiences she has during that time period.

Initially, I first thought this film was going to be solely about these two characters and how their relationship continually influenced each other, but it ended up being mostly about Lady Bird. On the contrary, the movie presents us with an interesting dynamic. In that car ride, Marion rhetorically asks, “How did I raise such a snob?” The irony is how snobbish it came off. They don’t realize that they are precise mirror images of each other. They have the exact same personalities but Lady Bird is just more na├»ve and more focused on trying to find her place in this world, which is pretty standard for any teenager, I’m told. Actually, that goes for anyone, really.

Since this story is mostly about Lady Bird, let me give my compliments to Ms. Saoirse Ronan, who is a delight to watch. She doesn’t wear any makeup and she doesn’t play a glamorous character yet she’s still a real beauty. Like Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), she has a winning smile and she plays her role so casually. She’s free-spirited and independent which goes back as to why her character might have picked the nickname “Lady Bird” for herself: she hopes to make it on her own. She wants to soar. She wants to feel free.

Before I try to go deeper into what anything in this picture might mean, I should also mention the style of this film. This feature has a magical quality that pulls us into the environment seen before us. Everything that follows is mix of a few different qualities. It has the weirdness of a Wes Anderson movie with its perfect symmetry and lateral tracking shots, tropes similar to Juno (2007) and a tough balance to maintain like Silver Linings Playbook (2012). Some may not be big fans of that, but those that are will have no problem here. As I said earlier, it has an oddball feel to it but that makes it amusing. That’s why we laugh at it in the most unexpected of times. It may feel strange and even cringe-worthy to laugh it, but we do and we will.

To go back to the character of Lady Bird, she is like Icarus in the sense that she’s reaching for the sky in terms of ambition. Icarus was trapped in the labyrinth while Lady Bird feels trapped in her Sacramento life. For Lady Bird, the labyrinth is high school and all the events that she takes part in outside of school. Eventually, they escape and bask in their freedom for a short period. However, Icarus is struck by the sun, meaning Lady Bird crashes and burns. This may seem like a spoiler, but since this movie is entirely original material, there’s no knowing how it might end for those who haven’t seen it.

Lady Bird does attain her freedom but the ending implies what she looks for next: redemption. As she is Catholic, it makes sense. She next wants to be forgiven for her sins. The questions to wonder though are: What would Icarus have done if he hadn’t met his demise. What will Lady Bird do without her mother?

I don’t think there will be a sequel though as the movie does end on a satisfying note. It comes full circle for Lady Bird as a character. Sure, there’s a lot going on that distracts it from what this movie really could have been and there are one or two characters who don’t add much significance to the narrative, but Lady Bird is an overall lovely film. Now we’ll see what happens at the Oscars.