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Posts Tagged ‘Sally Hawkins’

It increasingly seems to me that the process by which major movie awards are decided resembles that by which the Catholic Church creates new saints: every aspect of a prospective candidate’s past and character is meticulously examined for doctrinal and moral purity and correctness. Old skeletons are wont to get dragged out of cupboards like nobody’s business. There was much grumbling last year when Casey Affleck eventually won the Best Actor Oscar for Manchester by the Sea, given some controversies in his past; the same thing seems likely to impact Gary Oldman’s chances in the same category this year. It’s almost as though the gong is handed out not for the work in question, but their personal conduct throughout their lifetime.

This applies to whole films as much as individuals, although in this case the vetting process can get a bit more abstract: one of the key obstacles which can rise up in a movie’s way is that of plagiarism, however you dress it up. Drawing particular flak in this department at the moment is Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water. There have been allegations from the family of the writer responsible that this film draws unacceptably heavily from the plot of a TV play entitled Let Me Hear You Whisper. The acclaimed French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet has also weighed in, complaining that del Toro refuses to admit that the movie reuses elements of his own 1991 film Delicatessen.

This is really par for the course for many films these days. What I do find rather surprising is the fact that no-one is really saying much about the fact that The Shape of Water is essentially, if not a remake of Jack Arnold’s classic monster movie Creature from the Black Lagoon, then so heavily indebted to it as to have no significant independent identity of its own. Or perhaps it’s just the case that the homage is so very obvious that it’s not even worth mentioning: del Toro was in the frame to direct a remake of Black Lagoon at one point, and his new ideas for the plot were apparently where the idea of The Shape of Water originated. On the other hand, perhaps it is simply inconceivable for many people that an acclaimed critical darling with thirteen Oscar nominations could have been spawned by what’s still perceived as a trashy monster movie.

Del Toro’s movie is set, we are invited to infer, in the early 60s, and primarily concerns the doings of a lonely, mute woman named Elisa (she is played by Sally Hawkins). Her closest friends are the unfulfilled artist in the next apartment (Richard Jenkins) and her work colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer). She seems very ordinary, and only her startling behaviour in the bathtub while waiting for her boiled egg suggests she is a woman of deep passions. (I have to say that even as the opening scenes of the film were sketching in the details of her life, my companion – who was unaware of the whole plagiarism kerfuffle – was saying, ‘Ooh, this is like Amelie‘ – a well-received film directed by, you guessed it, Jean-Pierre Jeunet.)

Elisa is a cleaner at a government science facility, and one which shortly embarks on an unusual new research project: a new specimen arrives, captured in the Amazon by relentless intelligence officer Strickland (Michael Shannon) – an aquatic humanoid creature, basically a kind of gill-man (the creature is played by Doug Jones). The gill-man is brutally treated by Strickland and his team, who believe its unique properties can give the US an edge in the space race, but Elisa manages to make a more personal connection with him. When she learns that the gill-man’s life will shortly be put in danger by the demands of the project, Elisa finds she has to take steps to protect him…

Guillermo del Toro is one of those people whose career has shown sporadic flashes of utter brilliance ever since his first film, Cronos, appeared in the middle of the 1990s. Cronos was an iconoclastic vampire movie; he has gone on to make several brilliant superhero-horror movie fusions, the historical fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth, and the aspiring Japanese-culture blockbuster Pacific Rim. Even the films he hasn’t made sound unusually enticing: for a long time he was slated to direct the Hobbit trilogy, while his efforts to realise a big-budget adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness were ultimately scuppered by the appearance of the similarly-themed Prometheus. Could this be the moment where it all comes together and he produces the classic fantasy movie he has long been threatening to, and receives the accolades he surely deserves?

Well, maybe. There are certainly elements of The Shape of Water that recall earlier films del Toro has worked on: Doug Jones played a broadly similar gill-man character in the two Hellboy films, for instance, while anyone familiar with the wider canon of Lovecraftian horror-fantasy may find certain elements of the new film’s plot are telegraphed just a little too obviously. And if anything other than the homage/plagiarism fuss impacts on The Shape of Water‘s chances of Oscar success, then it’s that this is still very recognisably a genre picture of sorts, unashamedly featuring tropes from horror, fantasy, and monster movies.

Nevertheless, this is still a breathtakingly accomplished film, beautiful to look at, involving in its storytelling, and uniformly superbly acted. Del Toro’s ability to blend different flavours is notable: the general thrust of the advertising for The Shape of Water suggests this is essentially a lushly imagined romantic fantasy, and it certainly functions as such. But on the other hand, I would be very careful about who I took to see this film – the nudity and explicit sexual content is somewhat stronger than you might expect, while the horror element has a much harder, gorier edge than any of the publicity suggests. There are some properly grisly, uncomfortable-to-watch moments as the story progresses.

This is partly a result of the film’s ambitions to be more than just an escapist fantasy film, of course. We are back in Unique Cultural Moment territory here, and it is notable that the film’s main villain is Shannon’s straight-arrow by-the-book career army man, who would probably be the hero of a 50s B-movie. Here, of course, the focus is on the way he insists on dominating anyone around him who is less of a WASP-ish alpha male, and his casual brutality is set in opposition to the general sensitivity and decency of the characters who end up opposing him. The role is written and performed with just enough subtlety for Strickland not to come across as an absolute one-dimensional cut-out, but it remains the case that for me The Shape of Water‘s disparaged-minorities-unite-to-stick-it-to-The-Man subtext is just a little too on the nose. (I’m not sure the musical number in the third act entirely works, either.)

Nevertheless, this is still a tremendously accomplished and highly distinctive film. To tell the truth, I suspect this film may just be a little too far out there, and not overtly political enough, to really succeed with awards jurors in the current atmosphere, but I think it will be very well remembered in years to come. And, given the terrible troubles that Universal have been having, trying to get their monster-based franchise started, I suspect that people there will be seriously regretting not giving del Toro more freedom when he was working on movie ideas for them: it’s certainly difficult to imagine anyone daring to attempt another remake of Creature from the Black Lagoon for many years to come, let alone being so successful.

 

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Something has been a-stirring for some time now. Maybe it’s just my advancing age, or possibly my 60+ movies a year regimen is taking its toll, but it’s actually quite unusual now for me to get genuinely excited about a new movie. Too many disappointments, too much cynicism, I suppose. However, when I learned that Gareth Edwards, director of one of my favourite films of recent years (2010’s Monsters), was to oversee a big-budget American Godzilla movie (a franchise I have enjoyed rather too much for nearly a quarter of a century now), my interest level spiked, and it has stayed spiked ever since.

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It has been sixteen years since Roland Emmerich’s first attempt at an American Godzilla – a film for which the word ‘reviled’ is probably not an overstatement – and ten years since Toho, creators of the great beast, decided to suspend production of Japanese-language Godzilla films following the release of the maddeningly uneven Final Wars, on the occasion of Godzilla’s fiftieth anniversary. Sixty years on from the first Godzilla movie, there are clearly a lot of expectations for this film, and if nothing else you have to admire Edwards’ ambition in attempting to combine the requirements of a typical Hollywood popcorn blockbuster with the very special conventions of a Japanese kaiju movie, not to mention producing something with merit as a piece of cinema, too.

Godzilla himself does not show up until well into the film, leaving the job of carrying the story to Aaron Taylor-Johnson. He plays Ford Brody, a young US Army officer whose life has been shaped by the death of his mother (Juliette Binoche, briefly) in mysterious accident at a Japanese nuclear plant some years ago. Brody has tried to move on, but his dad (Bryan Cranston) remains convinced there is some secret to the tragedy, and has been trying to sneak into the quarantine zone and find out what it is, forcing Ford to fly over there and try to sort him out.

They learn the ruins of the plant are incubating an enormous pupa-like object, containing a primeval creature which feeds on radiation. As luck would have it, they arrive just as the creature – dubbed ‘Muto’ by the attending boffins (Watanabe Ken and Sally Hawkins) – hatches out and engages in a little light rampaging. The Muto heads for the States in search of more fissile material, with the armed forces in hot pursuit. However, Watanabe has a suspicion that another, equally ancient predator may still be around, and keen to make lunch out of the Muto. Watanabe calls this creature Godzilla… but with the army and navy in trigger-happy mood, and signals suggesting a second Muto may also be on the loose, it looks as if the King of the Monsters may have a lot on his (glowing radioactive spiky dorsal) plate…

While it is almost indisputable that Edwards’ Godzilla is a vast improvement over Emmerich’s take on the story (a film which even Toho were publicly contemptuous of) , just how much you enjoy it may well depend on how steeped you are in the traditions and lore of Japanese kaiju movies. These are subtly different to the grammar and conventions of the American monster movie, for all that the two share a deep connection.

For one thing, Edwards understands that a classic Godzilla movie isn’t just about a giant monster wreaking havoc and being attacked by the armed forces: it’s about two or more giant monsters, more than likely with super-powers, ripping into each other on a grand scale. The inclusion of the Muto creatures means Godzilla has a couple of worthy opponents to take on in the final reel, which is one base covered.

Beyond this, though, the screenplay reveals a considerable knowledge and understanding of the genre – Max Borenstein’s screenplay puts a new and rather exciting spin on the core Godzilla mythology, and finds a new way of incorporating the obligatory mention of the 1954 A-bomb tests. And both visually and in terms of the general shape of the story, it seemed to me that this movie owes a considerable debt to Kaneko Shusuke’s Gamera: Guardian of the Universe – not a Godzilla movie, admittedly, but still one of the highlights of the genre. (There are a couple of tiny shout-outs to the Mothra movies too.)

There are moments here, too, which are as good as anything in past films – the build-up to Godzilla’s first appearance is immaculately handled. Directors often talk about the big G as an implacable force of nature, but Edwards really gets this right – Godzilla’s approach is heralded by fleeing wildlife, storms and tsunamis, and he really does seem like an impossibly immense avatar of total destruction. (Watanabe’s performance – with just the right level of awed reverence – does as much as the CGI to sell this.)

On the other hand, the movie does subscribe to the current genre dogma that all giant monster fights must take place after dark and under conditions of poor visibility, which I found a bit disappointing. God knows what watching this film in 3D must be like, given the light-loss involved: a pitch-black screen and a lot of roaring, I suppose. It also seems for much of the film that Edwards is either being a total tease or trying to make an art-house Godzilla film – no sooner does a monster fight start or a city begin to be devastated than Edwards cuts away to something else. There is a very enjoyable monster battle at the end, but I could have happily watched a lot more of this stuff.

And it is all a bit po-faced, too. Perhaps wary of accusations that a film about an immense fire-breathing nuclear dragon could be considered a touch silly, the tone of the new Godzilla is very earnest. There is no winking at the camera, hardly any jokes, no sign of the more extravagant genre elements (alien invasions, time travel, giant mystic lepidopterae) that distinguish the best of the Japanese films. All Godzilla films are, on one level, absurd, but this film never quite summons up the self-confidence to relax and revel in this (perhaps slightly surprising, given one of the Toho execs credited is Yoshimitsu Banno, who directed the bonkers 1971 movie Godzilla Vs Hedorah).

So we are left with a film which has many of the usual flaws of a Japanese kaiju film – primarily the incredibly thin human characters and dubious plotting – but none of its sense of fun or imagination. Some very fine actors are absurdly underused in Godzilla, especially the women (as well as Hawkins, Elizabeth Olsen gets hardly anything to do as Taylor-Johnson’s wife). The first act of the film is very nearly confusing to watch, as well, given this is supposed to be a Godzilla movie yet the plot focuses exclusively on the Mutos (I suppose you could argue that this is itself another sign of the film’s reverence for genre conventions, given how much the later Japanese films focused on their antagonists’ origin stories).

It would be wrong of me to say that this film lived up to my expectations, but then those expectations were immensely high to begin with. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad film, by any means. Any even halfway-successful attempt at an American Godzilla is always going to be a bit weird, and this film is halfway-successful at the very least. It’s not one of the greatest Godzilla movies ever made, but its treatment of the character gets so many things absolutely right that it’s almost impossible for me not to like it.

 

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It has become a bit of an annual ritual of late: every year Woody Allen releases a new film, as he has for about four decades now, and every year the critics declare that this one shows the great man is back on form (well, they didn’t say that about To Rome With Love, admittedly, possibly because it was just a little bit too broad a comedy). Implicit in this is an acknowledgement that for quite a long time Allen went off the boil as a film-maker, and to be perfectly honest I’ve found his last few films as variable as much of the rest of his later work.

But anyway: his new movie is Blue Jasmine, which has been hailed as ‘a work of brilliance’ and ‘better than anything you might imagine’ by grown-up professional film critics. Crikey. It has also been hailed as a bit of a stealth adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, but as the sum total of my experience of 20th century American theatre consists of working as a stagehand on a production of The Glass Menagerie, I don’t really feel competent to comment. Those who like Blue Jasmine have claimed this is Allen’s first openly political film, but once again I would say people are perhaps getting a bit carried away with their own enthusiasm.

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See what you think. This is much less of an ensemble piece than most recent Allen movies, with the lead role going to Cate Blanchett. She plays Jasmine, the title character, and the film is something of a riches-to-rags tale. The narrative structure is complex, but the film opens with her arriving in San Francisco to stay with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Jasmine is used to an extremely affluent lifestyle amongst the smart set of New York City’s Park Avenue, but the exposure of her husband as a financial fraudster on a colossal scale has left her with virtually nothing, and reliant on the goodwill of her sister.

Ginger, on the other hand, operates on a much lower social strata – rather than big moneymen, her boyfriends tend to be mechanics and builders. (It is a bit of a stretch to believe that two such totally different characters are really sisters, but Allen has a valiant stab at selling this idea to the audience.) So the scene is set for some comedy of embarrassment as Jasmine has to come to terms with working as a dental receptionist and being hit on by blue-collar joes.

Throughout this the film frequently flashes back to Jasmine’s privileged life with her former husband (Alec Baldwin), filling in some of the history of the various characters and their relationships. This could be a slightly hokey device but Allen handles it quite deftly, using it to deliver a final plot revelation in a rather satisfying manner.

Blue Jasmine sits very comfortably within the Allen canon – it has the same tone and style, the same sort of soundtrack, even the same graphic design, as the vast majority of his work. There’s an ensemble cast and a number of parallel plot threads, mostly concerned with the interpersonal relationships of the characters. What makes it distinctive is its focus on one particular character over all the others, and it’s central to the success of the film that Cate Blanchett is in the title role. Blanchett gives the kind of performance that people love to throw awards at; I’ll be very surprised if she doesn’t get an Oscar nomination. I’m not going to bother about mentioning Blanchett’s lack of vanity (there’s always a sort of implied sexism there I’m never comfortable with), she’s just simply very good in a role which had the potential to be an overblown grotesque.

Jasmine is, in addition to being a monstrous snob, a borderline alcoholic, an incessant fantasist, and psychologically extremely fragile, and yet Blanchett manages to keep her not only credible as a human being but actually sympathetic throughout – or at least not totally unsympathetic. Given that Woody Allen often seems to regard his own characters as specimens under a microscope one wonders if this was his actual intention, but it serves to make the film much more rounded and interesting than might otherwise have been the case.

This sort of ties in to the issue of Blue Jasmine as a political film – it’s been suggested that Jasmine’s tribulations, and her generally corrosive impact on the lives of her less-affluent family and acquaintances, constitute Allen’s comment on the financial crisis which continues to shape the modern world. One of the central questions of the film is whether Jasmine was just plain ignorant of her husband’s various misdeeds, or simply chose to look the other way (and this question is answered, not that Allen makes a big thing out of it as such). Allen doesn’t seem especially interested in issues of personal culpability, though, and the film operates in more general terms.

Chief amongst these is the way that Jasmine is, quite simply, bad news for those around her, especially her good-natured sister: in the course of the film she causes her sister to lose a small fortune of her own (leading, it’s implied, to her divorce), and then the near-collapse of a second relationship. The implication may be that Jasmine’s fortune has made her careless when it comes to other people – or possibly it’s that wealth is a shield against many of the vicissitudes of life. It’s not just an issue of money, though – the film is about the various characters trying to move on from the downfall of Jasmine’s husband and the fallout from this, and it’s notable that Jasmine seems to find this easier, in many ways, than some of the others. It’s implied that this is because she maintains a fraudulent air of refinement and sophistication even when she’s practically broke, while her sister, who is honest about her lack of taste and breeding, is held back as a result.

It may be that Allen is trying to make a point about the superficiality of the world and the resulting unfairness: phonies finish first. The ending of the film doesn’t quite support this interpretation, though, but it’s unclear whether this is Allen simply being ambiguous on purpose in an attempt to avoid too clean-cut a conclusion, or the director fumbling the ball again and inadvertantly muddying the waters.

If you consider Blue Jasmine as a piece of socio-political commentary, then it’s a complex film and possibly not an entirely consistent one. I’m not saying there isn’t a political element to it, but I think it emerges en passant from the story of the central character. I would say this was a film about characters rather than ideas, and as such it is lifted considerably by the talents of the performers involved, primarily Cate Blanchett. The premise is engaging and the story involving, but it’s the performances that bring the film to life. This is certainly one of Woody Allen’s better recent movies, but a lot of the credit must go to his leading lady.

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Hmmm – a slight confession. It’s an awful thing for a film-loving Englishman to have to confess to, but quite often I have a bit of a problem getting Mike Leigh and Ken Loach mixed up. Not so much in terms of their current work, but more when it comes to the back catalogue. I know that, in principle, the difference between the styles of the two men is very straightforward – if it’s fiercely committed, socially conscious, openly left-of-centre stuff (quite possibly featuring amateur performers and scenes depicting meetings) then it’s a Ken Loach movie, whereas if it’s acutely-observed, performance-driven and bittersweetly comic slice-of-life stuff (or, alternately, a Gilbert and Sullivan biopic), then you know that Mike Leigh is your man.

Being a ranting lefty ideologue myself I am naturally more of a Loach follower, but I try to keep an open mind, and someone recently lent me Leigh’s well-received 2008 film Happy-Go-Lucky, an (would you believe it) acutely-observed, performance-driven and bittersweetly comic slice-of-life drama about modern London life. Hmmm.

Sally Hawkins plays Poppy, a primary school teacher living a fairly carefree existence, spending her time enjoying herself with her friends, trampolining (this is not a euphemism), and… oh, I don’t know, all sorts of BoHo stuff I expect, for she is quite clearly a Free Spirit. Then her bike is nicked, which prompts her to learn to drive. Unfortunately her instructor is Scott (Eddie Marsan), an extremely uptight and fastidious teacher, much afflicted with unreconstructed attitudes and worryingly prone to believe in any old nonsense he reads on the internet.

Needless to say the two do not get on, and… Well, to be honest, the thing about bittersweetly comic slice-of-life dramas is that they are not overburdened with what you’d actually describe as a plot. This film is not short on incident, but neither is there much sense of progression beyond the driving instruction scenes (which do not make up a great deal of the film).

I borrowed this film from a colleague who pitched it to me on the strength of it being an interesting disquisition on different styles of teaching (we are both teachers ourselves) and I can see how, if you put your head on one side and squint, this is sort of the case. Many of the characters in this film are teachers of one sort or another, and they do approach it in different ways – Poppy is very touchy-feely and intuitive, her flatmate (Alexis Zegerman) somewhat less so, while Poppy’s flamenco teacher (Karina Fernandez) is much stricter but at the same time very motivating. Scott, on the other hand, just invokes bizarre kabbala (he keeps chanting the name of the fallen angel ‘En-Ra-Ha’) and shouts a lot. But on the other hand, the film doesn’t seem to be dealing with this in any explicit way, except to say that Poppy is a good teacher because she is a nice person, but Scott is only a bad teacher because he’s had some tough experiences.

Beyond this the film really just seems to be a lot of actors Obviously Acting. People speak in hushed tones of Mike Leigh’s near-mythical method of working, using lots of improvisation, etc, etc, but here the result seems to have been quite a few self-indulgent performances. I am aware that a lot of film dialogue is not especially naturalistic, but given a choice between entertainingly witty and well-written non-naturalistic dialogue, and dialogue straining so hard to sound natural it instantly starts to sound fake (as in this film), I would choose the former.

I am aware that I am very much swimming against the critical tide in saying that I didn’t really like this film very much, but I have to call ’em as I see ’em. I also have to say that, rather than give Sally Hawkins an award, as so many people did, I would be more inclined to… actually, that’s not fair. Hawkins’ performance is convincing and coherent, and Poppy is certainly a very decent, responsible, and in many ways admirable human being. But she is also one of the most fantastically irritating main characters I have ever seen. The film publicity describes her as ‘irrepressibly cheerful’, ‘with a gift for making the most of life’. This mainly manifests itself as her being apparently incapable of shutting her mouth for more than ten seconds at a time, making a relentless string of whimsically comic (although not, to my ear, actually funny) comments, which she proceeds to laugh at herself. She floats through the film, usually with an inane grin on her face, regardless of everything else that happens. Watching her, I felt the urge to run violently amok, but as I was in my garret at the time I resisted this impulse.

It doesn’t really help that the film presents her in an unfailingly favourable light – she is apparently a good, creative, caring teacher (we see her planning an art lesson, which of course involves her putting a paper bag on her head and pretending to be a parrot), a reliable friend, she stops off on the way home at night to have long conversations with homeless people she’s never met before. I started to want her to be involved in a freak trampolining or flamenco-dancing accident which would force her to reassess her life. But no. All that happens is a visit to the physiotherapist and her hooking up with a boyfriend who is notably lacking in personality.

Oh, and some business with Scott. The weird thing is that the film clearly wants you to pity Scott – ‘You were an only child, weren’t you?’ Poppy sagely observes, later adding ‘Were you bullied at school?’ – but for me at least he came across as a much more engaging and sympathetic character than Poppy. Eddie Marsan manages to be genuinely funny, which is more than I can honestly say for Hawkins, and it was his scenes that made this film watchable at all for me (well, Zegerman is also very good in a supporting role). I would have been much more interested in seeing a film about Scott and his relationships with his various weird driving instructees, in which Poppy occasionally appeared as a hippy-dippy irritant, than this one in which Scott is a minor character, somewhat patronised by the film.

But there you go, I’m not a National Treasure of the British Film Industry, and it may be that this is just the sort of thing that happens when you mystically improvise the scripts of your films. Happy-Go-Lucky is beautifully photographed and features a couple of really nice supporting performances, and there is the occasional suggestion of interesting ideas going on deep down in the story. None of this can really make up for my overwhelmingly negative reaction to Hawkins’ performance and characterisation, though – like the rest of the film, it’s technically accomplished, but a bit of a drudge to sit through.

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