Tag Archives: Viola Davis

Fences (2016)

Fences is the final Oscar 2017 Best Picture nominee I had yet to watch, so I wanted to go into it completely fresh and without any expectations. All I knew was that it’s a drama directed by and starring Denzel Freaking Washington.

It didn’t take long for me to realise that Fences must be an adaptation of a stage play, because the majority of the film takes place in a limited location and it’s pretty much just all talking. As a Google search confirmed later, Fences is based on the Pulitzer-winning play of the same name by American playwright August Wilson.

The premise is very simple: Denzel plays Troy Maxson, a sanitation worker who lives in Pittsburg during the 1950s with his wife, Rose (played by Viola Davis), and teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo). His best friend, Jim, is played by Stephen Henderson, and he also has a younger brother played by Mykelti Williamson and a grown-up son from a previous relationship played by Lyons Hornsby.

I don’t want to give away much more than that, because the joy of Fences comes from gradually finding out who these people are and who they once were. Troy Maxson starts off as just an affable, garrulous, baseball-loving regular guy, but our perceptions of him change as the film progresses and we find out more about his past and his deep flaws. He’s essentially both the protagonist and the antagonist of the film.

The film is more or less a performance vehicle for Denzel and Viola Davis, both of whom put in remarkable performances. Denzel is deservingly the biggest threat to Casey Affleck for Best Actor. Just the sheer number of lines he reels off with apparent ease and the way he articulates those lines — in typical suave Denzel fashion — is awesome. In the beginning, I still saw Denzel rather than the character he was playing, but less than 30 minutes in, I forgot about the actor and only saw Troy Maxson.

As good as Denzel is, however, he is somewhat overshadowed by Viola Davis, whose heartbreaking portrayal of Rose could very well be the best performance of anyone in 2016 — male or female. It’s a shame she was shoved into the Best Supporting Actor category because she is no doubt the lead actress of the film, and while she is a lock to win the award I would have liked to have seen her take on Emma Stone for Best Actress, a fight I think she could have won.

Ultimately, Fences is an intimate, powerful family drama and a character piece that focuses on relationships, hopes and dreams, and the hardships of the black community from that period in time. In all honesty, it’s the type of film I doubt I would have been able to appreciate in my 20s — it’s almost all dialogue and “drama” — but as a man in my 30s I think it’s great. That said, despite being emotionally invested in the story and characters and feeling that gut punch on multiple occasions, it is still probably the weakest of the nine Best Picture nominees this year.

4 stars out of 5

Suicide Squad (2016)

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I’ll be honest: Suicide Squad was probably my least anticipated blockbuster of the year. The trailers didn’t inspire me and expectations dropped even further after the disappointing mixed bag that was Batman v Superman. And so I’ll also give credit where it is due: I actually quite liked Suicide Squad.

Written and directed by David Ayer (Training Day, End of Watch, Fury), Suicide Squad is officially the third film in the DC cinematic universe after Man of Steel and BvS. It is an ambitious project that tries to subvert the superhero ensemble genre by making the protagonists a bunch of “bad guys” who have to save the world. It is essentially a bizarro Avengers of sorts, with Viola Davis  playing Amanda Waller, a government official who decides to bring together a group of the world’s most dangerous criminals, some of whom are “metahumans”, to take down a new threat that has become seemingly unstoppable in the aftermath of BvS (no spoilers for those who haven’t seen it). It essentially the Nick Fury role played by Samuel Jackson in the Marvel cinematic universe.

There’s the hired assassin Deadshot (Will Smith), crazy babe Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), powerful ancient witch Enchantress (Carla Delevigne), Aussie bandit Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), mutant Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), firestarter El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), and wall climber Slipknot (Adam Beach). Tasked with babysitting the so-called “Suicide Squad” is hero soldier Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), along with his sword-wielding Japanese friend Katana (Karen Fukuhara).

That’s already a lot of characters and a lot of stars, but there’s still more. There’s Jared Leto as supervillain The Joker, Common as a gangster, Scott Eastwood as a lieutenant, and Ike Barinholtz as a sleazy prison guard. That doesn’t even take into account cameos from a couple of from Justice League members.

Despite the plethora of characters, Ayers does a fairly good job in introducing us to all of them and in trying to give each their chance to shine, including the use of an assortment of flashback sequences to reveal back stories for key characters. Of course, no one really gets enough time to become a fully rounded character, but I think it was about as good as you could get considering the running time is only 123 minutes. Even had they extended the film to 3 hours it wouldn’t have made much of a difference.

Perhaps burned by the reception to BvSSuicide Squad had a lot more lighter moments and humorous dialogue where audiences could laugh and relax — predominantly thanks to Harley Quinn. There are still plenty of serious/emotional scenes, and even some scary sequences that would be unsuitable for children, but the film is decidedly not as dark or gritty as Ayers’ previous films.

And the performances are very good all around. I had been one of those people who felt Will Smith’s days as a box office A-lister were long behind him, but this movie shows he’s still got the charisma and presence to carry a film. He doesn’t need to do it here, but he’s arguably the best thing about the movie. I had also thought his character, Deadshot, seemed kinda lame, though I was wrong about that too. The film definitely frames his special abilities in the best possible light so that he can be one of the most impactful members of the squad.

The other standouts for me were of course Margot Robbie, who dominates just about every scene she is in as the sexy but nutty Harley Quinn, Viola Davis, who gets a lot of meat to chew in this film, and Joel Kinnaman, who adds a groundedness to all the mayhem and super abilities. He’s proven with this performance and in House of Cards that he is a fantastic actor who deserves bigger, more challenging roles in the future.

And now, the negatives. Truth is, the film doesn’t make much sense at all from a story standpoint. I can’t go into it too much, but even the very reason why the Suicide Squad was set up in the first place, and who was chosen to be a part of it, doesn’t quite add up. Many of the members of the squad — especially the non-metahumans with the exception of Deadshot — don’t really belong there. Captain Boomerang, in particular, basically offers nothing. It’s one of those movies where you have to put logic aside and go with the flow, because some of these metahumans are so powerful that contrivances have to be forced into the plot to balance out the field for the ordinary humans. Logic aside, and while the editing is far near perfect, Suicide Squad is still a more coherent film than BvS.

Another complaint I have — and it’s the same problem many had with BvSˆ– is that the characters bonded too quickly and too easily. I understand that Ayers had to create camaraderie in the squad, but it was jarring to hear them speak of each other in corny terms after a handful of interactions in literally just a few hours of time together.

The final issue I had with the film was Jared Leto’s tattooed, mobster version of the Joker. Some people may love it, but I hated it. My problem is less with Leto’s portrayal and more with the way the character was written and presented. I didn’t find him creepy or scary, and I could tell that’s exactly what they were going for. If Jack Nicholson’s Joker was iconic and Heath Ledger’s was legendary, then Jared Leto’s Joke is “meh”. It’s almost as though he tried too hard and it backfired.

Ultimately, Suicide Squad is not in the same league as any of the Avengers movies or Civil War, and it’s several notches below X-Men: Apocalypse. However, those movies did have the advantage of not having to introduce their core characters for the first time, whereas for Suicide Squad had a whole bunch of characters most regular moviegoers would not have even heard of. It is not great by any means, but at least it delivers good popcorn fun and some solid action sequences.  I personally thought it was better-made and more entertaining on the whole than BvS.

3.5 stars out of 5!

Movie Review: Ender’s Game (2013)

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I’ve already put Orson Scott Card’s 1985 award-winning sci-fi novel on my reading list for the year, but I couldn’t help but watch the film adaptation of Ender’s Game in advance. Directed by Gavin Hood (the South African who won a Best Foreign Pic Oscar for Tsotsi and made the first Wolverine film), the film stars Hugo’s rapidly growing Asa Butterfield as the titular Ender, a kid chosen to lead a rebellion against an alien race in the 22nd century. Butterfield is backed up by a superb all-star cast led by Harrison Ford, Viola Davis, Ben Kingsley, Hailee Steinfeld and Abigail Breslin.

I’ll be upfront: Ender’s Game starts off as a really intriguing young adult sci-fi thriller that is fairly entertaining and bolstered by solid and creative special effects. But by the end of the film it felt like a wasted opportunity that barely scratched the surface of what it could have been. Not having read the book, I don’t know how much depth Card goes into in terms of exploring this fascinating future world, but the film version is riddled with unexplained mysteries and gaps that make you question the plot’s common sense and logic. It was as though most of the important background to the story was purposely omitted because it would have been too difficult to explain.

The basic premise is this: in 2086, an alien race attacks Earth but some brave military commander sacrifices himself and saves everyone. Fifty years later, the war is still raging and young Ender (Butterfield), who is constantly monitored along with the other kids through a device in their neck, is chosen by Colonel Graff (Ford) to join the International Fleet, where they train kids like him to fight in the war.

The majority of the film’s 114-minute running time takes place at the Battle School, where Ender learns new skills, strategies, and takes part in war games with his fellow recruits. There is a sense of excitement when all of this takes place because you don’t know what to expect, but what makes the viewing entertaining is Ender’s interactions with the other cadets, and seeing how he hones his natural abilities to rise from the crop to become a leader. Yes, it’s yet another one of those “chosen one” stories, but for the most part it was executed effectively.

Asa Butterfield, who I loved in Hugo, is excellent as Ender. He’s rail thin but you can believe his intelligence and toughness, though there is a strange sort of distance about his character (it feels almost psychopathic) that makes him difficult to really like. Harrison Ford is basically an old Han Solo, while Viola Davis is pretty underutilized as his sidekick. Hailee Steinfeld gets a decent chunk of screen time as a fellow cadet and potential love interest, but Abigail Breslin doesn’t get to do much as Ender’s earthbound sister.

The problem I had when watching Ender’s Game was the feeling that I didn’t understand the world Card had built in his book(s). We get hints of some kind of semi-post-apocalyptic world that is dominated by an autocratic government from some of the Earth scenes, but it wasn’t like they were living among the rubble of an annihilated planet. I was curious why the world had become what it became, and how it happened. And why were they recruiting kids to fight an alien war? We know there are still capable adults, and it is said that only “millions”, not “billions” perished in the initial battle. We don’t even know what the status of the war is, except that Earth is obviously still under some kind of threat.

The vagueness extends to the battle games the kids play to train themselves. It’s a visual spectacular, with teams in futuristic space suits shooting laser beams around an obstacle course of sorts in zero gravity conditions. But we have absolutely no idea what the rules are or even what they are doing, which reminded me, very randomly, of when Conan O’Brien tried to provide commentary at some international Wold of Warcraft competition.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CdzE4ks3lHo

I understand it’s probably all too difficult to explain in a movie, but at least give us something other than the expressions of the actors to at least let us know if they’re winning or losing. And by the way, it’s not clear how any of their training helps them prepare for real battle, which appears to be fought strategically inside space ships anyway! Too much just didn’t make sense, especially the final climax of the movie, which was somewhat predictable but also inexplicably ludicrous (can’t say much more than that without spoilers).

Having said all that, Ender’s Game was still relatively enjoyable to watch as a popcorn flick, particular at the beginning. If you don’t think and just go for the ride along with all the big stars, you might even find it pretty cool. But the holes just kept adding up, and the more you think about it, the more the whole narrative just falls apart. Given that the film has been a box office bomb (barely made back its $110 million budget), it’s unlikely we’ll have the opportunity to understand more of the world depicted in the film in future entries.

3 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Prisoners (2013)

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I really wanted to watch this one and I’m glad I got the chance because it’s very very good. It’s the type of film that could have been a B-movie but ended up being a punch-in-the-gut type thriller because of the confident direction of Denis Villeneuve, the terrific ensemble cast and powerful performances by the two leads, Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal.

The story starts off simple: Jackman and his wife Maria Bello take their daughter to the home of their friends played by Terrence Howard and Viola Davis, who have a daughter of their own. The two girls go missing, and Jackman, who is a bit of a hotheaded psycho, decides to take matters into his own hands even though the case is being handled by a very capable detective played by Gyllenhaal. That’s a nice little premise summary that doesn’t give too much away, and the only thing I will add is that the film’s title is an apt one.

Prisoners is a dark, disturbing and emotional roller coaster ride that will have you questioning right and wrong and the lengths you would go to if your own child was taken and you feel like the police aren’t doing their job properly. It’s brutally violent but not in a gratuitous way because the psychological impact wouldn’t have been the same without it. There aren’t a lot, but there a few solid twists and turns which I much prefer to a lot of cheap ones, and it keeps up the tension as the characters become more desperate with the clock running out.

A big part of the reason why the film is so compelling is the performances of Jackman and Gyllenhall. These are complex characters with demons lurking behind them in the shadows, without these two Oscar-nominated actors in the roles I’m not sure all the layers could have been brought out as well as they were.

Also fantastic is Paul Dano, who I have always been a big fan of, as a mentally challenged suspect. Melissa Leo is again a chameleon in yet another unrecognisable role, while Terrence Howard, Viola Davis and Mario Bello round out the superb ensemble cast by making the most of their more limited screen time.

While there is nothing jaw-dropping or groundbreaking about the plot and the final revelations don’t quite live up to the rest of the film, Prisoners is still one of the best suspense thrillers of the year, an unsettling, creepy climb into darkness thanks to effective execution and great performances from the all-star cast.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Help (2011)

Even before I saw The Help I knew it was going to be a polarising film.  While some called it the best film of the year, I had also heard that the film was accused of trying to ‘glamorise’ what some African-American maids had to go through during the Civil Rights era of the early 1960s.  I can’t say I know enough about it or history to make any sort of meaningful comment on that, so instead I simply approached the film as a piece of entertainment.  And as such, I would say The Help worked on most levels, even though it didn’t blow me away like it did for many others.

The Help, based on the book of the same name by Kathryn Stockett, is about Skeeter (Emma Stone), a young white journalist who decides to write a book from the point of view of black maids as they work for their white bosses and look after their white children. Skeeter herself was more or less raised by a black maid, and unlike many of her peers, such as the insufferable Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), sees them as people rather than something a lot less. Two of the maids central to the story are Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer), who are both initially reluctant to help Skeeter with her book for obvious reasons but eventually take it in their stride.

I guess it’s easy to view The Help as a “good white person saves black people” kind of movie, because to some extent, it is. Skeeter is so obviously “good” and characters like Hilly are so obviously “bad” — there’s really no middle ground. As a result, I can see why some people felt the film was trying too hard to skew audiences in one direction, as Hollywood films often tend to do.

However, what prevents it from being more than merely a melodramatic feel-good movie aimed at making white people feel better about themselves are the awesome performances from Davis and Spencer, both of whom received worthy Oscar nominations. Spencer, who won the best support actress gong, was especially brilliant and stole the show as the outspoken Minny.  By making the film more about these extremely strong black characters rather than Skeeter, The Help ended up being a lot more entertaining and touching than I initially expected, without making me feel like I was being over-manipulated.

Also unexpectedly good was fellow best supporting actress nominee Jessica Chastain, playing the outcast Celia, who gave the film a different dimension with her affable naivete and sweetness. This is the type of film that would have been a complete flop had it not been for the strong ensemble cast. Full credit has to go to director and screenwriter Tate Taylor (who adapted the book) for eliciting such solid performances and penning an adaptation that utilises humour so well. Yes, although it tackles some serious themes, The Help comes across as generally quite light-hearted and contains plenty of funny moments.

At the end of the day, while it does oversimplify the situation a little (or a lot, depending on your point of view), I found The Help to be an entertaining feel-good film that generated exactly the type of emotions I expected it would. It’s not perfect and it’s not the type of film that usually appeals to me, but I think it’s a little unfair that the film is being criticised for not being certain things when it probably never intended to be those things in the first place.

3.5 stars out of 5!