REVIEW: Fences

8 01 2017

The measure of a successful theatrical adaptation is often how far it can distance itself from the conventions of the stage. The underlying expectation is that untethered from the limitations of sets, the suspension of disbelief, the necessity of projection, the primacy of dialogue, and so on, only then will the play will become a film. But that logic does not explain Mike Nichols’ “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” nor does it explain Denzel Washington’s “Fences.”

August Wilson’s play takes place in the family home and yard of Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), a ’50s-era Pittsburgh patriarch. The concentrated location makes sense logistically for the stage to minimize scenic design costs, but it also fits thematically for a story so immediately concerned with matters of domestic concern. As Troy works through his past shortcomings, his present stagnation and his future worries for his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and children, his blustering and ruminating does not really work anywhere but his house. Opening it up to other locations or breaking up his long, aimless rambling would distill and distort the very essence of “Fences.”

August Wilson is not alive to see how Denzel Washington tended to the script he left behind (though his estate likely saw to his wishes being met), but he would almost certainly be proud to see how the essence of the theatrical experience remained in tact. “Fences” keeps the power in the word and the performance, leaving many important events shaping their current woes and strife unvisualized. We don’t need flashbacks to show us what an expert line reading can tell us, both about the event and the way its ramifications still affect even the smallest of decisions in their lives.

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REVIEW: Suicide Squad

2 08 2016

At the time of this review’s publication, there are a whopping seven untitled DC Comics films with dates on the calendar but no titles announced. It seems likely that at least one, if not more, of those slots will be filled by a character from “Suicide Squad.” The latest ten-car-pileup from the comic book studio plays like an extended audition for a standalone film. Individual characters distinguish themselves, sure, but they do so by essentially acting in little regard to the plot and tone around them.

This is the most obvious with the film’s resident crazies, Jared Leto’s The Joker and Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn. The former, never quite fully breaking from the iconic Heath Ledger performance, feels like he waltzed his way out of a Miley Cyrus video. The latter, a rainbow bomb-pop comes to life, breaks free to some extent and makes for raucous fun. But most of Harley’s shining moments come in cutaways or disruptive asides. Robbie does not feed off the energy in the scene; she mostly just crushes the line she’s been given.

All the internal one-upmanship feels oddly fitting for a film whose sole purpose appears to be one-upping Marvel. “Suicide Squad” feels like the inevitable byproduct of a DC boardroom who decided to blend their favorite parts of unlikely smash hits “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Deadpool,” which they then serve in a neon-lit package. The film has smart-mouthed, villainous protagonists who form an unlikely coalition to save the world, and their romp is set to a Spotify playlist of frequently used trailer songs. (The fact that “Spirit in the Sky” made it onto the soundtrack is as plagiaristic as Melania Trump’s RNC speech.)

“Suicide Squad” is an emblematic film for the kind of products made by committees and algorithms as opposed to champions of artists. DC and Warner Bros. know what has worked for these types of films in the past, and they are not necessarily wrong to assume that audiences want something like it. Indeed, “Suicide Squad” works in fits and spurts where writer/director David Ayer’s dark comedic or war battle sensibilities can come through. But more often than not, he is forced to do too much in too little time. And a good chunk of that overextension does not make it the kind of movie that another corporate committee will try to emulate in a year or two. C+2stars





REVIEW: Prisoners

19 09 2015

Denis Villeneuve’s “Prisoners” possesses a remarkable precision in nearly every aspect of its execution.  It is palpable in the mood, the performances, the script from Aaron Guzikowski, and especially the photography by Roger Deakins.  As the abduction of two children forces a father (Hugh Jackman) to extreme measures of extracting vengeance, the film patiently and methodically follows his descent into an inhumanity on par with his daughter’s abductor.

At times, Villeneuve’s realization of this unraveling feels so airtight that it comes across almost as stifling and constrictive.  Somehow, the film feels like it needs to breathe.  Yet on further inspection, that is not the case.  Villeneuve knows exactly how much oxygen “Prisoners” needs to survive and refuses to dole out any more of it than is necessary to give each scene a pulse.  This makes his film burn not only slowly but also consistently, illuminating the depravity of cruelty to children with its steadfast flame.

His exactitude directly counters the nature of the narrative, a complicated ethical story with neither an easy outlet for sympathy nor a character that lends his or herself to identification.  The closest figure offered for a connection is Jake Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki, whose adherence to rationality and order makes him the most level-headed presence in “Prisoners.”  He retains a rather detached perspective on the case of the missing girls rather than allowing himself to succumb to the levels of hysteria from the grieving families.  If everyone else in the film yells, Loki speaks in a whisper.

In a way, that soft-spoken approach makes for the only major flaw of “Prisoners” that I could find.  The film’s audio mix is all over the board; the sound goes in and out, then up and down.  I watched it twice at home on two different television sets, but the problem persisted.  I often had to rewind and jack up the volume to catch a line of dialogue muttered under someone’s breath.  This sotto voce technique makes the film chillingly clinical – so make sure you can hear it in all of its complexities.  B+ / 3stars





REVIEW: Blackhat

7 03 2015

For a movie that features hackers who can access some scarily far reaches of the world’s computing system, in a time where cyberterrorists quite literally reached inside the American network and restricted our freedom of speech, the stakes in Michael Mann’s “Blackhat” feel remarkably low.  These unknown villains do not seem threatening so much as annoying, as if they were Clippy on Microsoft Word.

Some serialized dramas on basic cable networks possess more urgency in storytelling.  So the moral of the story is never send the year’s champion of World’s Sexiest Man to do Mariska Hargitay’s job, perhaps?

Hemsworth stars as Hathaway, the now-imprisoned programmer who served as the lead architect on the code that wreaks havoc on nuclear reactors and stock markets across the world.  (In spite of this brilliance, Hathaway still cannot manage to figure out how to button the top four buttons on his shirt.)  Since Mann sets the film on such a low simmer, it seems only fitting that their criminal adversary only seeks to hijack computers for the sake of making a quick buck off the manipulation of global trade.

To make matters worse, enduring “Blackhat” also involves tolerating Mann’s grimy, grainy digital aesthetic.  The movie looks like a crappy HDTV demo from a flat-screen at Sam’s Club, circa 2007.  It has no pretense of imitating the look of film stock (even if this sounds arcane and technical, this difference is obvious).  Not to mention, the camera feels about as loose as the buttons on Hemsworth’s wardrobe, and the entire thing looks cheaply re-lit in post-production.

Mann’s visuals are in service of a script from Morgan Davis Foehl, a writer getting his first screenplay credit.  His writing does not highlight relevant issues surrounding cybersecurity nor does it raise any intriguing ethical questions, a real bummer considering what just happened surrounding the release of “The Interview.”  In fact, the only question I left “Blackhat” asking was whether I found it tougher to follow the plot … or to care about what happened altogether?  C2stars





REVIEW: The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby

29 12 2014

Eleanor RigbyThe basic premise of writer/director Ned Benson’s “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby,” to be clear, is nothing particularly special.  James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain star as Connor Ludlow and Eleanor Rigby, respectively, a married couple in New York City hitting a devastating rough patch after a miscarriage.  Each deals with the tragedy in their own way, and Benson gives each story a feature’s length to develop.

Meant for consumption as one, “Him” follows Connor as he attempts to shake off the funk by throwing himself into his work for external validation while “Her” takes Eleanor’s point of view as she searches for greater meaning through introspection and education.  By isolating rather than integrating Connor and Eleanor’s journey, Benson makes perspective and subjectivity the prime focus of “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby.”

(Note: I did not bother to watch the streamlined edit that intercuts their stories, subtitled “Them,” because it seemed to defeat the purpose of the unconventional style.)

Students of narrative will relish this schismatic storytelling, analyzing what can be gleaned from one section that cannot be discerned in another.  Scenes shared by the former couple lend themselves to entirely different interpretations depending on the amount of information at hand on approach.  Integral figures in one person’s life are entirely irrelevant or nonexistent in that of the other.  Benson inquisitively asks how much can anyone know about others when trapped to see the world only through their own eyes, a question with strongly felt reverberations.

By all accounts, “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” serves as a reminder that everyone has their own narrative.  Even the entrance (or exit) of a spouse does not create a shared story.  As important as that person is, they are merely another character in a grander arc.  Benson’s shedding of illusions surrounding coupling allows for a rich, nuanced portrayal of individual identity reclaimed and reasserted.

As such, “Him” and “Her” are both successful features as independent entities, not merely as half of a whole or only as an object for juxtaposition.  McAvoy commands his section by seizing the day and rallying to action to keep himself afloat; he is also bolstered by a strong dramatic turn from Bill Hader as a coworker and companion.  Meanwhile, Jessica Chastain proves irresistibly compelling as she mines the deepest recesses of her psyche for any kind of redemptive discovery.  In their contrast, Benson finds a beautifully dissonant harmony.  B+3stars





REVIEW: Get On Up

4 08 2014

In any musical biopic, the key ingredient is channeling the persona of its subject.  So in that regard, “Get On Up” succeeds behind Chadwick Boseman’s electric performance as the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. Boseman captures the firebrand in all his passionate fits of rage and spirited swaggering dance moves, and he does it with such astonishing accuracy that I had to remind myself on multiple occasions that I was in fact watching a fictional portrayal of Brown.

Beyond Boseman’s towering turn, however, there is very little else in “Get On Up” that manages to rouse. Most of the film’s issues, sadly, are deeply rooted in Jez and John-Henry Butterworth’s script. With the very blueprint of the movie so wonky, it’s tough to judge anyone involved in the film too harshly. They likely just did the best with what little they were given.

The problem has less to do with individual scenes, which were more or less fine when evaluated independently. The Butterworths’ problem is that these units drawn from various times at James Brown’s life simply do not cohere nor do they ever move in any distinct direction. Unlike “Boyhood,” the mere passage of time in “Get On Up” is not cause enough to watch a movie or maintain attention.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (March 2, 2012)

2 03 2012

Not HER again…

Actually, YES, her again.  Meryl Streep won her third Oscar last week, and while many (including myself) were a little upset because we were hoping Viola Davis would pull out a historic Best Actress win, it’s reason for celebration.  She’s the greatest living actress, and I think few would dispute that claim.  The way she gracefully and naturally inhabits any character she chooses to play is astounding.  “Doubt,” my choice for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week,” is no exception.  It was Oscar nominations all around for everyone in the cast including Streep, who received her fifteenth Oscar nomination for the role back in 2008.

John Patrick Shanley’s film, adapted from his own Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning play, explores a host of complicated moral and theological dilemmas in the wake of a potential priest-child sex scandal.  Streep’s Sister Aloysisus becomes convinced that Father Flynn, played with a fiercely tenacious resolve by Philip Seymour Hoffman, has committed a vast wrongdoing despite having no proof.  Her basis for such grave accusations are the suspicions of the naive Sister James (Amy Adams), who merely makes observations and leaves Aloysisus to construe her own meaning from them.

What results is nothing less than an acting battle between some of the best players in the game.  They debate race, gender, sexuality, submission, and authority with such high stakes that you can’t help but be totally drawn into the conversation.  No one would accuse Streep or Hoffman as giving constrained performances in the film, but “Doubt” hardly devolves into a shouting match as it easily could have.  Rather, the dialectic struggles are only enhanced by the loudness of their voices.  Adams, meanwhile, plays her typecast airhead role so well yet with a remarkably enhanced bravura.  She really nails the loss of innocence arc that so often devolves into senseless banality.  Davis is phenomenal as well in a single scene that packs more punch than many actresses can in an entire movie.

Hopefully Adams and Davis aren’t too far off from finally winning the Oscar that has eluded them for the past few years; Streep can now sit back and enjoy the ride; Hoffman is probably due for a second trophy at some point.  So while we wait for the next Oscars, we can relish in movies like “Doubt” where four great actors act with so much intensity that the frame can barely support it.