Tag Archives: Viola Davis

Upstairs, Downstairs

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

by George Wolf

In 1927 Chicago, four musicians – three vets and a brash youngster – gather in the basement of a downtown recording studio. They tune up and rib each other, waiting for the star vocalist to arrive.

That would be one Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, legendary “Mother of the Blues” and one of the first blues singers to make records. And in the late 1920s, those records sold, which meant Ma didn’t waste her time in studio basements.

That spatial divide becomes the metaphorical anchor in director George C. Wolfe and screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s adaptation of August Wilson’s Tony Award-winning play. And thanks to the blistering adversarial performances by Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis, the film has a show-stopping pillar on each floor.

Boseman is electric as Levee, the ambitious trumpet player who’s not only ready to give Ma’s tunes some new swing, but also to break away and record some of his own compositions.

Ma ain’t having any of that, or anything else that doesn’t smell the least bit right to Ma. And Davis, surprising no one, effortlessly embodies the blues legend with a smoldering, defiant ferocity.

Early on, the rehearsal conversations still carry the aura of the stage, but this is Wolfe reinforcing the different worlds co-existing here, a difference that will be pivotal as events escalate.

Wilson’s source work is another compelling example of his ability to explore the Black experience in America through the piercing intimacy of his characters. Ma’s records are selling, which gives her leverage over the white record producers. She exploits that leverage at every turn, but it only takes one cold, world-weary stare from the transcendent Davis to remind you how little illusions Ma has about any of it.

Boseman’s work will undoubtedly earn an Oscar nomination, which will be nothing but well-deserved. Labeling Boseman’s final performance as his finest may smack of sentimentality – at least until you experience it. Then you realize how gracefully Boseman claims this story for Levee, and for the countless real life souls he represents.

It is Levee’s arc that carries this film’s very soul, and Boseman’s chemistry with the stellar ensemble of Glynn Turman, Coleman Domingo and Michael Potts is a thing of beauty. As Levee moves from the cocky enthusiasm of the gifted to the painful cry of the oppressed, Boseman’s bittersweet goodbye becomes doubly heartbreaking.

This is an elegant, artful salute to great art, and a sobering reminder of a shameful legacy marked by exploitation and appropriation. And it is thanks to a collection of great artists that Ma Rainey comes to the screen with all of its joy and pain intact.

Oceans Apart

Widows

by Hope Madden

There are few films I have been more geeked to see than Widows.

Co-writer/director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave, Shame) and co-writer Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl, Sharp Objects) update a British miniseries from the ‘80s about a heist.

Wait, Steve McQueen made a heist movie? A filmmaker so punishing you watch a little Lars von Trier to lighten the mood?

He totally made a heist movie. It is a layered, deeply cynical, wildly faceted take on politics, organized crime, familial grief and the plight of a powerless woman. So, OK, maybe not your run-of-the-mill Liam Neeson flick. But Liam Neeson is in it.

Neeson is Harry Rawlings, top man in a group of criminals who hit vaults around Chicago. This last hit went south, though, and the bad men he fleeced need that cash back. Poor Mrs. Rawlings (Viola Davis, glorious as is her way), is handed the bill.

McQueen has not made an Oceans 11. Widows is not fun. It is smart, riveting entertainment, though.

McQueen’s Chicago landscape is peopled mainly with folks desperately in need of a change: the criminal trying to get into politics (Brian Tyree Henry), the career politician with daddy issues (Colin Farrell), but mostly the widows of Harry’s crew (Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki), all left as cash-strapped as Mrs. Rawlings.

It does not pay to marry a criminal.

Every member of the enormous ensemble runs with the opportunities this script allows, no matter how much or how little their screen time. Daniel Kaluuya relishes every sadistic moment he has as an enforcer, while Jacki Weaver establishes one character’s entire history with her two fascinating minutes onscreen.

But it’s Viola Davis who anchors the film. She is the grieving heart and the survivor’s mind that gives Widows its center and its momentum. She wastes nothing, never forgetting or allowing us to forget the grim reality of her situation.

There is a heist, don’t get me wrong. There are double crosses, flying bullets, car chases, explosions—genre prerequisites that feel like new toys for the super-serious director. McQueen proves a versatile a filmmaker, though he has certainly left his own distinctive mark on the action flick.






Post By Post

Fences

by Hope Madden

Denzel Washington is an Oscar contender in about one of every three films he makes – Fences is clearly one of those special performances.

As a director, he’s chosen to focus on the African American experience – August Wilson’s Pulitzer and Tony-winning stage play being the strongest effort yet.

Troy Maxson – a 1950s garbage man with a lot to say – is a character that feels custom-made for Washington. Larger than life, full of conflict and bullshit, bravado and stubbornness, Troy is a big presence. He fills up the screen, he fills up a room, but it is Viola Davis as his wife Rose who offers an emotional and gravitational center to the story.

It doesn’t take much effort to pitch Viola Davis a ball she can hit out of the park. Denzel does just that.

As Rose – the force that keeps the family functioning smoothly – Davis quietly astonishes. She delivers every scene – from silly reminiscences to life-altering decisions – with the easy grace of a profound talent.

Together she and Washington boast such chemistry, their glances, smiles and gestures articulating a well-worn, bone-deep love. Their time together on screen – which is a great chunk of the film – is an opportunity to watch two masters riff of each other for the benefit of character and audience alike. The result is in turns heart-warming and devastating.

The two leads benefit from the remarkable support of the ensemble – longtime character actor Stephen Henderson and Russell Hornsby, in particular.

True to the source material, Washington’s direction feels very stage-bound and theatrical. But in most respects, Washington’s delivery – faithful as it is to the idea of the stage from which it leapt – retains what is needed about the sense of confinement allowed by the few sets and locations.

This is a respectful and powerful tribute to the late Wilson, the playwright whose on-stage Fences saw its 2010 revival starring both Washington and Davis. There is no doubting this play’s bonafides, and Washington honors its intimacy and universal themes.

Verdict-4-0-Stars





Cleaning Up the Streets

Lila & Eve

by George Wolf

Two things land Lila & Eve on the big screen: one great lead, and one big twist in the script. Okay, maybe one and and a half things, because without Viola Davis, this is next week’s episode of CSI: Some Big City.

Davis, truly one of the most gifted actors around, plays Lila, a single mother who loses her oldest son to stray bullets from a drive-by shooting. Struggling to cope, she joins the “Mothers of Young Angels” support group, where she meets Eve (Jennifer Lopez), who has lost a daughter.

Eve doesn’t really have much use for the group’s advice, and both women are distressed at how little interest the authorities seem to have in helping them.

So, they hit the streets, determined to do whatever it takes to uncover the lead their local detective (Shea Whigham) says he needs to move forward.

The script is the debut for writer Pat Gilfillan, which is a fairly evident. There’s nothing original or seasoned at work here, as Lila & Eve is just a mashup of Jodie Foster’s The Brave One and another title I won’t mention for fear of spoilers.

But really, that will only save you about the first twenty minutes or so, until the breadcrumbs to where the film is going start to glow like a bright neon exit sign. Director Charles Stone III (Drumline) sets an early pace that’s too rushed, leaving the ladies’ choice for vigilantism unconvincing, and the racial aspect of legal foot-dragging overly played. He slows down during the big reveal to let the drama resonate, but instead provokes an eye rolling disbelief at the notion we’ve been caught by surprise.

It’s no surprise that Davis elevates the material. Lila’s grief and desperation both ring true, as does the delicate flirting with her neighbor Ben (Julius Tennon, Davis’s real-life husband). Lopez is passable, though she’s more naturally hamstrung by the weaknesses in script and direction, and has trouble moving Eve beyond a standard generalization.

We’ve seen this movie before, almost note for note. There’s only so much that one superior performance can do, and Davis’s can’t save Lila & Eve.

Verdict-2-0-Stars

 

 

 

 





Five More Remakes in Need of an All Female Cast

Rumors of an all-female Ghostbusting team got us A) excited for the reboot, and B) thinking of other movies we’d love to see reimagined with women in the lead. Here are the 5 films we think could benefit from some gender-retooling, along with our dream casts.

Jaws

Steven Spielberg’s 1975 great white classic benefitted from one of the best buddy trios in cinema with Roy Scheider’s reluctant shipmate Sheriff Brody, Richard Dreyfuss’s on-board scientist, and salty sea dog Quint played to perfection by Robert Shaw.

Who has the gravy to run nails down a chalkboard, frighten the locals and bark that she’ll find the shark for $3000, but “catch him, and kill him, for 10”? Nobody but Jessica Lange. We’d flank her with Anne Hathaway as the transplanted cop who wants a bigger boat and Emily Blunt as the oceanographer willing to take the risk when the cage goes in the water.

Easy Rider

How fun would this be? Let’s rework the classic American outlaw motorcycle ride! Who’s the laid back badass looking for an unsoiled America? We’d put the great Viola Davis in Peter Fonda’s role. For the thoughtful square up for an adventure, we swap Amy Adams in for Jack Nicholson. And who could fill legendary wacko Dennis Hopper’s motorcycle boots? We want Melissa McCarthy. (Come to think of it, she’d give Blue Velvet an interesting new take as well.)

Glengarry Glen Ross

Who on this earth could take the place of Alec Baldwin with perhaps the greatest venomous monologue in film history? Jennifer Lawrence – can you see it? We really, really want to see a movie with JLaw chewing up and spitting out this much perfectly penned hatred.

“Put that coffee down!”

And at whom should she spew? The wondrous Meryl Streep should take Jack Lemmon’s spot as loser Shelley Levine. We’d put Kate Winslet in Pacino’s slick winner Ricky Roma role and Kristin Scott Thomas in Ed Harris’s shadowy Dave Moss spot. Then we’d pull it all together with the magnificent Tilda Swinton in the weasely role worn so well by Kevin Spacey.

Predator

We knew we needed an action film, but who could be the new Schwarzenegger? Our vote: Michelle Rodriguez. We then put the ever formidable Helen Mirren in the Carl Weathers boss role. Obviously. The ragtag group of soldiers sent to, one by one, to be skinned alive? Scarlett Johansson, Kerry Washington and Gina Carano. Done.

Reservoir Dogs

Picture it:

Ms. Orange (Tim Roth): Rosamund Pike

Ms. White (Harvey Keitel): Julianne Moore

Ms. Blond (Michael Madsen): Charlize Theron (Cannot wait to see her get her crazy on.)

Ms. Pink (Steve Buscemi): Lupita Nyongo

Ms. Brown (Tarantino): Shailene Woodley

Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn): Cate Blanchett

Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney): Kathy Bates

 

All right, Hollywood. We’ve done the hard part. Now get on it! All we ask is executive producer status and points on the back end.





Ass Hat Also Works

Blackhat

by Hope Madden

It’s early. Too early to get excited. Blackhat will face a lot of competition as 2015 journeys onward, but it is as strong a contender for worst film of the year as any movie could be. Jesus, is it bad.

Yes, it’s January and the film is about hackers – that’s two big strikes against any major studio film. Remind me, when was the last time a cybercrime film was interesting? You can squeeze only so much tension from shots of fingers on a keyboard and anxious expressions reflecting the blue light of a computer screen. Worse still are those self-indulgent shots of the digital journey inside the hardware – kind of the Tron’s eye view. Unfortunately, director Michael Mann has nothing fresher than these ideas up his sleeve.

Chris Hemsworth plays the world’s greatest hacker, because hackers generally look like Chris Hemsworth. So, right there, authenticity is clearly key to the once capable Mann. As it happens, the Chinese and US governments are working together to solve a convoluted – even asinine – cybercrime, and they need the help of this uncharacteristically fit computer nerd, so they furlough him from prison. If he helps them catch the baddies, he’s free; if not, it’s back to the pen, and something tells me he’s pretty popular on the inside.

Bonus: he’s an expert marksman. Who knew? Must be all those first-person shooter games.

Hemsworth affects some kind of diluted Bronx accent – is that it? Boy, it’s hard to tell just what he’s trying to do with it, and in another film that would be a real distraction. But Blackhat is so loaded with bewildering ridiculousness – from the needlessly overwrought visual style to the utterly incompetent sound editing to the laughable storyline to the astonishingly weak and wooden performances – that an awkwardly unrealistic accent goes almost unnoticed.

Thor isn’t outright terrible, and that’s a real feat. Even the great Viola Davis chokes on this screenplay, and the usually solid Wei Tang (Lust, Caution) struggles too mightily with English to deliver a professional performance. Still, all three are outshone by the listless to the point of parody work of Leehom Wang.

It has been ten long years since Michael Mann made a good movie. The real distinction of his newest effort is simply that it is his worst.

Verdict-1-0-Star





The “We Hope We’re Wrong” Countdown

There are a few shoe-ins for awards contention this year, and they deserve the attention. We expect to see Michael Keaton, Jake Gyllenhaal, JK Simmons, Reese Witherspoon, Ralph Feinnes, Patricia Arquette and Emma Stone, plus a slew of likelies from films we haven’t seen yet.  But – premature as it may seem – we’re already worried about the magnificent performances we have seen and fear will go overlooked this awards season.

Brendan Gleeson

The always magnificent Gleeson lands the role of a lifetime in Calvary as the good priest who learns during a confession that an abused man intends to make a martyr of him. It is an awe inspiring performance of turmoil, skepticism, hope, struggle, faith and resignation.

Jenny Slate

Slate could not have been any better than she was in Obvious Child, a deeply different twist on the romantic comedy. Slate is so natural, awkward, hilarious and vulnerable – exactly what was needed to make the film work, and it does more than work. Thanks to her turn, it soars.

Viola Davis

Chadwick Boseman may get some deserved attention, but Davis’s turn as James Brown’s mother in Get On Up is a masters class in acting. The always formidable Davis is raw and magnificent. We hope awards voters don’t overlook the performance the same way audiences overlooked this gem of a movie.

Carla Juri

Her fierce and fearless turn in Wetlands may actually turn Oscar voters away in droves, but we’re hard pressed to think of a lead performance that was more impressive. We hope Oscar grows a pair and takes note.

Michael Fassbender

Fassbender will be an awards favorite for the rest of his life, but since not a living soul saw his magnificent, tender, funny and heartbreaking turn inside a giant head in Frank, it’s not likely he’ll get the notice he so deeply deserves this awards season.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9dcLw6CPzIs

Tilda Swinton

What a year for Swinton! She crafted fully formed, utterly different characters in four films this year. Which one deserves an award? Pick one: Snowpiercer (Be a shoe!), Only Lovers Left Alive, Zero Theorem and/or The Grand Budapest Hotel. Swinton is wonderful in every one of them.

Tom Hardy

Hardy deserves attention for two lead turns this year, the one man show Locke and the understated drama The Drop. He is truly one of the very most compelling talents working today and it is high time he get some notice.

Scarlett Johansson:

The undeniably gorgeous A-lister finally does a nude scene in the most underseen film of her career – Jonathan Glazers hypnotically unnerving SciFi gem Under the Skin. Johansson shoulders the entire film, mesmerizing from beginning to end.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NoSWbyvdhHw

 





Soul Power

 

Get On Up

by George Wolf

 

As a broke college student at Ohio State in 1985, I saved my pennies and stood in a line halfway down High St. to see Mr. Dynamite live at the Newport Music Hall.

My first cellphone ringtone was “Sex Machine.”

The point is, I love me some James Brown, and I really liked Get On Up.

It’s a bit of a relief, because with director Tate Taylor at the helm, I feared Brown’s story would get the same clichéd, soccer-mom-feel-good treatment Taylor gave The Help. Instead, buoyed by a meaty script from veteran writers Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth (Edge of Tomorrow/Fair Game) he takes some chances that pay dividends.

Get On Up breaks the “fourth wall” early and often, as Brown (Chadwick Boseman) looks the audience in the eye and reminds everyone how big a musical influence he remains to this day. This ignites a swagger that anchors the entire film, which, considering the subject, is the absolutely perfect vibe.

It ain’t braggin’ if you back it up, and Brown, warts and all, was one of the most important musical and cultural figures of the 20th century.

Taylor shows us Brown’s rags to riches story – from growing up in a Georgia brothel to easing tensions after Martin Luther King’s assassination – in scattershot fashion, dropping in on different periods without regard to chronology. Not only does this offer a stylistic alternative to similar films such Walk the Line and Ray, but it presents Brown as a sum of equal parts while also ensuring that any overt sentimentality is never given time to add weight.

Boseman is flat-out terrific, serving notice that his fine performance as Jackie Robinson in 42 was just a warm-up act. Boseman has Brown’s speaking voice, cocksure attitude and his incredible moves down cold, combining them all for a portrayal full of an electric charisma.

Anyone who remembers Eddie Murphy’s classic “James Brown Celebrity Hot Tub” from SNL knows how easily a Brown impersonation could slip into parody, but Boseman avoids any hint of it. His is a completely authentic performance that needs to be remembered in the coming award season.

From the early “chitlin circuit” tours, to the Apollo Theater to the legendary T.A.M.I. show, Taylor frames the live performance sequences with the cracking, cold sweat-inducing urgency that music this great demands. Kudos, too, to the sound editing department, frequently mixing Brown’s original vocal tracks into new arrangements, enabling wonderfully seamless film recreations.

Okay, so Brown’s personal demons could have been given more gravity, and there are a few biopic crutches (soul- searching in a dressing room mirror, for instance), but Taylor and the Butterworth boys score with the humanity they bring to two profound relationships in Brown’s life:  his longtime friend Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) and his mother Susie (Viola Davis).

There’s true poignancy to the moments that find Susie, after a long absence, visiting her triumphant son backstage. It’s the film’s non-musical highlight, and yet another reminder of how little screen time Davis needs to be unforgettable.The same can be said for Brown’s music, and while this film will certainly thrill the fans, it’s good enough to win him plenty of new ones.

Get on up?

It’s pretty damn hard not to.

 

Verdict-4-0-Stars

 





Game Over, Man! Game Over!

Ender’s Game

by Hope Madden

A gawky adolescent plays video games and saves the world. It’s easy to see why Orson Scott Card’s novel Ender’s Game is so popular with young boys. But the truth is that this SciFi thriller is more than just a simple adolescent male fantasy. It’s an intricately written coming of age story that pulls readers in, not just with the video game storyline, but a video game structure, as the hero defeats certain challenges before moving on to the next level, so to speak.

Though his screenplay is often inelegant in its adaptation, clunking through sections that must have been quite impressive in novel form, writer/director Gavin Hood’s affection for the source material is evident. So, too, is his skill with FX as well as casting.

Asa Butterfield (Hugo) leads the cast as Ender Wiggin, the pinch-shouldered spindle hoping to make it through the ranks of the military academy to help defend earth against an impending alien invasion. Butterfield’s vulnerability – physical and emotional – and obvious intelligence provide the character the compelling internal conflict the role requires.

SciFi legend Harrison Ford shows some effort as Ender’s commanding officer, while the always wonderful Viola Davis gives the film its emotional core, and allows Hood an opportunity to mine this story for some social commentary. “It used to be a war crime to recruit soldiers younger than 15,” she scolds Ford’s Colonel Graff.

Though visually impressive, the film’s cosmic FX pale in comparison to the entirely superior Gravity. Still, Hood knows how to put a crowd in the middle of a video game without giving off the immediately dated feel of Tron.

Though sometimes derivative, (Act 2 feels a bit too much like Top Gun, if you substitute teenaged video game nerds for hot, ambiguously gay volleyball players), the film eventually packs an emotional wallop. The climax is effective, but the resolution is rushed. These issues are symptomatic of the effort as a whole – fitfully entertaining, absorbing and gorgeous, and yet tonally challenged and poorly paced.

Hood’s greatest failing is that he settles for a thrill ride when he was handed a beloved, epic coming of age tragedy. Oddly enjoyable and intermittently wonderful, the film still feels like a mild letdown.

Verdict-3-0-Stars





Make Sure You’re Prepared

 

by George Wolf

 

Pre-game warmups aren’t usually part of the moviegoing experience, but Prisoners may require a little preparation.

Quite simply, it will wear you out.

Director Denis Villeneuve and writer Aaron Guzikowski have crafted a relentlessly intense, utterly engrossing mystery/thriller that will bludgeon your nerves, tease your sensibilities and leave your morals in disarray.

Hugh Jackman is unbelievably great as a father desperate for answers after his daughter, and his neighbor’s daughter, are abducted on Thanksgiving Day. The assigned detective (Jake Gyllenhaal) believes a troubled local man (Paul Dano) is to blame, but can’t find the evidence to hold him. Jackman’s character, overcome with rage, takes matters into his own hands.

That’s all the info you need, but just a tiny fraction of the complex chain of events set in motion by the crime. Guzikowski, who adapted the Contraband screenplay last year, delivers a twisting, intelligent script that lulls you with the familiarity of the premise all the while it’s leading you places you may not want to go.

Villeneuve, best known for writing and directing the Oscar-nominated Incendies three years ago, makes a stunning English language debut that succeeds on many levels. If a thriller was all it was, it would be a good one, relying on a substance that recalls years of Hollywood films from Death Wish to Gone Baby Gone.

Prisoners transcends the genre in the way it forces its audience to face the same moral ambiguities the characters are up against. The stupendous cast, which also includes greats such as Terence Howard, Viola Davis and Melissa Leo, fills each character with gritty realism, allowing actions that seem justified in one set of circumstances to be easily called into question.  As surprises mount,  the film lands solid blows to perceptions of torture, fear-mongering, religious fanaticism, and even basic parenting.

Sound like a lot? It is, and the film earns every minute of its two and a half hour running time. It is a dark, cathartic journey that is not for the squeamish, and the film’s length only serves to reinforce the hell these people are going through.  They want it to end, and so do you, but only because the film has hooked you so deeply.

You’ll need to pay attention and listen hard, and though you probably won’t figure things out early, the clues are all there in front of you. Prisoners is a breathtaking ride that rewards the effort it demands, ultimately providing a satisfying payoff, capped by an unforgettable final scene that may very well find its way into your dreams.

 

 

Verdict-4-0-Stars