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Archive for the ‘Viola Davis’ Category

Fences

27 Dec

Fences – directed by Denzel Washington. Drama. 2 hours 18 minutes Color 2016.

★★★★★

The Story:  The lives of a family swirl around the big personality of the pater familias who rules the roost with his ebullience and pigheadedness.

~

The movie is written by the now deceased playwright August Wilson. He is one of the great American playwrights, and I contrive to see any professional production of his plays that I can. His scheme was to write one play involving black lives for each decade of the 20th Century. Fences is set in the ‘50s.

August Wilson never went to plays or read them. So you can see, what he could not, the big flaw in this one, which is its failure, early enough, to dramatize the life-long frustration of the wife, which Viola Davis plays. It could have been remedied by the offstage children. And the frustration of the father needed to be established sooner also. He never seems frustrated. Instead what we get from him is a round and stunning display of vim and vitality.

But you take these in stride, and your stride must be long. For Wilson is the opposite of Harold Pinter. When you sit down to a play by August Wilson you sit down from soup to nuts. You get up from the feast stuffed. The danger with such a method for a playwright is that he may fall into the banal. He must always surprise you, and this the playwright does speech by speech and scene by scene.

James Earl Jones played it originally on Broadway, and he, of course, is, an actor of greater amplitude than Denzel Washington, but Washington gives the performance of his lifetime. He holds us still in his character’s terrible self-regarding silences and certainly holds us in the great arias Wilson has required of him. You watch him and you listen to him as mesmerized as his family is surrounding him.

His character, like at least one character in each of Wilson’s plays, has a big rhetoric. He talks a lot but he’s fun, he’s entertaining, he’s outrageous. He’s also full of himself.

This means his inability to see someone else’s point of view is his tragic flaw. His action in the play creates a fissure in him, and you can see it form. It creates a fissure in all the characters around him. Washington does that rare thing in movie actor performance: he lets you into his eyes. He  gives a performance which is sterling in its formation, for he performed it on Broadway, and has brought members of the Broadway cast into the picture Viola Davis plays the wife. The impeccable Stephen McKinley Henderson plays the chum Bono: every time he’s on the set you want the camera to be on him.

The play won the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Awards for best play, Best Actor and Best Actress Tony Awards for Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. Also a Tony for Best revival.

This sort of acting is very seldom to be seen in movies, where character-story ends to reside in subtext and the oblique. Here the performance is a full-blown stage performance. And, in fact, nothing less will do.

I love movies with a lot of speeches. Where characters say it. As Coco Pekelis once said, Taciturnity is not more profound than self-expression. I like the glory and daring of our language. And when you see Fences, you will face it at once. It will take a moment to accustom yourself. After that you will lean forward in your seat, not wanting to miss a word.

 

 

 

 

 

Prisoners

27 Sep

Prisoners – directed by Denis Valleneuve. Police Procedural Suspense Thriller. Two little girls are abducted and cannot be found. 153 minutes Color 2013.

★★★★★

This picture trips up over the train of its final complexities. Even the great Melissa Leo cannot render the unnecessary exposition scene at the end. Motiveless malignancy is all you need. Rationales do not have to be given for human nastiness. Nastiness is a gift of God, and we all are capable of it, and that we are unites us with Medea, Richard III, and Iago in a way that excuses and personal history and reasons for villainy keep us away. Alibis don’t make an audience empathetic. They make us dismissive. Don’t tell me why Iago did it. He did it because, no matter what his “reasons,” he had the  means, the will and the bent to do it, just like the rest of us. If you find out his motives you diminish his size. Such is the case here.

But I go on too long, for otherwise what else but praise can be due to the director and writer for bringing this marvelous picture show to us. And what good fortune to have Roger Deakins film it in dank color. What a pallet he has! What a way of harvesting light.

The performances of all – Leo, Terrence Howard, Paul Dano, Viola Davis, and Maria Bello are terrific. They rise to the writing like the grateful actors they are, recognizing good material at long last.

And to carry the sleigh we have the tandem horses of Jake Gyllenhaal as the investigating detective and Hugh Jackman as the father.

Jake Gyllenhaal is as moody as his sister is merry. He is the knight of doleful countenance, a melancholy Dane for our time. It is always necessary to see any picture he is in. He has that in common with few other actors of his generation – perhaps only Joaquin Phoenix. Gyllenhaal grounds the detective in personal probity – a quality scripted for the character but which he plays without irony opposite Wayne Duvall, cogent as the sloppy captain of the force. But there is something inside Gyllenhaal which animates this probity, a search for gutsy justice against exhaustion, failure, and opposition. He irons everything out.

What mainly needs ironing out is the father played by Hugh Jackman. This is the surprise performance of his career, and he has never to my knowledge demonstrated himself to be an actor of genius. Always good, mind you, always juste in his craft.  Never have you seen Jackman at this pitch. Never have you seen him capture a character particular – not general – and an American particular, but also, never have you seen him go to such extremes as you might only find in a female actor, in Geraldine Page, perhaps, or Anna Magnani. He is something to behold, and I hope you do behold him. He is extraordinary.

The film is thrilling.

And beautiful.

 

Won’t Back Down

07 Oct

Won’t Back Down — directed by Danil Barnz. Docudrama. To create a better school for their children two women take on entrenched forces and win through. 121 minutes Color 2012.
★★★
Backed by the great Rosie Perez and the great Holly Hunter, Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal effort womanfully to pump the gas to keep this story aloft. But it’s the way with “inspirational” films, a genre in which the effort it takes the actors to move the Jews to the Holy Land is actually greater than the move of the Jews to the Holy Land. For, boy, do they bend their shoulders to the task. It’s a horribly difficult genre to act, write, and direct, because it forbids everyone to work with anything but the broad strokes of finger paints. Subtlety is not in view. And the poor extras who have to raise their fists in the air and cry, “Down with the emperor!” with the conviction of storm troopers. The tendency of such films is to look patented. But the real problem lies in the shrug of the audience once the film is over, for the characters having given their all to the cause, we, the audience, have no room to give anything. We are as good as not-present before the difficulties and successes which are routine in such a genre. Maggie Gyllenhaal, she-of-the-frantic-locks, gives a cyclonic performance of a character who has no character defects, of course, because all that is in her is The Right, and it is a tribute to her wit and her valor and her inherent recalcitrance that she works the part so well. She never appears righteous. She’s an entrancing personality, with huge impressible eyes and the Gyllenhaal smile carved at the corner of her lips, so it is easy to look upon her with favor. She’s all heartstrings. All give. She is so slight of figure that you imagine she could not push the load she sets in motion, and she is so costumed that you think no one would take her seriously. The actress cast, that is to say, would be in dramatic conflict with the part she is asked to play, and that is the wonder of the outcome of this war, not the war itself, which is based on actual events. Viola Davis’ body, on the other hand, is one of elegance and groundedness. So she’s the anchor to Gyllenhaal’s tossing dinghy. She herself does have a character defect, which is to pressurize her young son to excel as a student past his natural speed. A late exposition scene relieves both of them of this burden, and it’s very well played indeed. Davis’ large eyes convey a beautiful reluctance to go along with the Gyllenhall torrent. And both these actresses are worth seeing as they energize this civics lesson into immediate life, every scene of which is a resuscitation. Which makes it different from Norma Rae, say, as the story takes us to battle with the school bureaucracy, the parents, the teachers, and the teachers union itself, for the battle is not against adult slavery which we can see for ourselves in its effects on rural lives, but against children’s inferior education which we, of course, can witness in children but briefly. So do these two women shine through? Yes. That’s the habit of such stories. Do they shine through to the audience? When Maggie Gyllenhall says to Viola Davis, “Beautiful new nails you’ve got there,” Davis answers, “Cheaper than therapy.” No. There’s too much enamel on the story. A little more depth and a little less polish might have better served.

 

The Help

16 Aug

The Help – Directed by Tate Taylor. Magnificent Feat Drama. An ambitious Mississippi Junior Leaguer decides to make a secret collection of the  recollections of the other Junior Leaguers’ colored maids. 137 minutes Color 2011.

* * * *

Have you ever heard of invisible ink? Well, The Help is the story of an invisible revolution. It all goes on completely underground, until one day the lemon juice of publication brings the revolution into the embarrassing light of day.

The book is devoid of description, but told solely in monologue of what the characters are thinking and dialogue between them. This gives an inside picture, naturally somewhat lost to the film, but the film gives an outside picture of the world of the Mississippi town, standing-in for Jackson, where it was originally set, and a view of the characters in the round.

As a film it is amateurly directed and edited. Someone says something to the camera; the camera shifts to someone saying something back; the camera shift back to what the first person says.  This bashes any sense of what really lies between people, and leaves us only with character reactions. And the result is that the actors’ work tends to be emotionalized: that is the actor will produce the emotion concurrent with registering righteous satisfaction in having the emotion. It is TV acting at its basest, self-congratulatory to the max.

The beautiful Cicely Tyson, the great Allison Janney, Oscar winners Mary Steenburgen and Sissy Spacek all bring their chops to provide a strata of foundation stone to the story. Bryce Dallas Howard gives a ruthlessly honest performance as the control freak Hilly. Jessica Chastain (the mother in The Tree Of Life) startles as the Dolly Parton white trash millionairess.

Octavia Spenser and Viola Davis play the leading roles of the maids who are the first to sign on to speak their secret memoirs, records of the pain and beauty of their servitude. There is a moment when Davis pulls her arm away from the consolation of Spenser that will make you weep to behold. The director is clumsy with these actors, but their skill and dignity win through.

The character of the young woman inspired to gather these recollections would appear to be a hard role to play, but it is done beyond the call of duty by Emma Stone.

The entire endeavor is too self-satisfied to get away with itself, but the fundamental story is a good one and is honored. I don’t know if you will love it if you haven’t read the book, but I say it’s, like the creation of the memoirs themselves, worth a try.

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