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Archive for the ‘Denzel Washington’ 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.

 

 

 

 

 

Flight

09 Nov

Flight –– directed by Robert Zemeckis. Melodrama. An alcoholic and drug addicted pilot saves a disintegrating passenger plane from crashing, and then suffers the consequences. 138 minutes Color 2012.
★★★★
You might want to go in order to see the performance of James Badge Dale as a free-associating cancer patient on a chemo-high. His appearance is so welcome one hopes that the film will take off in this direction of brilliant decor, as Renoir’s films were wont to do –– but no. The film remains predictable from its unpredictable start, which takes us into an exciting crisis aboard a malfunctioning aircraft. To save the ship we have that old reliable ship-saver Denzel Washington. Washington is, as Sydney Poitier was the proud black hero, the powerful black hero. With what wit, what sangfroid, does he give the odd orders that will save his nose-diving airliner! Wonderful! And then…and then he has to face the music of have a blood test come out positive for a snort of cocaine and two mini shots of vodka. Ah, I had hoped to see a rare performance here. Washington has been doing serious stage work, so when he comes under official scrutiny, he has drunk scenes to play, which he plays well, and scenes of personal insecurity, which he plays well, but the time comes when he has to tell the investigating board, spearheaded by Melissa Leo, about those two shots of vodka, and boy does he chew the scenery. He rolls his tongue into one cheek and then into the other, then back to the first, just as Olivier used to do, in similar straits, straits which in Olivier’s case he caused himself by doing such things. Washington pauses until an entire freight train can pass, he hesitates, he under-projects, he does everything a human actor can do to disguise the lousy line he has to answer: “In your opinion did the stewardess drink those two bottles?” It’s not a line any investigator would speak, for the answer to the line is, “It’s not proper to offer an opinion on the matter. It’s not proper of you to ask the question. Opinion has nothing to do with it.” And then, of course, he tells the truth and pays the price. But so do we, for we next find him in a prison speaking to an AA meeting, but in such a dour, gravid, and solemn manner that it is impossible for us to swallow the medicine prescribed. We’d rather see him drunk. Or, no, we’d rather see him happy, joyous, and free, as is the speaker at the AA meeting he first attends with his girlfriend. So we are left, not with a message to black males from their idol, Denzel, about the wreckage addiction causes, but with an almost caddish preachment, which will beguile no one towards the path of sobriety at all. So the film ends by the actor making the character dull. The light in his eye has gone out. No one applauds. The film is perfectly and usefully cast. Don Cheadle plays his lawyer, Bruce Greenwood his ally at the union. Pete Gerety is marvelous as the owner of his airline. They have very good lines. Their scenes, each by each, are effective and surprising. John Goodman, always a welcome presence, plays Washington’s drug fixer in a turn that delights the senses. The material in its details is unexpected. But the films as a whole falls flat. This is inevitable when a main character is given star treatment, because its actor is a star. Washington has presented himself as the power hero for years. Poitier was never sexually powerful (righteous people seldom are), but he was beautiful and earnest, and firm. For Washington whole chapters of acting are open that Poitier was never called upon to explore, and, besides, Poitier did not have the gift for exploration. He had anger and a searching eye. Moreover he was not American, he was Jamaican, while Washington is American all through. Poitier would lack believability in a role such as this. But also such roles as this did not exist in his day, which is not far past. But the danger artistically is the same for both of them: to exploit their star presence and replace acting with it. There are moments here when Washington does just this –– the mouth drawn down in taciturn authority, for one. I wanted a great piece of work from Washington here, and why isn’t it here? In that odd scene with James Badge Dale (uncuttable because it’s the scene where the hero and heroine meet), you see Dale alert, standing within himself, doing it, whereas you see Washington sitting back inside his star authority on a break. His choice might better have been to be eager for Dale to shut up, so he could get to talk to the girl. So his is a performance interesting in certain details but not in all, and not in its overall arc, which, like the film itself, is politically and politely pat.

 

The Great Debaters

26 May

The Great Debaters – Directed by Denzel Washington. Winning-Through Docudrama. A small rural Negro college in Texas in 1935 gains national acknowledgement as an unbeaten debating team.  126 minutes Color 2007.

* * * *

The musical score of this film undermines by supplanting the drama and emotion of every scene it is heard in. And this is quite unnecessary, because Washington is a first class director of actors. They need no musical appurtenances. There are four debaters and their skin is beautiful, their faces are beautiful, their acting is beautiful. Denzel Washington plays Melvin Tolson, a brilliant professor among brilliant professors at Wiley College in Marshall Texas, and he coaches them ruthlessly to win, and win they do. This is like a Rocky film or a horse film. Since it is about a feat, you understand at the outset that you are to be faced with a foregone conclusion, and so we are presented here with the customary tropes of such stories. For me, the problem with this show was that these tropes galloped away with the film, and with it went all living peculiarity. We are left with nothing but the contraption of the tropes. Washington begins it with a brilliant display of character acting as he recites poetry in his classroom and scares and excites everyone therein. But his entire character is lost as the film goes on, and lost too is his particular story of his writing all the debates for the students, and lost too are the character pieces, the genre scenes, those little anteroom scenes necessary to put the film on a siding so that we may enjoy and get to know the characters. Forest Whitaker plays the chaplain of the college, and he is getting to be a better actor with time; it’s nice to see. Neither he nor Washington, though, has any temperamental or ego conflict to be resolved with one another or with anyone else in the picture. We have four lovely actors playing the four debaters: the 14 year old Denzel Whitake playing son to his father; Nate Parker as the brilliant and defiant ne’er-do-well; Jumee Smollett as the first female debater, and Jermaine Williams who must bow out. They are dear, but I wish the choochoo train the script thrust them on had, from time to time, stopped at a station not called Debate. Although it’s played well, the whole romance business could have been scrapped; it goes nowhere, and it routinizes the film. However I am grateful for the small mercies of it, an accounting, especially at the beginning, of how it all started. I wish Washington had not been forced by the script to forsake his character for his usual star stuff. Given the script, there was nothing else for him to do. I love these black actors, though, and I am grateful to see them in films where violence is not the main source of interest. The Extra Features are lovely, and in so many ways, so is the film.

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POWER

25 Mar

Power— Directed by Sidney Lumet — Political Drama. A power broker takes on a loser and turns him into a saucepan full of popcorn. 111 minutes Color 1986

* * * *Watch Instantly

Richard Gere is and always has been so badly spoken that he seems crude in everything he plays. This lends him the luster of the cheap, for which he has been cast these many years. It disguises the fact that he is an actor of considerable sensitivity. The love scene between himself and Julie Christie is a case in point. Of course she is the most alluring woman in the world, so who could fail? He is excellent as a political power-broker and the power-broker world is fascinating. Gene Hackman does a wonderful character involved in a slapstick public drunk scene. E.G. Marshall is, as usual, priceless, and Beatrice Straight is as usual florid.

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Cast:

Richard Gere, Julie Christie, Gene Hackman, Kate Capshaw, Denzel Washington, E.G. Marshall, Beatrice Straight, Fritz Weaver, Michael Learned, J.T. Walsh, E. Katherine Kerr, Polly Rowles, Matt Salinger, Tom Mardirosian, Omar Torres, D.B. Sweeney, Donna Hanover

Director:

Sidney Lumet

 
 
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