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Archive for the ‘Denzel Washington’ Category

The Preacher’s Wife

28 Apr

The Preacher’s Wife—directed by Penny Marshall. Comedy. 123 minutes Color 1996.
★★★
The Story: A church nears receivership and when its preacher asks God for help and an angel arrives, the preacher disbelieves it—but his wife and the angel get along all too well.
~
Thank God for movie stars. By this I mean Denzel Washington.

Lying in the background is The Bishop’s Wife, in which Cary Grant was originally cast as the bishop but preferred the angel as the better part. David Niven played the bishop and Loretta Young the wife.

Now Loretta Young really knew how to be a movie star. That is to say, she knew how to glow. So the original version had three movie stars while the present has but one.

Courtney B. Vance is a good actor, but he is not a movie star and he is not an actor who is inherently funny, as was David Niven. Certain actors have that ability. John Wayne’s humor was an inherent wryness, Cary Grant’s an inherent slyness, James Stewart’s an inherent preposterousness. They could make any word sound droll they wished.

An empty comic hammock here must thus be filled by able supporting actors—Jennifer Lewis as the dread mother-in-law and Jennifer Devine as the lecherous church secretary in love with the fat bus conductor: “Lord, put that man under the Christmas Tree…if he’ll fit.” Gregory Hines, as the satanic real estate investor who own the church property, is jim-dandy.

Apart from the direction which lacks any touch of wit and the writing which lacks premeditation of the audience’s wit, the difficulty lies in the casting of the title role.

The difficulty is not that Whitney Houston is neither a natural nor a trained actress. The difficult is that she is a demonstration.

I look at her and I wonder. It is not that she is empty. That would be something. Mahershala Ali is empty, and out of that emptiness he spins characters. No. The problem is that Whitney Houston is vacant.

Reading up on her, I see she starts young as a church singer. As a teenager she is a recording backup singer. By her early twenties she is an enormous recording success.

The success is based upon her mezzo-soprano, which is strong and versatile—not particularly beautiful in any of its many ranges but remarkable for its litheness. As a young woman, she has huge hits, earns big money, and tours worldwide.

It’s a sorry story. Sorry because there is nothing else to the story. She hasn’t a chance in hell. She doesn’t garden. She probably doesn’t read. She probably has no education. Outside of her church singing, she probably has no cultural background. Her name heads a charity, but she does not seem active in public service. She does not jog. She probably does not cook meals. She probably has no conversation. What you see before you is a human being who has developed no personal resources. As to a spiritual life, which might have kept her safe when a girl, it does not transplant to show-business which lofts in altitudes above and far away from the spires of its cathedrals.

This is a terrible life for a human being. Not fatal, but perilous.

In addition, in Whitney Houston’s case, one of the problems with it lies in the voice and the use of the voice. Its predilection and foundation lie in the virtuosoism of gospel singing.

I don’t like virtuosoism. You see it in acting—Laurence Olivier, Rod Steiger, Glenn Close—and you hear it in Whitney Houston’s singing.

When you look at her in song, her eyes remain the same throughout the song. She shines. She smiles. She has wonderful teeth. She is a pretty woman. But she is emotionally unconnected to the words. She relates only to what her voice can do. So the pleasure you get from her singing is not musical—because at once-remove from music. It is the pleasure of her demonstration of what her voice can do “to” the music, the pleasure, if it is your pleasure, of virtuosoism.

And I pity her.

She died a terrible death before she was forty. And when I see her standing there singing, I pity her most.

I pity her because there is nothing lying behind her singing, in her singing, under her singing. The lofty tricks her voice can perform received praise upon praise. Oh, yes, her melisma was bankable. But I look at this lovely young woman, and I do not wonder she took to drugs to fill the vacancy of her fame. What an easy mark she must have been.

No one is to blame, nor is she to blame. But it’s so obvious.

Denzel Washington paid her 10 million dollars to appear in his film. There is no way that either the drugs she was devoted to at that time or the price she demanded could lead to anything but to blind her from the ability to play the character she is hired to play, the wife of a preacher.

When you watch Denzel Washington, you can see an acting technique at work. He gathers the scene in his arms and his immediate response to it is performance. He is dressed entirely in silver, which does service for the habit of an angel, but all his acting needs is his body’s present apprehension. There he stands inwardly open. It is so simple. It drives the words out of him, yes, but the placement of his being is what is memorable. The use of his interior is what is memorable.

Art is a gutsy craft. It counts on the vast, powerfully telling, and superior intelligence of the instinct of the belly. Instinct is rarely virtuosoistic. Because its manifestations are so readable, it only needs to be virtuosoistic when the character is virtuosoistic, as in that passage in Training Day when Denzel Washington briefly takes on the conventional virtuoso voice of the black thug—the demonstration of the fallacy of which devastates his character right in front of the eyes of everyone.

Someone needs to get ahold of these singers and mentor them before their lives vacate them. Someone needs to warn them that, outside their time on stage, their time needs to be filled with a world neither show nor business. Left-over time to fill. Hard for any of us to make good use of. Hard to distinguish one fun from another. And the ego of the diva is larger than that of any king. No one seems to have learned from The Rose. No one seems to have seen Bohemian Rhapsody for what it is. No one.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, Denzel Washington

 

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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