Widows

November 30, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Liam Neeson
Directed by: Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”)
Written by: Steve McQueen (“Shame”) and Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl”)

Academy Award-winner Steve McQueen is a brilliant director. Although he has only made three features in the last decade — prior to his new thriller “Widows” — each of those films was clearly different and truly memorable, especially his controversial 2011 drama “Shame,” which starred Michael Fassbender as a New York City sex addict, and his brutal, 2013 Oscar-winning drama “12 Years a Slave.”

Sadly, his early cinematic achievements make “Widows” all the more disappointing. Knowing what he is capable of doing behind the camera, it’s unfortunate to see how incredibly ordinary of a heist movie it turned out to be. Even with a top-notch cast, its sprawling narrative ambition, flimsy characterizations and vague central plot push “Widows” to the brink of total collapse.

Set in Chicago, “Widows” kicks off with serious potential. McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl”) introduce audiences to a foursome of criminals who are quickly dispatched during a heist gone wrong. Left to mourn them are their wives — Veronica (Viola Davis), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and less-important Amanda (a wasted Carrie Coon). When Veronica learns that her husband Harry (Liam Neeson) owes $2 million to some shady associates, she takes a set of blueprints left behind by her dead husband and decides to organize a robbery with the help of Linda and Alice, so they can pay off the debt.

Bursting over with more subplots than McQueen and Flynn know what to do with, “Widows” also follows a powerful and corrupt political family, led by father-son tandem Tom and Jack Mulligan (Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell), who get caught up in dirty deeds with one of Veronica’s debt collectors. Their story interlinks to one of the overall themes of the film, which attempts to deliver a reflective message about race, class and gentrification, but does so without much enthusiasm or emotion.

Regrettably, “Widows” forgets that it is – first and foremost – supposed to be a believable heist flick. There is so much happening away from their actual strategy, Flynn neglects piecing together a logical way to get Veronica and her crew to accomplish the feat without mucking it up. Sure, there’s a little preparation involved as we watch the women scout the location and talk through the importance of avoiding slip-ups, but once it’s time to execute the plan, moviegoers will be hard-pressed to explain how these characters are even remotely close to being ready for such a dangerous mission.

Add to this a handful of obvious plot holes and secondary storylines about a tense election, a rich developer procuring sexual services from Alice, a dead son, a fifth single mother trying to make ends meet, a hairstylist with a loan problem and an anticlimactic twist, and “Widows” spreads itself to waifish proportions.

Fences

December 23, 2016 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson
Directed by: Denzel Washington (“The Great Debadters”)
Written by: August Wilson (debut)

Reprising their roles from the 2010 Broadway revival of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington (“Training Day”) and Oscar nominee Viola Davis (“Doubt”) star as a married couple living in 1950s Pittsburgh struggling to come to terms with the imperfect life they have created for themselves and their family. Directed by Washington, his first film behind the camera since 2007’s “The Great Debaters,” and adapted to the screen by the original playwright, the production has no qualms about presenting the narrative to viewers as if they were watching a stage performance. Still, Washington and Davis, especially, give incredible performances, which is reason enough to forgive the film’s cinematic shortcomings.

Suicide Squad

August 5, 2016 by  
Filed under Jerrod, Reviews

Starring: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Viola Davis
Directed by: David Ayer (“Fury”)
Written by: David Ayer (“Training Day”)

Love them, hate them, or merely shrug through them as they unspool twice a year, at least the Marvel films have one thing going for them: a cohesive vision. Sure, it’s not a romantic filmmaking one, like that of a gifted writer or visionary director, but at least there’s a house style in place that prevents their films from having to be saved (or salvaged) in the editing room. Three movies into DC Comics’ film slate—the closest thing Marvel has to a direct competitor, even though that’s not how movies work—and we’re still getting products that feel like they’re assembled out of hundreds of executives’ studio notes and test screening reactions rather than a decisions and imagery conjured up from a director’s heart and soul or words typed into Final Draft by a screenwriter. That’s why we have the option to choose from the theatrical and extended cuts of “Batman v Superman” on Blu-ray, and seemingly the reason why we’ve got this tonal mess plopping into theaters under the name “Suicide Squad.”

The premise is simple: in a post-Superman world, mysterious government hard-ass Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) wants to put together her own super team of meta-humans to take up arms against whatever comes next that maybe isn’t as nice as Superman was. Thing is, Waller only has access to bad guys like super-sniper Deadshot (Will Smith), psychotic nymphet Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), fire-conjuring homeboy Diablo (Jay Hernandez), an Aussie guy who throws boomerangs and drinks beers (Jai Courtney), some giant alligator guy (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), and, uh, a guy that climbs ropes really well (Adam Beach).

Waller’s proposal is cut and dried: these villains have no choice but to fight for the government. If they don’t, they die by way of an explosive in their necks. And if they do, they’ll probably die anyway. After stilted introductions and some interruptions from The Joker (Jared Leto), the group is pressed into service fighting the real-life witch Enchantress (Cara Delevigne).

With an erratic tone and butchered-to-hell narrative flow that feel like panicked responses to the critical beating that “Batman v Superman” took from critics (well, I liked it fine) and a fair share of average fans, “Suicide Squad” feels icky with flop sweat, the embodiment of the phrase, “Oh shit, we’ve gotta fix this!” After initial (fun and funny!) trailers were well-received, the movie reportedly underwent reshoots to inject more humor into the proceedings, and the stitching together of disparate elements of director/writer David Ayer’s script and whatever giant pile of sentient studio notes denied a WGA credit kicked out is as obvious as Robbie’s ass is in the marketing materials. While you’ll sell plenty of Pop! Vinyl figures and might even power through to a box office hit on this, you blew it again, DC.

Blackhat

January 16, 2015 by  
Filed under Jerrod, Reviews

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Viola Davis, Wei Tang
Directed by: Michael Mann (“Heat,” “The Insider”)
Written by: Morgan Davis Foehl (debut)

Here it is, mid-January, and for the second year in a row we’re offered up another action thriller from a respected director at the box office. Last year we had the would-be franchise reboot “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” from director Kenneth Branagh (coming off of the first “Thor” movie) and starring the handsome Chris Pine, left stranded by a studio who lost faith in the project along the way, dumping it in the dead of January to be mostly forgotten. This year, we have “Blackhat,” from acclaimed director Michael Mann (“Heat”) and starring Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth. Mann alone commands attention, even if his past two films were lackluster, but along the way something must have fallen apart with “Blackhat” and it appears Universal decided to cut its losses.

As an impossibly hunky blackhat (read: bad guy) hacker, Hemsworth’s Nicholas Hathaway is introduced in prison being roughed up by guards and brought in front of the warden for hacking into the prison’s computer system (using a contraband cell phone that gave him a command line (!) as if the prison runs on DOS) to add money to fellow prisoners’ accounts. When a Chinese nuclear power plant is hacked, causing a near-meltdown, Chinese officer Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) and FBI agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis) arrange for Hathaway’s release. The reason: the malicious code the hacker is using is a derivation of a code written by Dawai and Hathaway, and together they’re the only ones who can track the hacker down before he hits an even bigger target.

Peppered with spots of horrible dubbing, inconsistent special effects, and musical cues that seem to drop in and out at random, “Blackhat” feels strangely abandoned, as if Mann and the studio didn’t bother to add any sort of polish to the final product, recognizing they had what ends up being a dumb, mid-level techno-action movie unworthy of the prestige crime drama reputation Mann has earned over the years. Filled with techno-babble that only half makes sense, hacking scenes that play out like video games, and boring special effects meant to represent what goes on inside a computer (spoiler: it looks dumb and is completely stupid) when a virus is unleashed, “Blackhat” relies too heavily on making Hemsworth an action-adventure hero hacking genius, hoping you don’t question why a furloughed convict would go on an international manhunt and participate in armed raids. Drag “Blackhat” to the recycle bin and pretend it never existed.

Get on Up

August 1, 2014 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Nelson Ellis, Viola Davis
Directed by: Tate Taylor (“The Help”)
Written by: Jez Butterworth (“Edge of Tomorrow”) and John-Henry Butterworth (“Edge of Tomorrow”)

When making a biopic about a musician, filmmakers have two major options. One is to hire an actor to both act as the artist and to do their own singing, a feat that got Joaquin Phoenix an Oscar nomination for his role as Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line” and won Jamie Foxx an Oscar for his role as Ray Charles in “Ray.” The other option is to hire an actor to just play the character parts and lip-synch to the original recordings of the artist. It’s a risky and potentially distracting move, and certainly one that needs to be backed up with a dynamite acting performance. Luckily for director Tate Taylor, Chadwick Boseman delivers exactly that in his portrayal of the hardest working man in show business, James Brown, in “Get on Up.”

If Boseman was seen as a relative unknown in taking on the role of Jackie Robinson in last year’s “42,” his performance in “Get on Up” will quickly erase his anonymity. Boseman is outstanding as the larger-than-life James Brown and completely embodies everything from his speaking voice to his swagger. Where Boseman really shines is during the performance scenes. Boseman is electric in scenes where Brown is performing; constantly moving, dancing, sweating, and putting everything he has into the performance. Though as previously mentioned, Boseman is lip-synching throughout the entire film, there are only a few moments where it is truly jarring. He’s also able to mine some comedic moments from the film, though those don’t quite land as much as they should.

Beyond Boseman’s performance, “Get on Up” is a pretty comprehensive (sometimes to a fault) look at Brown’s life and career. Brown’s music is present throughout the whole film, giving the picture its pulse and sounding as good as it ever has. The issue, however, comes with the direction. Taylor attempts to cram a ton of content into this biopic and ends up with mixed results. It’s a film that comes in at over two hours, and starts to feel redundant with some of the performances by the end. It’s also told in a non-linear fashion, with stories and moments from Brown’s life ping-ponging chronologically in a way that doesn’t serve any real narrative purpose.

As a look back a James Brown’s life, storied career, and his well-earned place in music lore “Get On Up” is a successful endeavor. Still, somehow, it all feels somewhat surface. Taylor flirts with the idea of racism during the rise of Brown, but never really goes anywhere with it other than a show that happened shortly after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. Despite the occasional narrative shortcomings, “Get on Up” is a worthy journey into music history, and one that features a fantastic performance from a quickly rising actor poised for a massive breakout.

Prisoners

September 26, 2013 by  
Filed under CineStrays

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve (“Incendies”)
Written by: Aaron Guzikowski (“Contraband”)

While it’s script might transform from intriguing police procedural into something that could be described as controlled chaos, director Denis Villeneuve 153-minute long drama is effectively tense. Anchored by a raw and powerful performance from Hugh Jackman and a solid contribution from Jake Gyllenhaal, this film about two young girls who are kidnapped confronts some extremely hard-hitting themes and scenarios that would make any parent shudder. Things get messy as the film spirals to a conclusion, but there’s no way you’re going to move unless you know how it all ends (even though you technically don’t).

The Help

August 12, 2011 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard
Directed by: Tate Taylor (“Pretty Ugly People”)
Written by: Tate Taylor (“Pretty Ugly People”)

Not since the late Isabel Sanford put a shirtless Sidney Poitier in his place in the 1967 Academy Award-winning film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” has a maid had so much to say than the domesticated ladies of “The Help,” a moving and somewhat frustrating dramedy set in the midst of the simmering ’60s Civil Rights Era.

Adapted from Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 bestselling and controversial novel of the same name, “The Help” is set in Jackson, Miss., at the height of segregation during which many African-American women would make their living working as maids for the well-to-do white families of the town by cleaning their homes, cooking their meals, and raising their babies. It’s a bold, but short-sighted perspective given to director/screenwriter Tate Taylor by Stockett, who herself was raised by her family’s black housekeeper as a child during the same era.

As personal of a narrative as it may be for Stockett, Taylor doesn’t let any of the deep-seated emotion become unmanageable on screen. Like the novel, Taylor frames the film into three distinct perspectives and allows each of these characters to define themselves as their own strong-spirited women. It is these multidimensional personalities, emphasized with audaciousness and a much-needed sense of humor, that elevate “The Help” beyond the standard race-relations story.

Emma Stone (“Crazy, Stupid, Love”) plays Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, an independent college graduate with aspirations to become a journalist who writes about real issues. She finds her muse in her friend’s kindhearted maid Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), who she chooses to feature in an in-depth piece about the lives of “the help” in Jackson. Although initially scared about the ramifications of the anonymous writing project if anyone were to find out, other maids, including Aibileen’s outspoken best friend Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), join in during storytime as Skeeter anthologizes their personal experiences working for employers who won’t even allow them to use the indoor bathroom. Cruelty is personified in town socialite Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), a devil in a sundress whose position as President of the Junior League gives her a podium to spout off hate speech and peddle racist policies.

With very little insight given about the changing social structure outside ofJackson, it’s difficult to get the full dynamic of the injustices taking place. At times, the gap between social classes seems like it will cave in at any moment. But there are also scenes in the film that share the same type of tension amongst the queen bees as in “Mean Girls.” Taylor also dodges issues that would’ve served him better to take head on with more self-confidence. Why is Skeeter’s exploitation of these maids only skimmed over? It almost feels like she is doing them a favor by putting them in harm’s way.

Still, the performances prevail in “The Help” as Stone shows her range as a serious actress and Davis epitomizes courage through her somber eyes. Who needs delicate Southern charm when you have this much passion surging through your veins?

Law Abiding Citizen

October 15, 2009 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Jamie Foxx, Gerard Butler, Bruce McGill
Directed by: F. Gary Gray (“Be Cool”)
Written by: Kurt Wimmer (“Street Kings”)

It’s evident in the opening scene of “Law Abiding Citizen” that director F. Gary Gray (“Be Cool”) wants to move the film along at a fairly quick pace. It would have been beneficial, however, if he and screenwriter Kurt Wimmer (“Street Kings”) actually looked before they leaped into a story buried in illogical scenarios and faux moral empathy. Instead, the two lunge forward without haste and end up turning an interesting idea into an absurd revenge flick mismatched with psychological mayhem.

Ten years after the brutal murders of his wife and daughter, Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler) resurfaces to avenge their deaths by bringing down not only the two men who committed the crimes, but also the judicial system that failed to bring any closure to his personal tragedy.

When one of the killers agrees to testify against his accomplice, Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx) cuts a deal that sends one man to death row and the other to prison for a short stay because of his testimony.

“Some justice is better than no justice at all,” Nick explains.

The loophole in the system doesn’t sit well with Clyde who, after a decade, comes out of mourning just in time to violently punish his family’s murderers. But that’s not nearly enough payback for Nick. He is also seeking vengeance against everyone involved in the case including the defending lawyer, the presiding judge, and the entire District Attorney’s Office. If that’s not daring enough, Clyde has chosen to pull all this off in the confines of a prison cell.

As he mysteriously carries out vengeful death after vengeful death behind bars, Clyde continues to be an enigma for Nick who can’t figure out how he is methodically picking off his colleagues and friends. More important than the kills themselves is whether or not Clyde’s tactical marathon of death will makes much sense once his means are revealed.

Sadly, when that moment comes, the twist in the story is rather lame. While the build-up is sometimes entertaining in short spurts, there’s nothing remotely believable in the payoff. Even when an explanation for Clyde’s talents is exposed, it’s washed over as if screenwriter Wimmer was embarrassed of his own plot choices.

And well he should be. “Law Abiding Citizen” isn’t ashamed to profess its desire to be as intelligent of a crime thriller as “Seven” or “Silence of the Lambs,” but with a loosey-goosey script and a laughable take on social issues the movie ends up stuck in wannabe status without any chance of parole.

Doubt

December 15, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams
Directed by: John Patrick Shanley (“Joe Versus the Volcano”)
Written by: John Patrick Shanley (“Alive”)

Watching two acting heavyweights like Academy-Award winners Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman go head-to-head with material written for the stage can be seriously nerve-wracking. It’s simply impossible to grip onto each word they hiss at each other or catch every glance glared back and forth between them. There are moments in “Doubt” where – as cliché as it sounds – I didn’t want to blink.

It’s different when you use that sentiment with a film like “Doubt,” though. While most people would say they couldn’t tear their eyes away from the screen during a multimillion-dollar special effect, there are no bells and whistles in John Patrick Shanely’s opus. All it is is raw emotion and talent. It’s an actor’s showcase.

Meryl Streep plays Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the principal of a Catholic school in the Bronx in 1964, who accuses one of the priests, Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), of committing an impious act with a shy black student without any real concrete evidence. Sister Aloysius is an intimidating figure and feels if there is anyone that can get the truth out of Father Flynn, it would be her.

Amy Adams (“Junebug”) plays Sister James, an idealist nun who first takes suspicion to Father Flynn’s behavior toward the student before reporting it to Sister Aloysius. Her nature is not to be untrustworthy, but with Sister Aloysius certainty about what she thinks she knows, there is very little that can be said to change her mind. It’s actress Viola Davis (“Solaris”) who comes the closest to cutting Streep’s Aloysius down to size. She, along with Streep and Hoffman, are shoe-ins for Oscar nominations. (Adams isn’t far behind either).

In “Doubt,” Shanely has created a cinematic paradox. As each of these characters slice each other down, they all reveal their own moral shortcomings. It’s shocking how well a story like this also divulges what kind of thinkers we are. Do we think on impulse and what we know to be true in our own heart or is there always doubt without specific proof? “Doubt” won’t give you the answers you’re looking for, but you’ll be replaying the scenarios through your head long after the curtain falls.

Nights in Rodanthe

September 12, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Richard Gere, Diane Lane, Viola Davis
Directed by: George C. Wolfe (debut)
Written by: Ann Peacock (“Kit Kittredge: An American Girl”) and John Romano (“The Third Miracle”)

No need to call FEMA when a hurricane hits Richard Gere and Diane Lane in “Nights in Rodanthe.” There’s so much damage done even before the storm comes in, the undeniable chemistry between the two can’t pull it out of its shallow pool of triteness.

Adapted from the book by Nicholas Sparks (“The Notebook”), “Nights” brings two complete strangers, Dr. Paul Flanner (Gere) and Adrienne Willis (Lane), together for a passionate weekend lodged in an oceanfront inn.

Helping her friend rent out rooms at her North Carolina beach house while she is away, Adrienne’s only guest during her hurricane-filled vacation in is Paul, who has made the trip from the big city to sulk over the death of a patient he lost during a standard plastic surgery procedure. He is also there to visit the woman’s family to explain to them what went wrong.

Despite being the only shoulder to cry on, Adrienne might not be the right person to lend out emotional support (she’s making some life-changing decisions and thinking about whether or not to take back her cheating ex-husband). Leave it to bottles of wine and the harsh winds of the hurricane, however, to produce manufactured romance as flimsily written as daytime soaps.

Put most of the blame on the dialogue, which will ultimately lead our leading man and woman into the bedroom. In “Nights,” it flows out in all its cliché glory. When Paul asks Adrienne formulaic questions like “Who keeps you safe?” “What are you so afraid of” and “Do you even remember who you are anymore?” it becomes harder and harder to understand why people fall for these overly schmaltzy and dull cinematic relationships.

Maybe two people could really fall in love with each other over the span of a few days like Paul and Adrienne, but why pour on the sentimentality so blatantly? Why resort to sappy exchanges and forced moments of bliss? I like a good cry as much as the next person, but why not pull my heartstrings through a natural progression of romanticism?

Movies like “Nights in Rodanthe” are to the romance genre what torture porn is to horror. It might fill a need, but why dumb down the story for a cheap reaction from the audience? While one gets screams and the other gets tears, it’s all the same artificial moments that make films like this so unwatchable.