REVIEW: “Fences”

fences-poster

I love many things about movies, but perhaps nothing more than watching great actors and actresses ply their trade. And when top-tier performers are given meaty, robust material to work with, the results are often spellbinding. A prime example – Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in the riveting family drama “Fences”.

The film is based on the 1983 Pulitzer Prize winning play by August Wilson. The play was revived on Broadway in 2010 starring both Washington and Davis. Both would win Tony Awards for their performances. Although Wilson had penned a screenplay, his insistence on an African-American director left a film adaptation in limbo. Washington’s stage experience with the story inspired him to star in and direct the film version (his third time in the director’s chair).

fences-1

“Fences” begins in 1957 Pittsburgh and tells the story of the Maxson family. Troy (Washington) works on a garbage truck with his life-long friend Bono (played by Stephen Henderson who, along with many other cast members, also starred in the Broadway revival). Troy is a particularly prickly character. He’s a man bruised by his past and bitter from racial inequalities both realistic and imagined. His wife Rose (Davis) is the anchor of their relationship. She’s a soothing presence, a voice of reason, and often times a peacemaker between Troy and their teenage son Corey (Jovan Adepo).

Washington doesn’t shy away from the story’s stage roots. The film feels very much like a play. It’s thick with dialogue and the vast majority of it takes place at the Maxson’s home. That may push away those hungry for something more traditional, but Washington knows the richness of his material. He doesn’t force any kind of cinematic gimmickry. Instead the performers (Washington included) take the ball and run which is the only way this story should be told.

We the audience get most of our information by listening in on the many lengthy conversations between characters – conversations filled with feelings, observations, or reflection. It’s here we see the many complex sides of Troy. Whether he’s playfully spinning a wild tale about wrestling with the Grim Reaper or reminiscing about his days playing baseball in the Negro Leagues. Other times it’s Troy, the strict, tough-minded father more interested in “doing right” by his children than loving them. As wordy as they sometimes are, every conversation is rich with meaning and substance. They are always shedding another layer to these characters.

fences2

The further the story goes the more darker and painful it becomes. In one particularly tragic scene, Troy’s consuming bitterness and stubbornness drive him to exclaim “I can’t give nothing else.” At the same time there is a level of sympathy as Troy is a scarred product of his past. At one point he laments to his wife “You’re the only decent thing that’s ever happened to me.” And the story subtly looks at the cyclical nature of life. The question is will Troy be the one to finally break the cycle?

“Fences” is lively and vibrant yet aching and tragic. The cast’s rapport carries over beautifully from stage to screen and their handling of August Wilson’s characters comes from an understanding far deeper that simple familiarity. Washington and Davis let it rip and should be getting a call from Oscar, but the supporting cast is just as vital. Henderson, Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson – all essential pieces to the telling of Wilson’s story. In the end, it’s this rhythmic force of dialogue and performance that makes “Fences” such a powerful and soul-piercing experience.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Blackhat”

HAT POSTER

Michael Mann is a director that usually catches my attention. The 71-year old Mann has made several films over the years that I deeply love – movies like “The Last of the Mohicans” and “Heat”. It’s my strong affection for his good films that enables me to overlook his bad ones like “Miami Vice” and “The Keep”. The big question for me is which kind of movie is “Blackhat”? Does Mann give us another signature rock-solid thriller, or does this film qualify as a disappointing clunker?

So far it hasn’t been a good ride for “Blackhat”. Very few critics have given the film high marks and it’s already been considered a box office bomb. Unfortunately the criticisms have merit and it doesn’t take long to understand why the film was dumped in the January movie release graveyard. The most disappointing thing is that the film has a very timely and relevant concept. But that concept drowns in vast chasms of monotony and lethargy.

HAT1

Chris Hemsworth steps back from his popular Marvel superhero persona to play an incarcerated computer hacker named Nick Hathaway. After a cyberterrorist triggers an explosion at a Chinese nuclear power plant, Hathaway agrees to help the FBI and the Chinese government catch the perpetrator in exchange for having his sentence commuted. After about two lines of political wrangling and negotiations Nick is out of jail and the internet manhunt begins.

Hathaway (who looks like he’s been at a GQ photo shoot instead of a penitentiary) is joined by an old friend and Chinese cyber officer named Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang), FBI Agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis), and Dawai’s sister Lien (Tang Wei) who out of the blue becomes Hathaway’s lover. The group tracks their target from the United States to China to Malaysia. Mann knows how to shoot locations and some of the film’s best moments involve his camera sweeping over a landscape or tracking down tight alleys. It’s certainly a better alternative than the constant shots of people staring at computer screens.

Speaking of that, we get plenty of scrolling digits and keyboard tapping. Computers obviously play a key role in the story, but it seems like we spend an eternity logging in, logging out, typing in the code, and so on and so on. I’m sure a lot of it is realistic. In fact Wired magazine reported that hackers and security experts both commended the movie for its accurate portrayals. But honestly, after a while I didn’t care. There was just too much of it for me and sometimes it would grind the movie to a halt.

HAT2

No such thing could be said about the action. Mann has always had an incredible eye for action sequences and it is no different here. And at times the action scenes actually jolted me back into the movie. Mann’s camera movements, his strategic angles, his intense use of sound and of his surroundings – all of these create some truly spectacular action scenes. Without question, the action is the star of the movie and I wish we had gotten more of it and less of the plodding story.

“Blackhat” is a movie built around a good idea and strengthened by some fantastic pulse-pounding action. But ultimately it sinks due to its tiresome, long-winded story. Even the always likable Chris Hemsworth can’t help the story. He seems completely out of character, he struggles with whatever kind of weird accent he’s going for, and I never felt a charismatic spark from him. His performance will undoubtedly have people questioning his abilities in roles outside of the superhero genre. I don’t know, chances are he was simply bored like I was through a lot of this movie.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

REVIEW: “Ender’s Game”

Enders game Poster

It would be easy to lump “Ender’s Game” in with the current trend of science-fiction films centered around young people. These movies seem to be popular now and modern Hollywood has shown it will milk popular trends dry. But while “Ender’s Game” has several elements that puts it in this category, it also does somethings that sets it apart. It is a movie with a thinly-veiled message, but it’s also a fun bit of science fiction that doesn’t always feel original but still works as a whole.

Asa Butterfield, who I loved as the wide-eyed title character in Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo”, plays a young prodigy named Andrew “Ender” Wiggin. After months of observation, he is sent to an advanced battle school by Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford). The school is the first step in preparing the kids for war with an alien species known as the Formics. 50 years earlier the Formics attacked Earth but were finally repelled by the heroic and sacrificial acts of a now iconic soldier named Mazer Rackham. The military believes another alien attack is inevitable so they plan to strike before the aliens do.

ENDERS2

The film follows Ender and a number of other kids through various stages of Battle School. You see apparently these video game savvy youth have acquired a better skill set for the video game-like combat of the future. As Ender advances he encounters an assortment of new kids, some of which are characters we’ve seen in movies a hundred times before. For example, there is an adolescent “Top Gun” rivalry that was just too corny to buy into. All of this is going on under the watchful eye of the cold, businesslike Colonel Graff and his counterpoint Major Anderson (Viola Davis) who is more interested in the children’s emotional well-being.

The story builds and builds towards the seemingly inevitable war to come. Ender develops a few close relationships with fellow cadets including an outgoing girl named Petra. She’s played by Hailee Steinfeld, one of my favorite young actresses in Hollywood. Ben Kingsley also pops up in the second half of the film with an interesting role and a face full of tattoos. The performances from all who I’ve mentioned are solid. I’m really impressed with Butterfield and Steinfeld, both of whom know how to handle themselves in front of the camera. Some of the other young actors, not so much.

ENDERS1

While I liked the story of “Ender’s Game” as a whole it does run into a wall about two-thirds of the way through. It begins to feel as if it is repeating itself (with slight advancements of the plot) at certain junctures. I eventually found myself ready to move past Ender’s training and get to the big finale. It certainly does come with some big special effects and a few rather disorienting twists that took a minute or two to soak in. Some interesting ramifications and personal conflicts follow which I thought was a neat way to end the story.

Maybe I shouldn’t say “end the story” because “Ender’s Game” is clearly set up with a franchise in mind. The final scene leaves no doubt about that. I would check out another chapter of this story although I’m not sure how compelling the new direction might be. As for this first installment, it is a fairly satisfying bit of science fiction that walks the tricky line of trying to appeal to youth and adults alike. For the most part it succeeds. It’s not a movie I would rush to see again, but it is a film I can appreciate.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

Oscar – The morning after…

Well it has come and gone. The 2012 Oscars seemed to get here in a hurry and be done just as quick. As usual for the more recent Oscars, there were few surprises. Most of the “Big 6” went as I predicted and the only real surprises were with the technical awards. But overall it was a fun night. Here’s a few thoughts…

Billy Crystal hosted the 2012 show after the Eddie Murphy debacle (or should I say the Brett Ratner debacle) and he did a solid job. Unlike last year’s odd and sometimes uncomfortable hosting from James Franco and Anne Hathaway, this was more grounded but still quite funny. Crystal used several tried-and-true antics such as the song detailing the Best Picture Nominees and the “What they’re thinking” segment. I found them and several of Crystal’s adaptive one-liners to be very funny. Several of the presenters provided some good laughs including Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis, Emma Stone, Chris Rock (I was surprised, too), and of course Robert Downey, Jr. Oh, and c’mon Academy! Am I the only one who thinks that Downey, Jr. would be the funniest Oscars host of all time? Sign him up.

“Hugo” ended the night with five Oscars. It was awarded for its technical achievements and it’s hard for me to argue with that. “A Seperation” won for Best Foreign Language film which was followed by a rather unusual acceptance speech from director Asghar Farhadi. “The Descendants” won Best Adapted Screenplay and I was thrilled that “Midnight in Paris” won for Best Original Screenplay. Of course Woody Allen wasn’t there but did we ever expect him to be?

The supporting categories went exactly as expected. Octavia Spencer (The Help) and Christopher Plummer (Beginners) had already been christened the winners well before the ceremony began and that’s exactly how things played out. Spencer gave one of the most genuine and emotional acceptance speeches of the night and Plummer became the oldest Oscar winner ever. It was good seeing Nick Nolte recognized with a nomination even though I’m not sure he knew where he was last night.

Meryl Streep won Best Actress for her performance in “The Iron Lady”. That category had turned into a two person race and I really felt that Viola Davis had a good chance to win. But Streep was awarded for a performance that certainly outweighed the rather mundane and mixed reviewed movie. The Oscar media had tried their best to sell the whole Clooney (“The Descendants”) versus Pitt (“Moneyball”) Best Actor race. But as I expected (and hoped), Jean Dujardin won the Oscar for his wonderful performance in “The Artist”. Working with several more handicaps than the other nominees, Dujardin nailed his performance and deserved the award. His acceptance speech and subsequent dance showed his enthusiasm and I found myself applauding from my recliner.

The night only got better for “The Artist”. Michael Hazanavicius won the Best Director Oscar which is almost always a sign of which film will win Best Picture. Last night was no different. Hazanavicius’ gutsy project won Best Picture and I have no problem with it. While I was personally rooting for “The Tree of Life”, this was a case where the Academy got it right. “The Artist” was a nostalgic but touching film that felt plucked right out of the silent movie era. I loved seeing it win.

So while it was a fairly predictable night, it was a good night. The stars played dress-up and movie fans witnessed new films and new performances added to that Valhalla of motion picture history. I went 5 for 6 in the “Big 6” categories so that speaks to the shows lack of suspense. But there were some genuinely funny moments and some good movies received their due.

TOP 5 BEST LEAD ACTRESS PERFORMANCES OF 2011

TOP 5 BEST LEAD ACTRESS PERFORMANCES OF 2011

I hate to repeat myself but this was a good year for women in Hollywood. It was tough narrowing down my favorite lead actress performances to just 5. But after painfully omitting some genuinely great performances, I’ve come up with a list that I think shows the talent and range found from women leads in 2011. Here’s my top 5 lead actress performances of the year:

#5 – Michelle Williams (Meek’s Cutoff)

While the movie’s out-of-the-blue ambiguous ending didn’t work for me, Michelle Williams’ performance certainly did. Williams’ acting range certainly can’t be questioned and she is fantastic in this rugged film about the Oregon Trail. She always stays controlled in a film that counts on deliberateness. While she’s received an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Marilyn Monroe, I was drawn more to this unique and challenging performance.

#4 – Viola Davis (The Help)

The performances in “The Help” more than make up for the occasional stumbling blocks found in the writing and Viola Davis is particularly good. She gives a stirring performance that often times rises above the material and there are several scenes where she takes the movie and carries it. That’s a mark of a great actress and Davis certainly has the chops. She always feels genuine and she’s able to relay the raw emotion that many of her scenes call for. She has certainly earned the Oscar buzz she has received.

#3 – Saoirse Ronan (Hanna)

I really like Saoirse Ronan and her work in “Hanna” is just another reason why. It’s a tricky role in that it requires a child-like charm and an action movie-styled physicality. She keeps a steady balance to her character throughout the picture and had me sold hook, line, and sinker. Ronan shined in “The Lovely Bones” and I loved her in “The Way Back”, but this is her best performance yet and just a taste of what lies ahead for this immensely talented young actress.

#2 – Vera Farmiga (Higher Ground)

Vera Farmiga’s “Higher Ground” is a movie many people may have not seen, but it features one of the best performances of Farmiga’s career. She also directs the film but it’s her lead performance that carries the picture. She treats her material with care and compassion and I never found her anything but compelling. She was completely overlooked by Oscar which comes as no surprise. But there is no way I can’t include her performance as one of 2011’s best.

#1 – Juliette Binoche (Certified Copy)

From the start of “Certified Copy” I found myself absorbed in Juliette Binoche’s Elle. Who is she? I spent most of the movie mesmerized by her conversations and trying to figure out if she was real or simply a copy. I know that sounds vague but once you see the film you’ll know what I mean. Binoche is marvelous and her work stood above the other great female lead performances I saw last year. If you haven’t seen “Certified Copy”, see it. When you do you’ll be treated to a brilliant actress who knows her craft and shows it with her performance.

Agree or disagree? Please share you thoughts. Comment on who your Top 5 were.