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Review of the Year – Part Three: Disappointments

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Although the cinema can offer tremendous experiences, sometimes there is a misfire. 2018 had much that delighted but also some turkeys. Thankfully, there were few serious stinkers, and it might be fair to say that no film is completely without merit so long as it is well lit, so you can see what’s going on. That said, there were some films in 2018 that had me variously shaking my head, silently shouting at the scream and coming out afterwards wondering how it all went so wrong.

As mentioned in my last post, The Little Stranger was underwhelming. Although director Lenny Abrahamson captured a very British sense of reserve, the film failed to generate much tension or societal satire. A bigger disappointment was Suspiria, Luca Guadagnino’s remake of the Dario Argento classic. A great power of cinema is to show rather than tell, and Suspiria told too much, was far too long and overwritten to a tedious degree. Horror maestro Eli Roth made an effort at family fare with The House with A Clock in Its Walls. Despite the winning combination of Jack Black and Cate Blanchett, THWACIIW was flat and laboured, offering only passing enjoyment.

As is par for the course these days, 2018 offered various superhero films, and while some of them were brilliant (watch this space), others demonstrated the pitfalls of the genre. Venom was a wasted opportunity that lost its potential in chaotic incoherence, and while I didn’t hate Aquaman, it had a lot of soggy moments. Still, not everything can entertain to Infinity…

Computer based movies proved a less than inspiring source in 2018, as Searching took an interesting premise but stretched it beyond credibility. Documenting and dramatising lives lived through technological devices has significant potential, but Searching took the conceit too far in terms of its timeframe and reasons (or lack thereof) for the material to appear on screen. On the adaptation front, Tomb Raider was an improvement over the previous efforts, offering a more grounded approach to the adventures of Lara Croft. Nonetheless, it was still a disappointment since everything it offered had been done before and better. Speaking of which, Sicario 2: Soldado proved a poor follow-up to the 2015 original. Stefano Sollima’s overreliance on a crashing score and a lack of nihilism made this a weak and ultimately ineffective thriller, despite the promise of its genre and evocative setting.

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Although there were few stinkers in 2018, that doesn’t mean there weren’t any. The Equalizer 2 was a huge disappointment after the pleasant surprise of the 2014 original. When I saw it, one of my viewing companions actually fell asleep. He said he would not have dozed off if he had been less tired, but would have stayed awake if the film had been more engaging. It is easy to see his point, as the disparate storylines, vague characterisation and pedestrian direction made this a seriously unequal sequel.

Red Sparrow

The worst offering of the year though, just as it was half way through the year, was Red Sparrow. Everything about this said I would like it: a genre I love, proven directorial chops, great cast, genuine commitment to being unflinchingly brutal. Yet the result was laboured, the nastiness at times gratuitous and the film as a whole deeply boring. It was a cinematic experience that I spent waiting for the film to get good, something to kick in, give me a twist that carried dramatic weight, draw me into the scenes of torture or abuse, and it failed on pretty much all fronts. It wasn’t a total disaster, since there was some moody lighting at times, but the film proved to be more turkey than sparrow.

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The Equalizer 2

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The Equalizer was a pleasant surprise in 2014. An exploitation film that made a virtue of the simplicity of an ex-special forces soldier in Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) becoming a DIY avenger. The attention to social detail, especially in respect to race and class, constructed an interesting site of resistance. In addition, the genuinely nasty violence showed a commitment to the brutality of the depicted organised crime and the potential of a hardware store, while star Washington elevated the material to something more engaging than it might have been otherwise. Sadly, 2018’s sequel fails to deliver on almost all these aspects. Foregoing the stripped down simplicity of the original, EQ2 suffers from an overly elaborate plot, or rather plots that lack connective tissue. Character relationships muddy the waters rather than adding dramatic weight, whether they involve McCall’s mentee Miles Whittaker (Ashton Sanders), former comrade Dave York (Pedro Pascal) or Holocaust survivor Sam Rubenstein (Orson Bean). These sub-plots are frustratingly peripheral, screenwriter Richard Wenk failing to link together McCall’s central pursuit with the different lives he touches. Director Antoine Fuqua brings little stylistic flair to the proceedings, except in one bravura sequence that reminds the viewer of the importance of seatbelts. Meanwhile, a steadily approaching hurricane fails to increase tension, and much of the violence is obscured which makes the film appear neutered. The end result feels turgid and sluggish, and makes the viewer wish for something more efficient. Only Washington emerges unscathed, his charisma and star power lending the work some dignity. But great actors do not always equal great films, and The Equalizer 2 is a prime example of how much more is needed to equalize the quality of other fare.

90th Oscar Predictions Part Two: May I Lead?

Actress

Actress in a Leading Role 

Of the four performances I have seen (I, Tonya being the unknown), I loved all of these displays. Sally Hawkins demonstrated her extraordinary ability to communicate without words, while Saoirse Ronan managed to make a potentially infuriating character endearing. Frances McDormand also expresses everything about her remarkable character through every part of her performance, and Meryl Streep is as wonderful as ever. If I have to pick one that I enjoyed the most, I go (perhaps suspiciously) for the one I saw most recently. Come Oscar night, however, I predict that Frances McDormand will pick up her second golden baldie.

Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water

Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (predicted winner)

Margot Robbie, I, Tonya

Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird (preferred winner)

Meryl Streep, The Post 

Actor in a Leading Role

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Gary Oldman will win. There, I said it. With all the plaudits, the physical transformation, the associated baggage of playing a historical figure who is widely beloved (though not without controversy), I will be staggered if Darkest Hour does not pick up Best Actor in a Leading Role. That said, I was less impressed by Oldman’s Winston Churchill as I was by the other English character whose player is nominated. I know he’s got three already, and an award here would be something of a retirement gift for a man who declared this is his last role, but of the four performances I have seen here (sorry, Denzel, I’ll get to it), I would vote for DDL.

Timothée Chalamet, Call Me by Your Name

Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread (preferred winner)

Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out

Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour (predicted winner)

Denzel Washington, Roman J. Israel, Esq 

 

89th Annual Academy Awards – Final Predictions

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With the Academy Awards now hours away, it’s time for final predictions. I’ve given my detailed views on some of the categories already, but now it’s time for the full list, including what I think will win, and what I would vote for were I a member of AMPAS (none of this ‘should win’ nonsense on my blog, thank you!).

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BEST PICTURE

Predicted winner: La La Land

Preferred winner: Arrival

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DIRECTING

  • Damien Chazelle, La La Land
  • Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge
  • Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
  • Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
  • Denis Villeneuve, Arrival

Predicted winner: Damien Chazelle

Preferred winner: Denis Villeneuve

With all its plaudits and despite its naysayers, La La Land looks set to pick up the big awards. I enjoyed the film fine, but do feel that others, including Manchester by the Sea and Hidden Figures, and especially Arrival, warrant as much if not more attention. So while I see La La Land dancing its way to Best Picture and Directing, my heart belongs to Arrival.

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ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE

  • Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
  • Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge
  • Ryan Gosling, La La Land
  • Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic
  • Denzel Washington, Fences

Predicted winner: Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea

Preferred winner: Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea

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ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

  • Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
  • Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
  • Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea
  • Dev Patel, Lion
  • Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals

Predicted winner: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight

Preferred winner:  Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals

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ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE

  • Isabelle Huppert, Elle
  • Ruth Negga, Loving
  • Natalie Portman, Jackie
  • Emma Stone, La La Land
  • Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins

Predicted winner: Emma Stone, La La Land

Preferred winner: Emma Stone, La La Land (only one I’ve seen!)

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ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

  • Viola Davis, Fences
  • Naomie Harris, Moonlight
  • Nicole Kidman, Lion
  • Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures
  • Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea

Predicted winner: Viola Davis, Fences

Preferred winner: Viola Davis, Fences

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All the acting nominees I’ve seen were impressive, and I’d be happy with most of them winning. But it would make me very happy if Nocturnal Animals could pick up something.

WRITING (ADAPTED SCREENPLAY)

  • Arrival
  • Fences
  • Hidden Figures
  • Lion
  • Moonlight

Predicted winner: Moonlight

Preferred winner: Arrival

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WRITING (ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY)

  • Hell or High Water
  • La La Land
  • The Lobster
  • Manchester by the Sea
  • 20th Century Women

Predicted winner: Manchester by the Sea

Preferred winner: Hell or High Water

Tricky ones, but I think I’ve said my piece.

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CINEMATOGRAPHY

  • Arrival
  • La La Land
  • Lion
  • Moonlight
  • Silence

Predicted winner: La La Land

Preferred winner: Arrival

It is always tough to determine if this award will follow patterns, or rely solely on the skill of the Director of Photography nominated. In this case, much as I love Arrival and would like it to win, I anticipate the long takes and crane shots on location in La La Land will shimmy the film to another award.

COSTUME DESIGN

  • Allied
  • Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
  • Florence Foster Jenkins
  • Jackie
  • La La Land

Predicted winner: Jackie

Preferred winner: Jackie

This award typically goes to period films, for good reason, and all but one of these nominees is exactly that. For La La Land to win here would be a bit odd, colourful as the costumes in that film are. After its victories at BAFTA, the Awards Circuit Community Awards and the Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards, Jackie seems like a safe bet here.

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FILM EDITING

  • Arrival
  • Hacksaw Ridge
  • Hell or High Water
  • La La Land
  • Moonlight

Predicted winner: Arrival

Preferred winner: Arrival

This is an interesting one, as Hacksaw Ridge won the BAFTA but Arrival the Eddie (from the American Cinema Editors). I loved Arrival and found Hacksaw Ridge pretty good, and the potential overlap between the various institutions means this could go either way. But maybe Arrival will be this year’s Mad Max: Fury Road, picking up various post-production awards if none of the ‘major awards’. For that reason, I would like to see Arrival walk away with this award, and I believe it will.

MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING

Predicted winner: Star Trek Beyond

Preferred winner: Suicide Squad

I know nothing about A Man Called Ove, and the sheer range of weird and wonderful make up designs in Star Trek Beyond make it a likely winner. That said, I would like Suicide Squad to win, because I think the negativity this film received was excessive and it would greatly amuse me if the naysayers have to admit to the existence of ‘the Oscar-winning Suicide Squad’.

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MUSIC (ORIGINAL SCORE)

  • Jackie
  • La La Land
  • Lion
  • Moonlight
  • Passengers

Predicted winner: La La Land

Preferred winner: La La Land

MUSIC (ORIGINAL SONG)

  • ‘Audition (The Fools Who Dream),’ La La Land
  • ‘Can’t Stop the Feeling,’ Trolls
  • ‘City of Stars,’ La La Land
  • ‘The Empty Chair,’ Jim: The James Foley Story
  • ‘How Far I’ll Go, ‘ Moana

Predicted winner: ‘Audition (The Fools Who Dream),’ La La Land

Preferred winner: ‘Audition (The Fools Who Dream),’ La La Land

As a musical, it would be rather odd if La La Land did not win in these two categories. While I’m not the biggest fan of La La Land, I did find the solo ‘Audition’ to be very stirring (being one of those fools myself), and I would be happy to see that pick up an award.

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PRODUCTION DESIGN

  • Arrival
  • Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
  • Hail, Caesar!
  • La La Land
  • Passengers

Predicted winner: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Preferred winner: Arrival

An interesting collection here, with two science fiction films, one contemporary (and very colourful) musical, along with two period films, one which features fantasy elements and the other, like the musical, is about Hollywood. Due to its BAFTA victory, I see this going to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, although the nostalgia and self-love of La La Land and Hail Caesar! might bring them success. For me, the production design of Arrival was a key element to its eerie alienness, and something I would like to see rewarded.

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SOUND EDITING

  • Arrival
  • Deepwater Horizon
  • Hacksaw Ridge
  • La La Land
  • Sully

Predicted winner: Arrival

Preferred winner: Arrival

Back in 2013, there was a tie for this award between Skyfall and Zero Dark Thirty. Both were favourite films of mine, and Arrival was my top film of last year. So maybe the pattern will continue. I would also like my top film to win something, hence my pick.

SOUND MIXING

Predicted winner: Arrival

Preferred winner: Arrival

Since Arrival is unlikely to win anything else, I can see it picking up both Sound awards. And I want it to, so there.

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VISUAL EFFECTS

Predicted winner: The Jungle Book

Preferred winner: Doctor Strange

After winning the BAFTA as well as an Annie Award and the Awards Circuit Community Award (as well as others), The Jungle Book looks set to pick up the Oscar as well. Much as the animals and landscapes impressed me in The Jungle Book though, the inventiveness and outright trippiness of the visual effects in Doctor Strange had me (sorry) spellbound, and it gets my vote for most impressive visual effects of last year.

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ANIMATED FEATURE FILM

  • Kubo and the Two Strings
  • Moana
  • My Life as a Zucchini
  • The Red Turtle
  • Zootopia

Predicted winner: Kubo and the Two Strings

Preferred winner: Zootopia

Kubo and the Two Strings has done very well at previous award ceremonies such as BAFTA and multiple Critics associations, but Zootopia/Zootropolis was one of my favourites of last year, so it gets my vote. It did win the Golden Globe, so maybe Disney’s delightful comedy about prejudice and tolerance might just strike a chord with the Academy members, in this time of strife and division.

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FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

  • Land of Mine, Denmark
  • A Man Called Ove, Sweden
  • The Salesman,Iran
  • Tanna, Australia
  • Toni Erdmann, Germany

Predicted winner: The Salesman, Iran

Preferred winner: The Salesman, Iran

The director of The Salesman, Asqhar Farhadi, has stated that he will not attend the Oscar ceremony in protest of President Trump’s policies. Whether Farhadi attends or not, as an act of defiance I hope that the Academy rewards the film, and I would too.

DOCUMENTARY (FEATURE)

  • Fire at Sea
  • I Am Not Your Negro
  • Life, Animated
  • OJ: Made In America
  • 13th

Predicted winner: 13th

Preferred winner: Life, Animated

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DOCUMENTARY (SHORT SUBJECT)

  • Extremis
  • 1 Miles
  • Joe’s Violin
  • Watani: My Homeland
  • The White Helmets

SHORT FILM (ANIMATED)

  • Blind Vaysha
  • Borrowed Time
  • Pear Cider and Cigarettes
  • Pearl
  • Piper

SHORT FILM (LIVE ACTION)

  • Ennemis Interieurs
  • La Femme Et Le TGV
  • Silent Nights
  • Sing
  • Timecode

Pass – I know nothing about these films.

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89th Annual Academy Awards – Acting Out

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Looking over this year’s Oscar contenders for Best Actor in a Leading Role, we see four previous nominees, three of them in this category, and two previous wins for one of them. Denzel Washington has a towering acting, and this seventh nomination for his performance in Fences, fourth for Actor in a Leading Role, could lead to a third win after previous gongs for Supporting Actor for Glory and Leading Actor for Training Day. Viggo Mortensen for Captain Fantastic and Ryan Gosling for La La Land are previous nominees for Lead Actor, for Eastern Promises and Half Nelson, respectively, while Casey Affleck, up for Manchester by the Sea, was previously nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Andrew Garfield for Hacksaw Ridge is therefore the only first time nominee, and at 33 the youngest of the nominees. The average age for the Best Actor winner over the last twenty years has been 44, so Garfield is unlikely to win this time. Similarly, the attention paid to Mortensen has been minimal, so if he were to win, it would be something of an upset. Therefore, this appears to be a three horse race.

The three performances are as different as the films they are in, but all have elements in their favour. The Academy often rewards those who develop new skills for roles (see Natalie Portman in Black Swan and Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant), and Gosling did learn to play the piano and perform his own dance numbers in La La Land. Plus, he won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy. Washington’s performance is more varied, including at times moving with the caution of an aged man. At 62, Washington is the oldest nominee and the Academy often rewards older performers – in the past two decades, only seven Best Actor winners have been under the age of 40. In addition, Washington won the Screen Actors Guild award so clearly impressed his peers. Affleck’s performance is the more insular: hunched, mumbled, expressing through his eyes and minimal body language, his performance reminiscent of Marlon Brando in his prime, but without the physically imposing form. This makes Affleck’s utter domination of the screen in Manchester by the Sea all the more impressive, as he draws the viewer’s attention through the tiniest of gestures and the quietest of sounds. Plus, he is 41, making him the most average age nominee (like Garfield, Gosling is younger than the typical winner). Not that there is anything average about Affleck’s performance, and it does not hurt his chances that he won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama,and the BAFTA for Best Actor. Come Oscar night, I anticipate Ben’s little brother will be delivering another heartfelt if somewhat stumbling acceptance speech.

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Fences

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Films adapted from stage plays present both risk and opportunity. The focus on people in a fairly confined space provides great opportunities for actors to work with meaty dialogue. On the other hand, the long scenes and confinement can restrict cinematic style and make the film rather staid. In the case of Fences, director and star Denzel Washington mostly strikes a balance, making full use of the long scenes of conversations about being a black family in 1950s Pittsburgh. Washington plays Troy Maxson, an embittered patriarch who has suffered and inflicts suffering in equal measure. His wife Rose (Viola Davis) understands him all too well yet remains steadfast beside him, while his sons from this and a previous marriage, Cody (Jovan Adepo) and Lyons (Russell Hornsby) frequently clash with Troy’s bullish manner of parenting. Troy’s closest friend Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and his brain-damaged brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson) fill out the rest of the characters, and the performances are universally superb. Washington excels as a man whose tough and bitter stance is understandable, and the viewer is likely to feel ambivalent towards him as Troy’s nastier qualities emerge. Davis is captivating as the loyal wife who is set upon to a sometimes appalling degree, and both these performers may well be stroking golden baldies come Oscar night. Cinematically, the first half of Fences is somewhat staid, confined largely to the backyard of the Maxsons’ house, but in the second half Washington displays directorial flair, with evocative changes in lighting, depth of field and editing. In his third outing as director, Washington was succeeded in translating this stage play to the screen, but his greatest talent and indeed the film’s greatest strengths lie in front of the camera.

The Magnificent Seven

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Let it never be said that I (only) do what is obvious, as there is far more to say of Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven than how it compares to John Sturges’ 1960 film or indeed Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Fuqua’s film warrants close examination in relation to its genre and period, rather than in terms of how it compares to what came before. Most obviously, Fuqua’s film can be read as a declaration of diversity, as the titular gang includes white, black, Mexican, Asian and Comanche members. Pleasingly, Fuqua and screenwriters Richard Wenk and Nic Pizzolatto ensure that race and ethnicity are not simply there for declarative purposes but as organic parts of the story. Django Unchained may have made a point of racial revenge, but here little is made of Sam Chisholm (Denzel Washington) being black, while Native American characters in the film are varied with Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier) contrasted with Denali (Jonathan Joss) on the side of vicious land baron Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard). There is also a decent line in gender relations, as Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) is as integral and capable as the men around her. This ensemble of characters are well-rounded, including the PTSD of sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and his touching relationship with Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), as well as a developing warmth between the seven and the townsfolk of Rose Creek who hire them. Narratively, the film is clear and detailed. So why the long face?

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The problem with the film is its lack of scale. Fuqua is associated with urban thrillers such as Training Day and The Equaliser, in which his sharp, punchy style is effective because it creates a milieu of fast mouths and faster violence. During the action sequences of The Magnificent Seven, including the genuinely impressive sustained set piece that comprises the final act of the film, this style works, as it conveys suddenness, abrupt changes and viscerally draws the viewer in. But in the earlier part of the film, which introduces the characters and, critically, the setting, the pace of the editing is too fast. As a result, the environment, so crucial to the western, is not established and the film fails to place its characters and indeed viewer within the landscape. This undercuts the power of the finale, as there is little sense of stylistic progression towards this climax. As a result, we end up with a Seven that may be Magnificent, but a film that is only moderate.