"Everything is as it should be."

                                                                                  - Benjamin Purcell Morris

 

 

© all material on this website is written by Michael McCaffrey, is copyrighted, and may not be republished without consent

Widows: A Review

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****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT. A poorly written, cliche ridden, Hollywood heist movie that stumbles over its own absurdity. Worth seeing for free on Netflix or cable if you want to see director McQueen’s visual prowess, but has scant few other worthwhile qualities.

Widows, directed by Steve McQueen and written by McQueen and Gillian Flynn, is the story of a group of women in Chicago who plot a robbery amidst political intrigue after their criminal spouses are killed pulling a big money heist. The film stars Viola Davis with supporting turns from Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Colin Farrell and Daniel Kaluuya.

This has been a bad few weeks of movie going for me. As I stated in a previous review for At Eternity’s Gate, 2018 has been a down year for film. There were two films I was greatly anticipating seeing this Autumn that I thought might break this year’s cinematic malaise, the first was the aforementioned Julian Schnabel film At Eternity’s Gate, and the second was Widows. At Eternity’s Gate failed me miserably, and so I was left with all of my optimistic eggs in one basket, and that basket was Widows

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The reason I was excited for Widows is that Steve McQueen, not to be confused with the iconic actor Steve McQueen of Bullitt and Papillon who died almost 40 years ago, is one of my favorite directors. McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave was a Best Picture (and Best Adapted Screenplay) Academy Award winner, and is a truly terrific movie, but my personal favorite, and McQueen’s best film in my opinion, is his first feature, Hunger (2008). In Hunger, McQueen’s cinematic vision and dynamic style jumped off the screen in his big screen debut about the I.R.A. hunger striker Bobby Sands.

McQueen’s approach has always been a bit unconventional, for instance, in Hunger there is a static shot of a conversation between two characters that is held for 17 straight minutes. It is a staggeringly courageous maneuver for a rookie filmmaker to attempt, but McQueen dramatically pulls it off, aided in no small part by two pulsating performances from Michael Fassbender and Liam Cunningham.

McQueen’s dexterity with the camera, his flair for framing and shot composition and his ability to draw out superb performances, make him one of the great film makers working today, a true auteur….which is why I was so anticipating Widows.

But much like my disappointment with At Eternity’s Gate, Widows dashed my hopes of a 2018 cinematic revival onto the rocks of cold, hard, Hollywood reality.

Widows is a movie terminally at odds with itself. On the one hand, Widows is a filmmaking masterclass filled with expertly rendered shots, and on the other hand its story is a nauseatingly contrived piece of Hollywood hackery that is so far-fetched as to be absurd.

Widows is meant to be a Hollywood crowd-pleaser, but by the looks of the box-office it isn’t drawing much of a crowd, and it certainly didn’t please me. The main issue is that the story is too much, the script is too much and the movie is too much in that what it asks of its audience is too much. For the movie to succeed the viewer must make such gargantuan leaps of logic and suspend their disbelief to such a degree that the entire enterprise simply isn’t tenable.

Gillian Flynn co-wrote the screenplay with McQueen, and as she has proven in the past with her decrepit Gone Girl script, Ms. Flynn is not very good at screenwriting. The dialogue in Widows is just as forced and manufactured as the inane plot, the fault of which no doubt lies with Ms. Flynn and her writing accomplice Mr. McQueen.

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The performances, for the most part, are pretty lackluster as well. Viola Davis is a good actress, but she never finds her footing as Veronica Rawlings, the leader of the widowed women’s brigade. Daniel Kaluuya is also pretty underwhelming as Jatemme Manning, the alleged badass in the movie. Kaluuya strikes the right pose but his Jatemme is a one dimensional character that never goes anywhere and is more akin to a dog chasing its tail than a pitbull on the loose. Both Davis and Kaluuya’s performances are entirely predictable and lack any spark of originality.

Colin Farrell, who in recent years has gotten his acting groove back with quality performances in The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, badly misfires as Jack Mulligan, the candidate to replace his father for Alderman in the newly reshaped Chicago district where the film is set. Farrell’s accent is all over the map and his character work is unfocused and erratic.

Michelle Rodriguez plays one of the widows and she gives the same Michelle Rodriguez performance she’s been giving her entire career where she is tough…real tough…but also boring as hell. She is joined in her uncomfortable acting futility by Liam Neeson, who comes across as equally unprepared and awkwardly out of place.

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As for the bright spots, there are a few. The first of which is Elizabeth Debicki who plays Alice, widow of Polish descent. Debicki is the only actor in the film who feels like a real person. Her grounded yet charismatic performance lights up and jumps off the screen. Debicki looks like a supermodel but obviously has the soul of an actor as she never poses or preens but rather inhabits a genuine character. I have never seen Debicki act before, but after her intricate and nuanced performance in Widows, I expect I am going to be seeing a lot of her in movies that matter in the future.

Another positive was that one of my favorite, and one of the greatest, actors of all-time, Robert Duvall, has a small part in the film. Duvall plays Tom Mulligan, the patriarch of the political dynasty that Colin Farrell’s Jack hopes to inherit. While Tom Mulligan is not much of a role, Duvall plays it with aplomb, filling it with as much ornery old man piss and vinegar as you’d imagine.

Widows also has a fairly interesting sub-text that touches upon issues of race, class, power and politics that McQueen highlights with some exquisite shots, like when he places the camera on the front of a limousine while candidate Mulligan rants and raves out of sight in the back of the car. The shot travels from the desperate urban blight where Mulligan is campaigning to the tony upscale neighborhood where Mulligan actually lives. To McQueen’s credit, it is a fascinating shot that says more than any of the dialogue in the film. Sadly though, as interesting as the sub-text is, it gets pulled under by the cliched silliness that is the main plot.

Sean Bobbit’s cinematography is top notch, and his framing and shot composition, particularly his use of mirrors, borders on the sublime. Bobbit is McQueen’s long time collaborator, having worked as a cinematographer on all of McQueen’s features, and his confidence with the camera and his mastery of craft have always enhanced McQueen’s vision. In Widows though, with its ludicrous script, Bobbit’s superb cinematography is akin to putting a silk hat on a pig.

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In conclusion, Widows in not the cure for what ills 2018 cinema, instead it is more a symptom of what ails the art form. What Widows has going for it is an Oscar level auteur at the helm (McQueen), a master craftsmen behind the camera (Bobbit) and a superb cast (Davis, Kaluuya, Fareel, Debicki, Duvall), but the albatross around its neck is the hackneyed script that scuttles the whole ship. As a result of that ill-conceived and executed script, Widows ends up being a contrived and vapid film that makes the fatal error of trying to give the audience what it wants, instead of giving them all that it has.

Whether you are an art house cinephile or an action movie creature of the cineplex, Widows leaves you lacking. It simply isn’t worth the time, money and effort to see it in the theatres, and you will feel like you’ve been on the short end of a heist if you do end up paying to see it. If you stumble upon it on Netflix or cable, feel free to watch it for free for no other reason than to see Bobbits cinematography and to maybe catch a glimpse of Elizabeth Dibecki’s star being born.

At the end of the day, cinema is the great love of my life, and Widows left me feel like a grieving black-clad widow of the art house. I am not sure what stage of cinematic grief I am currently in, but if I keep getting disappointed at the movie theatre like I did with Widows and At Eternity’s Gate, I am pretty sure anger is right around the corner.

©2018

Fences : A Review

****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!!****

Estimated Reading Time : 6 minutes 27 seconds

My Rating : 2.5 out of 5 Stars

My Recommendation : See it on Netflix or Cable. No need to see this film in the theatre.

Fences, directed by Denzel Washington and with a screenplay written by the late August Wilson based on his Pulitzer and Tony Award winning play of the same name, is the story of the life and struggles of Troy Maxson, an African-American garbage man in 1950's Pittsburgh, and his wife Rose and their teenage son Cory. The film stars Denzel Washington as Troy, Viola Davis as Rose, Mykelti Williamson as Troy's handicapped brother Gabe and Jovan Adepo as Troy's teenage son Cory.

I am a unique, and some might say unfortunate combination, as I am one of those most reviled of creatures, the classically-trained actor, and yet, I am also one of those most loathsome of beings, the film school graduate. This educational background makes me not only insufferable to most people but also virtually unemployable in the real world. That said, it does give me an interesting perspective when I watch films or go to the theatre. It was the classically-trained actor side of me, which absolutely loves live theatre, that was really excited to go see Fences. Classically-trained actor me also really loves August Wilson's work, and believes he is one of the great playwrights of the last century. His ten-part "Pittsburgh cycle", of which Fences is a part, is one of the great achievements in modern playwriting. Wilson wrote the screenplay to this film adaptation of Fences in 2005, finishing it shortly before his death. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis both won Tony awards for their portrayal of Troy and Rose in a 2010 revival of Fences on Broadway. 

For those reasons and others, like most everyone I know who saw it loved it, I had great expectations heading in to see Fences. The way I saw it was that Fences is a truly fascinating story, was a wonderful play and had two transcendent actors starring in it, what could possibly go wrong? Well, as I sat down to watch Fences, the classically-trained actor part of me gave a self-congratulatory bow and elegantly stepped aside and let the film school graduate part of me come to the forefront, and that part of me realized very quickly that a hell of a lot can, and did, go wrong with this film. Fences is a great play, but, sadly, it isn't a great film. A major part of the problem is that Denzel Washington wears a directors hat for the first time in his otherwise stellar career. Washington is undoubtedly a great actor, and in many ways he is getting better and more complex as an actor as he ages, but he is certainly not a great director. And just as the great actor Denzel Washington struggled with a skill out of his wheelhouse, directing, so did August Wilson, a great playwright, struggle as a screenwriter. 

Cinema is not theatre. As the saying goes, it is "moving pictures, not moving words." And so we come upon the first major issue with the movie Fences, namely that it is written to be a stage play and is not conducive to the screen. Writing for the stage and writing for the screen are as different as say, reading the written word as opposed to speaking aloud. The rhythm and meaning change dramatically when you say words aloud contrasted to when you read them silently. This occurs for a variety of reasons, such as the physical act of speaking aloud requires the in and out of breath, the use of the voice musculature, posture, body language, intent and things of that nature. This is why the spoken word takes on a certain distinct rhythm and the written word takes on a very different rhythm. So it is with stage and screen. For instance, on stage, actors do not speak when other actors are speaking, they articulate clearly so that the back of the house can hear them, they gesticulate more grandly so that everyone can see them, and they do not turn their back to the audience as they speak. These actions, while unnatural in the real world, create a rhythm of performance which suits the medium of the stage perfectly. 

On screen, a different rhythm is created, voices can over lap, actors turn their back, they can whisper and can use the smallest and most delicate of movements to convey deep meaning. On film, speaking is at the very most, a secondary tool to tell the story and convey meaning, whereas on stage, speaking is the ultimate tool of conveying meaning and storytelling. As an example, in Shakespeare's MacBeth, in the early part of the play (Act 1 Scene 4) a character recounts a spectacular battle and everything that happened in it. It is a compelling monologue, and includes the famous line, "nothing in his life became him like the leaving of it." While this writing is basically exposition, it is still exceedingly well done. In theatre you sometimes need to have expository dialogue, but in cinema, you don't need exposition, you can just show and not tell. So, in this example, you would open MacBeth showing that great battle scene, and not having someone describe the great battle. This is one of the most major fundamental differences between theatre and film. Another difference is that film is a director's medium of visuals and stage is a writer's medium of the spoken word. 

The problem with Fences as a film is that it is entirely theatrical and not cinematic. The performances, while good, are theatrical performances, not film performances. The rhythm of the writing and storytelling is theatrical, not cinematic. The arc of the narrative is a theatrical arc, not a cinematic one. The film suffers greatly from the most rudimentary lack of understanding that the art of filmmaking is fundamentally very different from the art of theatre. In my eyes, the great blame for that falls on the film's director, Denzel Washington. 

Simply put, Denzel Washington is a dreadful director. The film lacks any sort of visual cohesion and has a myriad of bizarre and incoherent camera angles and shots scattered throughout which undercut the dramatic momentum of many scenes and the whole film. There is a sequence where Denzel does a critical monologue which feels like it was shot so haphazardly that one wonders if there were any professionals on the set at all. It is beyond strange. Washington's weak eye for visuals, along with his hapless cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen, results in a plethora of oddly framed shots and poorly executed camera maneuvers that left me shaking my head. There are other amateur directing moves that fall flat as well, such as perspective issues, random swelling of music, and a lack of visual, dramatic, and storytelling consistency in regards to the fence for which the play is titled. 

The performances from Denzel Washington and Viola Davis are highly skilled, but they lack great power to move because they are meant for the stage and not the screen. The performances ring hollow because they do not fit the screen on which they are captured. The language is the stilted language of the theatre, not the free flowing language of real life or the screen, thus it always feels like we are watching someone deliver a performance. I am sure if I were fortunate enough to see these same actors give these same performances on stage, I would be left speechless, but I saw them on screen and instead was left profoundly cold. 

Another issue with the performances, is that they feel a bit derivative of other work these great actors have done in their past. Washington's Troy is somehow physically and vocally reminiscent of his Oscar winning role in Training Day, so much so that I half thought he was going to declare, "King Kong ain't got nuthin' on me!!" at one point. Viola Davis' performance echoes nearly all her other stand out work in the past in that she plays a noble, fragile, resolute woman who, at least once during a climactic crying scene, will have snots uncontrollably running down her face. And then there is Mykelti Williamson, an actor I truly admire, who turns in a cringe-worthy performance as Troy's handicapped brother Gabe. Like Washington and Davis before him, Williamson seems to be conjuring up characters from his past, in this case his shrimp- loving character Bubba from Forest Gump

As much as I have been critical of the performances and the film, I do realize that it will receive a whole host of Oscar nominations, but I believe that is because the Academy will be projecting upon the film what it hoped to see, and not what was really there on screen. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis are shoe-ins for acting nominations, as is August Wilson for an adapted screenplay nomination. No doubt Denzel will also get a Best Director nomination as well. While I greatly admire all three of these individuals, Washington, Davis and Wilson, and their talent, skill and remarkable previous work, I think they are not at their best in Fences.

In conclusion, Fences is a lost opportunity to adapt a brilliant play to the screen. Writer August Wilson's inability to adapt his staggering playwriting talents into screen writing results, creates  an uneven and discordant film. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis give technically proficient performances that ultimately ring hollow due to the script and Washington the filmmaker's, fundamental failings. While I didn't hate Fences, I also certainly didn't love it. It is a shame that such a great story wasn't able to translate more seamlessly to the big screen, as Hollywood is in desperate need of unique and original works. At the end of the day, Fences is never able to rise above being just an ordinary film, which is disheartening because it is such an extraordinary play. 

©2017

Suicide Squad : A Review

****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating : 0.75 STARS OUT OF 5

My Recommendation : Skip it.

Suicide Squad, written and directed by David Ayer, is the third film in the recent DC comics cinematic universe (Man of Steel 2013, Batman v. Superman : Dawn of Justice 2016) which tells the story of a ragtag group of super-villains and anti-heroes who are thrown together to use their evil talents for good. The film stars Margot Robbie, Will Smith, Jared Leto and Viola Davis to name just a few.

Suicide Squad was released last week on the heels of last March's much maligned Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. I was one of those rare breed of people who, thanks to very low expectations, actually liked Batman v. Superman. Granted, I didn't think it was Citizen Kane, but I did think it was better than the horrible press it had received. Within that context, I was tentatively excited to see Suicide Squad when it came out. After having seen the film, I must report that my excitement was terribly, terribly misguided.

To put it as succinctly as possible, Suicide Squad made me want to kill myself…or someone else, namely the people who made it. If writer/director David Ayer or any studio executives from Warner Brothers are found in a shallow grave out in the desert, or wash ashore on Venice beach, or are discovered crucified to a Suicide Squad billboard, you'll know who's behind it. I am not worried about openly admitting my future crime as I am sure I can O.J. my way out of a conviction simply by showing Suicide Squad to the jury. No doubt a "justifiable homicide" determination would quickly follow.

From its marketing and trailers, Suicide Squad appears to be an anarchy and mayhem fueled, wild-ride rebellion of a film, which is right up my twisted alley. Sadly, in reality it is a relentlessly conventional, dull and formulaic film. Watching Suicide Squad is like watching someone else play a video game for two hours. The film is so vacuous it is little more than a commercial for itself and the films that will no doubt follow it. It is so sluggish as to be suffocating and is totally devoid of any intrigue, originality or life. 

Even though the stars of this film are villains (Harley Quin, Joker, Deadshot et al), the film suffers from the lack of a credible and interesting foil to oppose these superstar anti-heroes. The enemy that the Suicide Squad faces is the "Enchantress", who is an ancient mystical being from deep in South America who has possessed the soul of a young archeologist named June Moon, remarkably poorly played by the wooden Cara Delevingne. The Enchantress' minions are the people she has taken control over and turned into what look like faceless asphalt people who have zero self preservation instincts. Doing battle with endless tidal waves of amorphous asphalt people is a good way to make a film feel like a video game, of which I am sure there will be one on the market in no time. In keeping with the rest of the film, the fight scenes are terribly monotonous, predictable and asinine. 

The film is so shallow and thoughtless that it repeats itself numerous times over with recurring shots, lines and sequences. If I had to see the asphalt people attack Special Forces soldier Rick Flag one more time, and the Suicide Squad want to let him die and then decide to save him with the line, "if he dies, WE die!" I was going to die…and take every poor bastard in the theatre with me. 

The script and story are absolutely incoherent and absurd. There are character changes of heart that come out of nowhere, such as the whole El Diablo character arc, and illogical and repetitive narrative choices that drive the story from one ditch to another. The feeling I get is that the original script was awful, then they brought in other writers to punch it up who made it even more awful, and then the studio heads put their two cents in and completed the mountain of poop for which they had just paid hundreds of millions of dollars. In the end it is just a giant stew of human, horse and dog shit haphazardly slapped together.

Were there any bright spots? Well…you have to look very very hard, but the unconscionably beautiful Margot Robbie does a great, if flawed job as Harley Quinn. Her accent comes and goes a bit, but she does develop an actual and intriguingly genuine character of depth. Jared Leto does an admirable job as the Joker even though he is terribly underused. Leto is following in the footsteps of the late Heath ledger's iconic performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight, so he has big, crazy shoes to fill. Leto's Joker is not a continuation of Ledger's (which is a mistake by the studio, but that is a story for another day), they are two totally separate entities from different DC universes, but Leto does the best he can with the very little what he's given. Leto's Joker is more ghetto gangster than Ledger's genius anarchist sociopath, but it works well enough. Truth is I think The Joker and Harley Quinn's story should have been it's own film. It is a pretty fascinating tale and both Robbie and Leto have the skill, talent and charisma to carry a film like that…especially if it is just a B story in a Batman v. Joker film, but obviously I am not as brilliant as the numb nuts running Warner Brothers so feel free to ignore my suggestions.

Another "good" part of Suicide Squad is actually very telling as to why the movie is so appalling, namely that Will Smith is one of the best things in it. I loathe Will Smith as an actor ( or 'rapper" for that matter). He is as contrived and manufactured as it gets. There is not a genuine bone or performance lurking anywhere in Will Smith's body. He does well in Suicide Squad though because he can pose and preen with just enough star power to make him seem at home on the big screen, which isn't always the case with all of the other actors, Robbie and Leto being the notable exceptions. Smith being a bright spot is a black spot for the film as it highlights the film's stultifying conventionalism. 

As for bad performances, there are many. Rick Flag is played by Joel Kinnaman and he is just atrociously dreadful. The only other thing I have seen him in is last seasons House of Cards, where he is equally dreadful, which makes me think Mr. Kinnaman is just a plain dreadful actor who has been the recipient of a charisma bypass. Did I mention how dreadfully dreadful his dreadful performance was? Speaking of dreadful, Viola Davis is unquestionably a great actress, she has been nominated for an Oscar and won an Emmy, this lady can act. But in Suicide Squad she is absolutely ghastly, just abominable. She is so wooden and lifeless I was worried she had suffered a major stroke during filming and was just being propped up in front of the camera and had special effects puppetry people moving her mouth for her. It was inconceivable to me prior to Suicide Squad that Viola Davis would be capable of being so appallingly bad in a role and so uncomfortable on screen, but sadly, Suicide Squad and director David Ayer brought Viola Davis to new lows.

The thing that I find so frustrating about Suicide Squad in particular, and the recent Warner Brothers - DC comics films in general, are that they really have the potential to be truly great. The source material is stellar, with the DC mythology being as psychologically rich and complex as any in modern storytelling. Yet Warner Brothers has stumbled all over itself on this recent spate of DC films. Why is that?

The biggest problem with the current crop of WB/DC films is that the studio has placed its trust in deeply flawed writers and directors like Zack Snyder and David Ayer. The earlier Dark Knight trilogy, which was so financially and critically successful, was directed by Christopher Nolan, an innovative and creative master. Snyder and Ayer are nowhere near the talent of a visionary like Christopher Nolan. In addition, the studio itself has meddled far too much with the films during every stage of production, creating a 'too many cooks in the kitchen' scenario. As limited as Snyder and Ayer are as filmmakers, and boy are they limited, it hamstrings them even more to have studio clowns sticking their fingers in every pie and adding salt to every soup. Nolan's films succeeded because they set out to tell a great story and make quality cinema. The recent DC films have failed because the studio has set out to make gobs of money while ignoring story, character and cinematic integrity.

What Suicide Squad and all the rest of the DC films need is a strong, ambitious and creative leader with a distinct visual and storytelling style at the helm to steer the ship. Watching Suicide Squad I couldn't help but think of David Fincher's iconic Fight Club, which is what Suicide Squad should have stylistically tried to emulate. Wrangling a top director like Fincher to sign on to direct or produce DC films would no doubt be a tough get, but something dramatic along those lines needs to be done in order to save this run of films, which is scheduled to go well into the next decade, from being a studio destroying debacle. Whoever the studio gets to try and right the ship, it is clear that Zack Snyder must go…and he needs to take David Ayer with him, but sadly, all signs point to Warner Brothers holding steady with Snyder and company running the show for the foreseeable future. 

The one positive that may come from this disastrous run of WB/DC films is that they may get so bad that a re-boot will be in order in our near future. Frankly, a re-boot is what they need. Get a top notch visionary to direct and/or produce the films and start over. Not all the errors of this Zack Snyder run can be corrected, such as the decision to not continue the story lines and universe of Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy and expanding from there, but many of them can be corrected. For instance, Suicide Squad should have been made much further down the road in the series of DC films Warner Brothers is making. You need to establish the characters who star in Suicide Squad as villains in other films before you lump them all together in a big group film. WB, not surprisingly, got all of that backwards, while the folks over at Disney/Marvel have done it perfectly. 

In the end, Suicide Squad is making a ton of money, but it is fools gold. The studio may think they have a golden goose in their DC properties, but audiences will only tolerate so much garbage before the whole house of cards collapses. Warner Brothers is headed for a harsh reckoning in regards to their DC films, and the corporate bloodbath that will unfold will be eminently more entertaining than the slop they are putting on screen to sell to the public now.

In conclusion, Suicide Squad is a terrible waste of a film. It is an incoherent, tedious and annoying mess of a movie. Don't waste your money by seeing it in the theaters, and don't waste your time seeing it anywhere else for free. You'd be better served, and more entertained sticking your head in an oven for two hours than sitting in front of this dog of a movie for single second. 

©2016