Two new movies are poised for major awards consideration, both based on plays by black authors, and both providing insights into the injustices and experiences of different black Americans from the past. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is available on Netflix streaming and One Night in Miami will soon be available through Amazon Prime in January, and both movies are observant, reflective, unsparing, hard-hitting, and provide some of the best acting you’ll see in movies this year.
In 1930s Chicago, Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) is assembling a team of musicians to record her latest blues single “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Cutler (Colman Domingo) will play trombone, Slow Drag (Michael Potts) will play the bass, old man Toledo (Glynn Turman) will play piano, and Levee (Chadwick Boseman) will play the trumpet. Levee has big ideas about what he can offer, and the rest of the band is happy to simply play their parts. Ma Rainey has her own demands for the record, some of which run counter to Levee and her own manager, and the many personalities will come into direct conflict on one very hot summer day.
The big reason to see Ma Rainey, beyond the fact that it’s an amazing adaption of a great August Wilson play, is because it’s the final film performance from the late Chadwick Boseman. The world was stunned when the Black Panther actor suddenly died in August in the prime of his career. He had been hiding a years-long battle with colon cancer that only made his work ethic more astonishing. This man knew his life could very likely be cut short, but he wanted to make a difference by using his celebrity status to portray a gallery of historical heroes like Thurgood Marshall and James Brown. Of course, it also raises the question why waste your valuable time on something as mediocre as 21 Bridges. Regardless, with this new knowledge, it’s impossible not to find extra layers of meaning with Boseman’s final remarkable performance. Immediately you notice how thin he is, lanky, and now we know why. The character feels like someone just stringing along on the faintest of threads, a hope for a better tomorrow, and Boseman’s gaunt physical form reinforces that desperate impression. There’s also a moving moment where Levee is monologuing about his disdain for God’s lack of intervention in his life, during his mother’s assault by a team of white men, during the entire experience of every African American. It’s hard not to read the actor’s own personal struggle into this confrontational moment, lashing out at the unfairness of a life denied too early, and it just makes a tragic figure even more wearingly tragic. The final image is so summative of Levee’s tragedy and the music industry profiting off the entrenched exploitation of black musicians, that it feels so dispiriting even without further explanation.
The entire time I was relishing Boseman’s performance like one final meal, and the man makes a feast of it. Another critic compared Boseman’s performance to an athlete “leaving it all on the field,” and I couldn’t agree more. The man gives you everything he has. It’s not a subdued and subtle performance, though Wilson’s plays don’t tend to settle for subdued characters speaking with pronounced subtlety (see: Fences). The playwright’s gift is for crafting big characters with big personalities and big problems, and that’s the way we like it. Levee is a character with more than chip on his shoulder, he has the whole block. He’s bursting with nervous energy, masked as excitement, and eager to finally hit those last few hurdles and get the fame he feels is destined. The other members of the accompaniment are older, settled in their ways and comfortably pessimistic about The Way the World Works. They know the deck is stacked against them and they have accepted this injustice (“Be happy with what you can get,” they argue). Levee is still fighting, still hoping he can break through on the merits of his talents and perseverance, and we can all suspect the hard reality that will come crashing down later. Boseman is captivating from start to finish. It’s his greatest performance of his all-too short career and one I fully expect to sweep come the delayed awards season. It’s the best male acting I’ve seen for all of 2020. As I kept watching, a sadness washed over me, much like watching Heath Ledger during the end of 2008’s The Dark Knight, a melancholy realization that this is it, it’s almost over, and this is all we’ll ever get from an actor who was just beginning to make substantial waves and leave their mark on the industry.
While Boseman’s lead is the biggest draw, Ma Rainey has plenty other aspects deserving of praise. Every character gets time to be fleshed out into feeling like real, complicated people with complicated pasts worth illuminating. Most of the play’s characters are black musicians during a very racist period in American history (you could readily argue that this description applies to all periods). They know they’re being exploited, and they know that these smiling white men with money are only being polite as long as they have something to offer that these men want. Even Ma is aware of her leverage. She’s a successful singer who sells plenty of records, but fame can be fleeting, and her records aren’t selling like they used to, and she knows time is short. She’ll be cast off and replaced by another singer/performer who doesn’t have the wherewithal to push back. Davis (Widows) is a force in this movie, flinty and proud and no-nonsense. She’s great even if she has less screen time than any of the male musicians. It feels like more could be had from exploring her character, her passions, her lesbianism, her sense of self, but Davis still makes quite a presence.
The injustice of the circumstances of the musicians are emblematic of the black experience with America a hundred years hence. Levee has a monologue about his father having to sell his own land to his wife’s attackers. Cutler has a monologue about a preacher who got off on the wrong train stop in Florida and was harassed and threatened by an unruly crowd, his vestments serving him no mercy from a racist mob. Wilson’s wonderful words are brought to sterling life from these seasoned performers and their digressions and reflections better paint a thematic mosaic of shared communal pain. The way the movie holds your attention even when Boseman isn’t on screen is a testament to how engaging and well-realized Wilson’s characters can be no matter how small.
With One Night in Miami, based upon the play by Kemp Powers (co-director of Soul), we follow big names of sports and politics that improbably convened together one night in 1964. Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) has just become heavyweight champion of boxing and is poised to announce his conversion to Islam under the tutelage of Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir). NFL running back Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) has crossed over into movies and is starting to think about life after football. Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) is riding high off his recording fame but wondering how much more of himself and his artistic voice he should insert. Over the course of this long night, the four men will converse, bond, butt heads, and make changes with their responsibilities.
The movie, adapted by Kemp as well, establishes each participant before bringing them together for that fateful night (inspired by true events, meaning it’s entirely fictionalized). This first act does a fine job of establishing each character but especially a point of insecurity for them that we’ll watch later become raw and, hopefully, reconciled or re-examined. Jim Brown worries that no matter his level of success, he’ll never be legitimate to a section of America. He’s looking at movies as his inroad but even someone of his fame is still the black character killed first. Cassius Clay is hesitant about making his announcement to Mohammad Ali and Islam, second-guessing the commitment he’s signing up for. Sam Cooke is known for his fluffy pop songs and feels like a sellout, needing the credibility of making music that matters. Malcolm X is preparing to break away from the Nation of Islam after his distaste for the hypocrisy of its leadership. He’s positioning Cassius Clay’s announcement as his big pivot point to make a name for his own break-off movement and hopeful that the media attention will translate into new converts.
The combustibility of this night makes for plenty of compelling drama. Malcolm X is an instigator with the others, spurring them to use their privileged platforms to enact change that can be useful for the Civil Rights movement. He squares his attention on Sam, calling him out for being a tool of white moneymen and even plays him Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and asks why this white man is writing more politically active music than Cooke. The singer pushes back, saying he allowed the Rolling Stones to sample his song because it brings more money into his pocket and his songwriters that he can use to profit black businesses. He proclaims he recognizes the system and is playing it to his advantage. They have very different perspectives that clash, making fine drama that spills over. It’s a purity versus pragmatism argument, one that Cooke raises to flout the indulgences he sees in the leadership of the Nation of Islam, a fact we know Malcolm X is aware of and also cannot stomach. It’s also a version of Malcolm X that is more vulnerable than we’re accustomed to seeing. We’re used the strident, righteous Malcolm X, and here he’s much more indecisive and struggling with making some big personal decisions. Leaving his religious organization is verboten, and he’s looking to reform what he views as sinful failings from his peers, and much rests on the publicity of Clay coming forward. This puts Clay in a tough position especially as he feels uncertain about this commitment. The continual push and pull of these four men lead to several interesting discussions, many that become heated, that allow each to open up as a real and complex person, not just a picture in a textbook.
The ensemble is overall quite solid, though the two biggest performers are the ones at the widest ideological divide. Odom Jr. (Hamilton) brings a distinct charisma and has a silky singing voice you wish you got to hear more often, but he’s also hiding a clear disdain. Whether it’s pride or whether it’s shame, it’s there, and Odom harnesses it to make his character feel like a cat ready to strike, wound up from being dismissed by too many others. Ben-Adir (The OA) nails the intonations of Malcolm X but also adds extra layers of doubt and awkwardness. He tries to parry concerns from the other guys that a “party” in this one motel room will be lame by promoting the power of ice cream (only flavor available: vanilla). This is a humbled and scared Malcolm X, one on the precipice of potentially losing his movement and standing to his ethics, and some may argue his ego. Ben-Adir is soulful and presents a fully formed performance more than lazy imitation (he also played President Obama in the recent Comey Rule miniseries for Showtime).
The biggest question with play adaptations is the challenge of making them feel bigger and more cinematic than contained conversations. Nobody wants to feel trapped in a broom closet. First time film director Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk) gets the most from her performers and handling of the subject matter, though the various rooms inside and outside the Miami motel provide little in the way of variance. The men go to the roof to watch the fireworks. A couple leave to go get some liquor. The focus is on the men, so the background of the setting isn’t a huge deal to the entertainment. King’s direction is more felt in the performances, as most actors-turned-directors tend to be, and with that she’s aces. With Ma Rainey, director George C. Wolfe (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) does an excellent job of opening the spaces visually but also making the spaces reflective of mood. The ashy rundown basement where the band practices, the sweat-glistening off the performers with the hot, daub lighting, the peeling paint and broken doors leading to symbolic dead-ends. Wolfe has a stronger command of visuals, not just making his pictures pretty, but also making his play-turned-film feel less confined by its original stage bound limitations.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and One Night in Miami are both deserving of your attention. I found Ma Rainey to be the more engaging movie with the higher artistic peaks, anchored by an amazing and career-defining performance from Chadwick Boseman. One Night in Miami is consistently probing and generous and thoughtful and superbly acted as well. Both movies are great tools for empathy and interesting to take together considering they churn with experiences of black characters fighting for equality from a broken system several decades apart. There have been gains made from the time period of Ma Rainey but Malcolm X’s complaints are extremely valid, and many resonate today in the face of systematic racism and police brutality. Watch both movies when available and welcome more black-penned plays making the big screen leap.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: A-
One Night in Miami: B+
Widows has an all-star cast, an Oscar-nominated director, and a best-selling novelist-turned screenwriter, so my expectations might have been turned up a bit too high. It follows a team of titular widows (Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Dibecki) picking up the pieces in the wake of their husbands’ deaths. It seems their dearly departed spouses stole money from a local criminal who very much demands the sum returned. The women must enter into a criminal heist, using notes left behind by a dead hubby, to settle the debt and spare their lives. Widows is a higher caliber crime movie with notable texture given to a wide assortment of characters; even the villains are given small character touches to better flesh them out and feel more realized. There’s a concurrent election tying together different corrupt and criminal enterprises that widens the scope of the film into a grander scale. The characters and performances are the selling point of the movie and provide consistent entertainment. Davis (Fences) is the strong-willed linchpin of the group and I could watch her boss around people for hours. Dibecki (The Great Gatsby) has a nice turn as a trophy wife accustomed to being abused. The problem is that there might be too many characters. Rodriguez has far more significance in the first thirty minutes and then is put on ice. Likewise, Carrie Coon and Cynthia Erivo are hastily added when the plot requires something of them. That plot, adapted by Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) and director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave), proves to be the film’s biggest hindrance by the end. The second half plot turns seem to come from a schlockier version of this story, not the classier version we had been treated to beforehand. There are character decisions that baffle credulity and personal safety. The quality of the characters deserved a movie that could refrain from the hacky genre twists. McQueen’s precise camerawork is still alive and well and highlights tension and also moments of social commentary, like when we watch a car travel mere blocks from a rundown inner city neighborhood to a fancy gated residence. There’s a lot to like with Widows, and plenty to get excited about, but I wanted to like even more.
Nate’s Grade: B
There’s something about plays turned into movies that bring out the best in actors. Usually they provide meaty characters with flaws and big personalities, which lend themselves to big performances that touch upon every emotion in an actor’s kit. Fences is based upon August Wilson’s Tony-winning play set in 1950s Pittsburgh. It follows the fractious household under the indomitable influence of Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington, also serving as director). He’s a complex man prone to bold protestations and morally righteous fury, but he’s also deeply imperfect, hypocritical, and consumed with self-doubt over whether or not he has done right by his family. He’s a man trying to still assess his place in the world and what is owed. Troy’s older brother (Mykelti Williamson) has been mentally incapacitated from his war service and Troy has been living off of his brother’s wages. Troy’s oldest son doesn’t feel like he ever had a father, Troy’s youngest son wants to devote a future to sports, which Troy adamantly refuses, still nursing a grudge over his failed potential that was never capitalized in his mind. Then there’s Troy’s wife Rose (Viola Davis) who tries to keep her blended family together though Troy’s actions will test the boundaries of her devotion and affection. As expected, the performances are outstanding, lead by Washington and Davis reprising their Tony-winning roles. When these two sink into roles worthy of their caliber, it’s a pleasure just to sit back and watch the high-class mastery. Washington lights up the screen with the overwhelming power of his performance; you feel like your ears are pinned back by the sheer volcanic strength of his acting. Davis has her moments and she tears your heart out when she lets loose on a life of compromises to sustain her husband. The characters are so multi-layered with such plentiful history and generational conflicts. Every actor gets his or her moment to shine and do an excellent job under Washington’s direction. The movie is little more than a filmed version of the stage play, and the pacing is a bit loquacious for being almost two and a half hours, but Fences rises on the sheer power of its performances with expert actors giving all of their considerable skill to bring these fascinating people to vivid life.
Nate’s Grade: B+
After watching the debacle that was Batman vs. Superman, I said it had killed my hope for the larger DC film brand. Thanks to writer/director David Ayer, and by extension Zack Snyder’s ongoing influence, Suicide Squad reconfirms every bad step they’re down on this bad road of anti-entertainment.
Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) is worried about national security in a world where a certain Kryptonian has upended our sense of priority. She wants to assemble a team of bad guys who can do some good. Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) is placed as the commander of a “suicide squad,” a black ops team of super villains that are injected with devices to make their heads go kablooey if they disobey. Among the ranks is Deadshot (Will Smith), a paid assassin who never misses, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the former psychiatrist and lover to The Joker (Jared Leto), an Aussie named Boomerang (Jai Courtney), Diablo (Jay Hernandez), a guy with the ability to control fire, a human-crocodile hybrid named appropriately Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), and the Enchantress (Carla Delevigne), a thousands-year-old spirit inhabiting the body of Dr. June Moone, who also happens to be Flag’s girlfriend. Assisting Flag is Katana (Karen Fukuhara), a masked swordfighter with a tragic and mystical past. The Squad is thrown into harms way and have to work together as a group if they plan on surviving.
The tone and structure of the movie is like an unholy marriage of Stephen Sommers’ (The Mummy) sense of careless plotting and archetypes, mish mashing tones, and Joe Carnahan’s (Smokin’ Aces) sense of wanton violence, killer cool killers, and militaristic fetishism. It’s a problematic pairing of tone that almost sort of works in the opening twenty minutes as it sets up the various bad guys with their requisite little slices of backstory. Primarily Deadshot and Harley Quinn are the spotlight characters, and it helps that the two most charismatic actors play them. The first twenty minutes doesn’t exactly push the narrative forward in a meaningful way as it involves Davis digressing with an armada of high-energy flashbacks, but it’s almost forgivable. Her pitch to the government for a black ops team of super villains seems credible enough in this anxiety-ridden world, so Ayer has at least started off not quite well but well enough. And then it all goes downhill so fast into a vortex of suck and cannot recover.
It was at the first act break that I knew this movie wasn’t going to recover and get better. You see the advertising has been very secretive about who the true antagonist is for this movie, which is none other than the Enchantress. The introduction of this Jekyll/Hyde character and her power is initially interesting, though she certainly stands out in a world of meta-humans. The problem is that this character is obviously far more powerful than everyone else in the movie, as evidenced by Waller’s “show off” moment having the Enchantress teleport and bring back nuclear secrets from a hostile foreign nation. I think Ayer realizes this and so he quickly, and I mean quickly, positions the character as the Big Bad of the film. Dr. June Moone whispers the word “Enchantress” and she appears, and then she whispers it in her sleep and, oh no, the wicked witch lady is out and nobody seems to have any contingency for this. How has nobody thought about the risk of her accidentally saying this one word? Should she be sleeping with some sort of gag?
Enchantress steals the other ancient idol containing the spirit of her brother, which is just hanging around for some unknown reason, and the two of them are distraught that mankind, which once worshiped them, has moved on. They’re going to destroy the world by making a vague world-destroying machine, which basically comes across as a giant energy portal. The brother becomes the primary villain, a giant heavy with dumb tentacle weapons, and the two of them take human beings and turn them into a faceless army of disposable soldiers thank to the power of Enchantress kissing them. It’s at this point that the movie reminded me of Sommers’ Mummy Returns sequel where the goofy tone and careless development swallowed the movie whole, shrugging and saying, “What more did you want from us?” The villains are quasi-Egyptian gods who want to destroy the world. The last act finally positions the Enchantress as the one to topple, and our anti-heroes are attacking her with guns and baseball bats. It’s just laughable and not in the good way. The entire Enchantress as villain storyline is a swirling CGI mess and her army of faceless henchmen inspire no interest or dread.
You would rightfully think that a movie about a ragtag team of kooky anti-heroes would be darkly comic and have a whimsical sense of fun, much like what James Gunn achieved with Guardians of the Galaxy. I walked out of Suicide Squad dumbfounded and muttering to myself, “How… how do you screw this up?” I think the movie has confused snark with humor. There is precious little that comes across as funny. The characters have some one-liners but that’s about it, and they grow tiresome after a while. Suicide Squad is a classic example of trying too hard; it’s all empty posturing and posing, asking for plaudits about how edgy this cut-and-dry PG-13 movie must be with its mall Goth aesthetic and irreverent sense of good and evil. It tries so hard to be edgy that you can see the onscreen flop sweat. Case in point: the avalanche of music selections. In the first ten minutes or so it feels like there is one needle-drop music selection mere seconds after another, and Ayer chooses a mixture of artists for their on-the-nose lyrics. “You Don’t Own Me” for Harley Quinn especially, “Come Baby Come” just for a scene involving a bat with the choice lyrics, “swing batter batter batter,” a cover of Nirvana’s “Lithium” because it has “friends in my head” as a lyric, “Sympathy for the Devil” for many obvious reasons, “Spirit in the Sky” when the gang is airborne, “Seven Nation Army” when the gang is put together, and so on. If there were a handful of on-the-nose music selections, it would be passable, but it’s almost like the overzealous music director worked overtime to provide as many selections as possible to cover-up the movie’s empty sense of fun.
No character symbolizes the film’s ethic of trying too hard more than Leto’s (Dallas Buyers Club) rendition of the Joker. Admittedly Heath Ledger’s performance was iconic and cannot be replicated, but Ayer’s script doesn’t even justify the character’s presence. There is no standout or memorable scene with the Joker to help signify just what kind of character he is, how he’s far different and more dangerous than your everyday psychopath. If you called this guy a different name you would swear it’s a different character because they fail to make his inclusion meaningful. We see Joker in flashbacks relating to Harley Quinn, and it’s in these short moments that the character plays best, in particular a high dive into a vat of chemicals all in the name of twisted love. Through Harley, we get a fleeting sense of a Sid and Nancy sort of courtship that could be interesting. However, alone, Leto’s Joker is a wash, intimidating guards with lackluster “crazy talk” and maniacal giggles. There’s a shot of him lying on the ground surrounded by a carefully constructed circle of weapons. It’s a small moment but it makes him seem more OCD than scary.
Joker’s storyline is trying to free his girl from prison, but the larger problem is that Harley Quinn is a worse character when she’s with her “puddin'” Mr. J. She loses her independence and just becomes arm candy and settles into The Girlfriend in Short Shorts. She elevates him and he drags her down. That’s a direct problem with characterization. The Joker is a distraction to the other characters and his small scenes tracking her down do not excuse the detour. Leto snarls and struts but it feels over conscious and dull. There is a better way to use the Joker: make him the target of the Squad. That pushes Harley Quinn directly into the center of the story and provides plenty of internal conflict for her to wrestle with her tortured psyche and sense of adoration for a man who had tortured her and abandoned her. That would be more interesting. In the Snyder universe, we have a Batman who has no compulsion against killing his enemies, so why the hell is the Joker still alive to terrorize? It seems bizarre that Affleck’s Batman would let this guy go unless the fan conspiracy theory that the Joker is secretly a disturbed Jason Todd, a former Robin, was accurate. That would make the character instantly more intriguing and provide some needed depth to what is a shallow character that is all exaggerated attitude. He’s the worst modern Joker but not the worst part of the movie.
The characters are just not that interesting and the far majority of the Squad teammates are meaningless background players. Killer Croc, Boomerang, Slipknot, and Katana are utterly useless in this movie. They fill out space and kill some faceless bad guys, but their plots could just as easily been attached to the other Squad members. Katana in particular is another one that feels like she’s been pulled in from a different movie entirely. She’s introduced as this killer assassin and Flag says, offhand to the point of hilarity, that her sword captures the souls of the men it kills. There’s a later moment where she’s swearing her love to the trapped soul of her husband in the glowing blade, and I just couldn’t hold back and started laughing. I’m sure this point is directly taken from the comics, but it’s thrown in without any care, any setup, and its tone is directly conflicting with the snarky nogoodniks. Diablo is given a boring and predictable arc but he at least has a dollop of characterization outside “zany” or “menacing” because he wants to not use his fire-starting powers. These characters just don’t matter to the story, and the actors aren’t given anything close to resonant character moments to make them matter to us. The Batman cameos are completely superfluous as well. There’s no reason that our criminals couldn’t have been brought in from other circumstances. Batman also has a creepy moment where it seems like he’s forcing himself on Harley Quinn to give her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. It’s such an off-putting and curious moment I kept waiting for Bruce Wayne to wake from another dream sequence.
I think back on Captain America: Civil War again and how the filmmakers were able to deftly integrate a bevy of heroes and make them matter, giving each one a small moment to be fleshed out, providing arcs, and incorporating them in exciting and satisfying ways into combat that would let them show off their stuff. Suicide Squad is not that.
There isn’t one good action sequence in this whole movie, and with the Enchantress army of monster goons, it starts to feel like an extended episode of the Power Rangers but with an oversight of firearms. What’s the point of bringing in a bunch of weird characters with super powers if all they get to do is one gunfight after another? Once the Squad lands in Raccoon City, er, I mean whatever city ground zero is, the movie is one long slog to eventually confront the Enchantress. It’s one abandoned street filled with goons to get shot down after another. Repetition settles in and Ayer doesn’t use the opportunity to have his characters do something fun or different. The action doesn’t excite and the characters don’t excite, and everyone trudges, head down, to their dire destination in the sky. It feels like a shadowy warzone without a clear objective, direction, or understanding of the threat. There is one interesting aspect of the action that’s never developed as it should be, and it’s the Squad’s vulnerability to losing Flag. Not only does he have the control to make their heads burst, if he is killed in action then the Squad dies too. Deadshot realizes that the team has to defend Flag and out-rightly rescue him a couple of times. It reminds me of a video game escort mission but Ayer never really does much more than having his characters recognize this dynamic. As much thought is put into the action as put into the antagonists, which is to say little. Some of the action is so poorly edited and choreographed that I just hit my head against the back of my chair and waited for it to be over.
There are a few bright spots in the film, mostly provided by the lead actors. Smith (Focus) is still one of the world’s most charismatic actors even if he’s saddled with the rote “I wanna see my daughter” storyline to humanize his remorseless assassin. Smith relishes his anti-authority figure and settles into a comfortable and appealing groove. Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street) is delightful and her character’s zany non-sequiturs are more often funny than grating. You can tell Ayer is also a fan, as his camera lovingly oogles her body. It’s a performance that whets your appetite for more Harley Quinn that the movie doesn’t seem to be able to deliver, especially when it starts to go down a route that presents her almost sentimentally. Davis (The Help) does a fine job selling her badass tough guy moments as the leader of the program. I don’t quite buy the “government/jailers are the real bad guys” angle the movie consistently presents to elevate its Dirty Dozen. The “worst of the worst” can’t be all that bad considering we’re working under the mandate of a mainstream PG-13 rating. They’re villains with gooey centers and moral codes.
It’s not at the punishing level of disaster that Batman vs. Superman wrecked, but this is a movie that is plenty bad, and not in the good way, or the fun way, just in the bad way. Even things that should be saving graces for a comic book movie about antiheroes, the fun personalities and visuals, are lacking. Ayer doesn’t know what to do with his overabundance of characters once he gets them assembled and he doesn’t have the visual dynamism of a Snyder. Ayer has talent with writing machismo characters and can even be a fine director of action as he proved with the sturdy WWII tank movie, Fury. It certainly feels like this movie got away from him. If this is trying to be an over-the-top B movie, it fails. If it’s trying to be a flashy and stylish diversion, it fails. If it’s trying to be a subversive take on super heroes, it fails. It just doesn’t work. It wants to thumb its nose at super hero movies and dance to its own anarchic, nihilistic beat, but you never believe the movie’s own convictions. It feels like empty posturing, confusing attitude and costuming for edge. It felt like some film exec pointed at Guardians of the Galaxy and said, “Make us one of those.” The sad thing is that Batman vs. Superman wasn’t good but it was at least ambitious, having to set up multiple franchises, serve as a sequel and reintroduce Batman. Suicide Squad had to do considerably less with the easy task of making a group of crazy anti-heroes as popular entertainment, and it flounders. It’s going to be a long wait until 2017’s Wonder Woman, the next DC movie in their larger plan to compete with the Marvel big boys, and the howls from dissatisfied moviegoers will echo until then, providing a pessimistic landscape for every new scrap of footage and trailer. Remember that the Suicide Squad trailer looked mighty good too and the actual movie is well and truly awful. Sometimes the packaging is the best part and sometimes it’s the only part.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Honestly I know more about Ender’s Game thanks to the swirling rabble about boycotting the film thanks to author Orson Scott Card’s homophobic personal views. I didn’t even know this book existed until I heard about the movie. With my cloud of ignorance, as well as some lingering worries that the director of X-Men Origins: Wolverine was at the helm of this expensive would-be franchise, I was pleasantly surprised at how entertaining I found the movie. It’s set in a future where children are culled and trained to be super soldiers against an alien race that has been in seclusion after a failed invasion of Earth. The emphasis is on strategy and manipulating your opponent, which leads to many military training sequences. At one point I wondered, “Is this whole story going to be training sequences and zero-gravity laser tag?” It’s not, thankfully, but even those sequences are fun. Writer/director Gavin Hood does an excellent job of fleshing out this world while giving enough time in between the games to also flesh out his ragtag group of characters. There’s something inherently satisfying to watching a team come together, and the film has plenty of small payoffs. The visuals are astounding to soak up. The zero gravity fun, backlit by the stars, is dazzling. The acting is strong across the board, with special appreciation that Harrison Ford has a good role that he’s actually well suited for. The pacing does start to slag toward the third act, mostly because the plot feels like an escalating series of games, until it’s not. There’s a measured degree of ethical ambiguity and contemplation to the film that’s admirable. Whether you plan on boycotting Ender’s Game or not, it’s a successful, thrilling, and visually engaging sci-fi flick that deserves to be seen at some point.
Nate’s Grade: B+
One rainy Thanksgiving day, two little girls go missing. Keller and Grace Dover (Hugh Jackman, Maria Bello) and their neighbors, Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard, Viola Davis), discover their two young daughters have gone missing. A manhunt is underway for a suspicious RV, spearheaded by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal). The RV is found with Alex Jones (Paul Dano) inside. The problem is that there is no physical evidence of the missing girls inside the RV and Alex has the mental capacity of a ten-year-old. He’s being released and Keller is incensed. He’s certain that Alex is guilty and knows where his missing daughter is being held. One night, Keller kidnaps Alex and imprisons him in an abandoned building. He beats him bloody, demanding Alex to tell him the truth, but he only remains silent. Loki has to deal with finding the girls, finding a missing Alex, and trailing Keller, suspicious of foul play.
This is a movie that grabs you early and knows how to keep you squirming in the best ways. The anxiety of a missing child is presented in a steady wave of escalating panic. The moment when you watch the Dover and Birch families slowly realize the reality of their plight, well it’s a moment that puts a knot in your stomach. Prisoners is filled with moments like this, that make you dread what is to come next. The crime procedural elements of the case are generally interesting and well handled to the point that they feel grounded, that these events could transpire, including police mistakes. The central mystery sucks you in right away and writer Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband) lays out clues and suspects with expert pacing, giving an audience something new to think over. At 153 minutes, there is a lot to chew over in terms of plot developments and character complications. It’s a compelling mystery yarn and shows such promise, though the last half hour cannot deliver fully. Fortunately, Prisoners is packed with terrific characters, a real foreboding sense of Fincher-esque chilly atmosphere from director Denis Villeneuve (Incendies) and greatest living cinematographer Roger Deakens (Skyfall). The film’s overall oppressive darkness is also notable for a mainstream release. The darkness doesn’t really let up. It’s hard to walk out feeling upbeat but you’ll be thankful for those punishing predicaments.
By introducing the vigilante torture angle, Prisoners is given a dual storyline of suspense and intrigue. How far will Keller go? Will he get caught? What will his friends think? Will they be supportive or will they crack? How does this change Keller? That last question is the most interesting one. Others tell us how Keller is a good man, and he’s certainly a devoted family man, but does a good man imprison and torture a mentally challenged man? Does a good man take the law into his own hands? If it meant the difference between your child being dead or alive, how far would you go? These are the questions that bubble up and the movie makes you deal with them. The torture segments are unflinching and challenge your viewer loyalty. You will be placed in an uncomfortable moral position. Then there’s just the what-would-you-do aspect of the proceedings. Could you torture someone, possibly to death? Fortunately most of us will never have to find out. I do wish, however, that the movie had gone further, complicating matters even more severely. It becomes fairly evident halfway through that Alex is innocent. It would have been even more interesting to intensify Keller’s legal troubles. If the police have their man, what does Keller do with Alex? Does he let him live after everything Keller has done? I think it would have worked as a logical escalation and put the audience in an even more uncomfortable position, forcing us to question whether Keller deserves to get away with what he did or pay a price.
What separates Prisoners from other common thrillers, and what must have appealed to such an all-star cast, is the raised level of characterization on display. Jackman’s (Les Miserables) intensity is searing, as is his character’s sense of pain and futility. By all accounts, this is the best acting work Jackman has done in his career. Keller’s determination is all consuming, pushing away his doubts with his reliable pool of anger. Everyone is failing him so he feels he must take matters into his own hands, and the film does a fine job of relating his frustrations and urgency. But Keller is also in danger of derailing the ongoing investigation, becoming a liability to finding his daughter. This predicament pushes Loki into the tricky role of having to defuse parental intrusion, pushing him into a role he loathes, having to tell a harrowed father to back off. Loki is also consumed with the case, causing plenty of internal tumult and chaffing with the inefficiency and miscommunication of the police force. Gyllenhaal (End of Watch) doesn’t play his character big; he keeps it at a simmer, with hints of rage below the surface. His character is certainly richer than the Driven Cop we’ve often seen. His character is given less moral ambiguity but you feel his frustration working within the system and hitting dead ends. These two performers are both ticking time bombs.
The rest of the supporting cast has a moment or two to shine, though the characters are given less to work with. Bello (Grown Ups 2) is hastily disposed of from a plot standpoint by making her practically comatose with grief. Davis (The Help) knows how to make the most of limited screen time (see her Oscar nominated performance in 2008’s Doubt as evidence), and she’s heartbreaking in her moments of desperate pleading. Howard (Lee Daniels’ The Butler) is meant as the foil to Keller, a voice of moral opposition, but Howard lets the gravity of his involvement in horrible acts hit you hard. Dano (Ruby Sparks) has the toughest part in many ways because of his character’s brokenness and the fact that he’s being tortured so frequently. It’s hard not to sympathize with him even if part of you suspects his guilt. Naturally, Dano is adept at playing weirdos. Melissa Leo (Olympus Has Fallen) is nearly unrecognizable as Alex’s older aunt caring for him. She’s prepared for the worst from the public but has some nice one-on-ones where she opens up about the difficulty of losing a child herself.
Prisoners is such a good mystery that it works itself into a corner to maintain it, ensuring that no real answer or final reveal will be satisfying, and it isn’t. I’m going to tiptoe around major spoilers but I will be delving into some specifics, so if you wish to remain pure, skip ahead. The culprit behind the child abductions, to put it mildly, is underwhelming and rather obtuse in their wicked motivation. The specified reason is to test people’s faith and turn them into monsters by abducting their children. This comes across as an awfully nebulous philosophical impetus, and it’s a motivating force that I find hard to believe even in the grimy, dark reality the movie presents. It just doesn’t feel grounded, more like a last-ditch conclusion to a TV procedural. However, what makes this ending worse is the false turns and red herrings that Prisoners utilizes. Every mystery requires some red herrings but they need to seem credible, and if executed properly, the characters will learn something useful through the false detour. The issue with Prisoners is that it establishes a secondary suspect that is so OBVIOUSLY the guilty guy, compounded with plenty of incriminating evidence including the missing children’s clothing covered in blood. When this suspect comes undone, his sketchy behavior starts to become a series of contrivances. They introduce a character that is too readily the guilty party, and then they just as easily undo him. And here’s another character of questionable motivation. Plus, there’s the central contrivance of having two characters that remain mute under all torturous circumstances unless the plot requires them to say something that can only be interpreted in an incriminating manner. These mounting plot contrivances, and an ending that wants to be ambiguous but in no way is, rob Prisoners of being the expertly crafted thriller it wants to be. It still hits you in the gut, but you’ll be picking it apart on the car ride home.
Grisly, morally uncomfortable, and genuinely gripping, Prisoners is a grownup thriller that isn’t afraid to go to dark places, with its characters and its plot. It hooks you early and keeps you on the hook, pushing its characters to make desperate decisions and asking you to think how you would perform under similar pressure. It’s a fascinating meta game and one that also adds extra intrigue to a rather intriguing mystery. It may not be revolutionary, but Prisoners is an above-average thriller with strong suspense and characterization. Where Prisoners stumbles is how it brings all this darkness to a close. The ending is rather perfunctory and not terribly satisfying; perhaps no ending would have been truly satisfying given the setup, but I’d at least prefer an alternative to the one I got, especially since it feels less grounded than the 140 minutes or so beforehand. It’s an ending that doesn’t derail the movie, but it certainly blunts the film’s power and fulfillment. Then again perhaps a word like “fulfillment” is the wrong term to use on a movie that trades in vigilante torture and the cyclical nature of abuse. In pursuit of perceived justice, what are we all capable of doing? The answer is likely surprising and disheartening for many, and Prisoners deserves credit for pushing its audience into uncomfortable positions and reflections.
Nate’s Grade: B
Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling publishing phenomenon has now become a box-office smash. In 1963, Jackson, Mississippi, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) is coming home after graduating from college. Her ailing mother (Allison Janney) is convinced that she will die without any grandchildren and pressures Skeeter to find herself a man. Instead, she finds herself a job writing for the city newspaper. She answers reader household and cleaning questions as “Miss Mryna.” She seeks help from Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), a middle-aged woman who’s worked as a maid to rich white people her whole life. Skeeter soon changes her focus and wants to interview other maids about the indignities they experience. She wants to get their story out there. This is a time where it was actual Mississippi law that anyone working against segregation could be imprisoned. They try reaching out to Minnie (Octavia Spencer), a maid recently fired from the services of Mrs. Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), the queen bee of the Southern belles. Minnie is much more outspoken and her mouth causes her to get into trouble. The only job she can find is in the household of Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain, The Debt), a woman ostracized by Hilly’s forces. Skeeter transcribes the life stories of a dozen maids and the results become an anonymous bestseller that sets Jackson tongues a waggin’.
The Help enlists a colorful cast of characters (no pun intended) and tells a familiar story about people taking a stand during a tumultuous time in history. This is traditional classic Hollywood storytelling with the respective characters banding together, leaning upon one another, building camaraderie and victory, and then finally able to stand up to their antagonists, which in this case is really just Howard’s snooty racist character. It’s well told, well directed (both credits to Terry Tate, childhood friend of the author), very well acted by every member of the cast, and watching all 145 minutes is like being fed a heaping helping of home cooking. You leave feeling full and sated, and some may even feel nourished. You feel good about yourself. I tried to resist but resistance was futile. I can’t help but enjoy The Help. And even though I walked away liking the film, something stuck in my craw. It felt a little too prefabricated, too eager to be liked, to go down easy, gentle, a sweet Southern story about women taking a moral stand and finding their voices. But what is the film’s real focus when it comes to race relations?
Naturally nobody is going to look as The Help as an exhaustive document of the Civil Rights era, but the movie seems to seriously downplay the intensity of that struggle. Sure it pays lip service to Medgar Evans assassination but by this time there were riots, churches being bombed, children being killed, open collusion between law enforcement and the Ku Klux Klan, and the Freedom Riders were being met by violent mobs. There are a lot of bigger things going on than black maids sitting down for interviews with a college girl. Come on, this is Mississippi we’re talking about here, the home of racism. I understand that the Civil Rights movement had thousands of anonymous acts of courage and the actions of these (fictional) women should not be out rightly discounted. However, the parting message of the film seems to be not about the courage of the black maids but the tenacity of Skeeter, a middleclass white woman who herself grew up with “help.” The Help’s mixed message on race relations reminds me of a similar situation with 2009’s beloved The Blind Side. That movie wasn’t so much about the triumph of a black athlete so much as a glowing picture to how great rich white people can be. And Sandra Bullock got an Oscar for it; that’s how great a white lady she was. The Help is another example of Hollywood taking a story primarily about minorities and having white people necessary to tell that story. Why are white people always necessary to tell some other race’s stories? Skeeter is an open-minded gal that speaks her mind and stands up to the Jim Crow South. That’s how she starts. By the film’s end, she’s now… an open-minded gal that speaks her mind and stands up to the Jim Crow South and now she has a publishing career. Good for her! Good for heroic white people! They had so much to lose back then.
I guess my main fault is that this is not Skeeter’s movie. I don’t even think she’s needed. Yes she provides the outlet for the stories and secrets of an undervalued class of people. But did she need to be the co-lead? Does she need her own storyline where she stands up to her mother cowing to racist social norms? She had her own maid (Cicely Tyson) unceremoniously dumped while she was at school. Surprisingly this does not give too many insights to Skeeter’s character. Do we need any scenes of her going out on dates so that we can forever be reminded how ahead of her time she was, how liberal and progressive she was and destined to be unappreciated by a pool of men who were looking for only pretty housewives? As my friend China Gentry said, we’d all like to think we’d be the forward-thinking progressive voice of change in these historical dramas, to make ourselves feel better, but we’d most likely just be another silent face in the background. The boyfriend storyline is a complete waste of time. Skeeter goes out with a drunk jerk, he comes back and apologizes, they go out again, then after she gets published he freaks out and storms out. And that is the last we see of this guy. That’s the end of his story. He apparently puts his foot down when it comes to dating a female author. This storyline adds nothing to the overall narrative or to the character of Skeeter. There’s entirely too much Skeeter in the movie, and I say this as a gigantic fan of Emma Stone (Easy A). It’s not the actress’ fault either because she performs well in her first dramatic film role. This is just not her movie. This is not a movie about heroic white people; at least it shouldn’t be. This is a movie about the help, so let’s devote more time to them, notably Minnie and Aibileen. The movie opens and closes with Aibileen’s voice over. She is the star of this story. Why do I need another character just to coax out her story? Yes, I understand the limitations to a woman in Aibileen’s position in those days, but that’s no excuse. She deserves to be the focus.
Davis crushes in this movie. She is a one-woman force of devastation. You can just see the wear on her face, the tremor in her eyes, the sadness etched into her face. This is a woman beaten down by her position, and Davis is excellent. How good is this woman? She’s so good she got nominated for an Oscar for a single eight-minute scene in 2008’s Doubt. That’s Judi Dench territory right there (Dench famously won a Best Supporting Actress trophy despite only appearing onscreen for about nine minutes in Shakespeare in Love). She has a few big acting moments but mostly she’s not an outspoken woman. She’s more a downtrodden woman used to the many disappointments of her lot in life. She raises other people’s children while seeing very little of her own son. She develops close relationships with those kids, and the kids feel more attached to their maids than their mommies. And there’s the shattering disillusionment that these children, who once loved their maids, will transform into spitting images of their parents. The help gets treated less like family and more like a disposable, impersonal employee. The ease of severing ties can be heartbreaking. And Davis lets you feel all that without even having to speak. Spencer (Dinner for Schmucks), in easily her biggest role of her career, is enjoyable with the more outspoken role. She’s more the mouthpiece for the audience.
As I admitted in my review of 50/50, I don’t think there’s any role that Howard (fun fact: both Howard and Stone will play film versions of Gwen Stacy) can play where I won’t fall in love with her somewhat. This is more a hypothesis than a theory at this point. Hilly is a social queen, the Southern belle who likes things just the way they are. She has influence over the other middleclass wives in Jackson, but she does make for a pretty marginal main antagonist given the time period. She can threaten the livelihoods of the maids, so she is a threat, and her worldview is decidedly racist (she thinks using the same toilets will spread “black diseases”). She’s built up enough to be a threat but not enough to be unstoppable. She’s defeatable, unlike the intolerant ideology so prevalent in the South. We can’t defeat racism but we can topple one racist white lady. Well, we can laugh at her and bring up the fact that she ate something very gross once. I won’t go into spoilers, but this plot point where Minnie gets wreaks personal vengeance on Hilly via baked goods feels out of place for the tone of the film. It doesn’t fit.
I resisted seeing The Help for so long, believing it would be a painful experience with mushy emotions and many life lessons served up on an easy platter. And to some degree, the movie is exactly that. But it’s also hard to dislike the sweep of the old fashioned storytelling. The Help is a nice movie, extremely well acted, and filled with period details that will make the audience sense its authenticity. It’s easy to get caught up in the writing and the acting, so it’s easy to ignore the otherwise somewhat questionable examination on race relations. I don’t know why we still need white people to tell “their story.” The Help is a well-crafted movie but it fails to move the conversation forward. Perhaps that’s an unfair expectation. Not every Civil Rights era story is required to properly educate the public, let alone a work of historical fiction. Maybe I should just sit back and enjoy the story like so many million readers have. But the power of Davis’ performance claws at my memory, telling me she deserves a better movie focused on her character. For once, I’d like to see a Hollywood movie about race relations that doesn’t require white people as a framing device. Let’s let the right people tell “their story” for once.
Nate’s Grade: B
Imagine a James Bond movie from the point of view of the Bond girl. That’s the premise for the curiously titled Knight and Day, a mostly breezy action movie that really resembles a romantic comedy with guns. It works thanks to the chemistry between Cameron Diaz (Bond girl) and Tom Cruise (super agent). She’s engulfed in a sketchy international spy caper that is replete with typical stock characters (sleazy agents, kooky scientists, angry authority figures). The movie, under the direction of James Mangold (3:10 to Yuma), tried too hard to be lighthearted and can veer from confidant to indifferent. The film is told from Diaz’s point of view, which means there are chunks of the movie where the action occurs off screen, which will naturally disappoint people. There’s one montage where Diaz has been drugged and she keeps going in and out, waking up to a different dangerous situation. It’s meant to be satiric but it might also frustrate. The action sequences, on whole, are well paced and make use of their exotic locales. Knight and Day doesn’t fully work due to its leaps in tone from satire to sincere romance, the on/off switch for the law of physics, and introducing a secondary antagonist far too late in the film. Cruise lays out a full-on charm offensive. You’re reminded that this man is a movie star, and Cruise has fun tweaking that image as well as the public perception over his mental state. His character may be crazy after all, but Cruise is having serious fun and you might too watching the man with the million-dollar smile.
Nate’s Grade: B
Taking a few lessons from the grisly Saw franchise, this revenge thriller follows Clyde (Gerard Butler) track and kill the men responsible for murdering his wife and child. Except that pretty gets resolved in 15 minutes. The rest of the movie is Clyde’s misguided, morally queasy assault on the justice system; the judges, lawyers, police officers that keep a dying system going, letting guilty murderers walk. Clyde is specifically targeting the prosecutor (Jaime Foxx) that made a plea bargain instead of risking his conviction percentage at a trial. This is a violent vision that wants to rewrite our very Constitution, questioning giving accused murders the same considerations as soccer moms. The movie can come across as a conservative, Death Wish-style fantasy against the judicial system and those pesky civil liberties afforded to everyone. While shrouded in the guise of being a bloody thriller, the movie’s idea of moral ambiguity is pretty thin. Its ethical arguments don’t stand a second line of questioning. Sure, director F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job) can put together an exciting and tense sequence, and the film is filled with surprise, and Butler arguably gives his best performance since 300, but while I was entertained I was also offended at being expected to cheer every time Clyde knocked off another innocent citizen.
Nate’s Grade: C
You know you’re in for some intellectual and moral ambiguity when the opening sermon covers the nature of doubt. Doubt follows a New York head nun (Meryl Streep) in 1964 that suspects one of the new parish priests (Philip Seymour Hoffman) of having an inappropriate relationship with a young male student. The acting by the four principal actors is phenomenal. This is a showcase of stellar acting. Streep is ferocious and unwavering, a one-woman wrecking ball, and yet she still manages to make an antagonistic character empathetic: she’s doing what she feels is right to protect her students. Are unethical deeds acceptable in a righteous pursuit? Does she truly believe her convictions, or is Streep striking back against an entrenched hierarchy that diminishes her value? There is a clear resentment between some of the nuns and the array of priests with all the power and all the say. Naturally, in a he-said she-said molestation case, the audience is more likely to side with the funny, caring, progressive priest than the scary nun who detests ballpoint pens and Frosty the Snowman. In the end, the accusations aren’t cleared up and the film lets the audience debate the results. Director/writer John Patrick Shanley adapts from his acclaimed stage play and does a mostly fine job bringing it alive on screen, though he has a penchant for relying on really simplistic visual metaphors. The supporting cast rises up to Streep’s level, notably Viola Davis as the mother of the boy accused of being mishandled. Note to future students of acting: study Davis’ 10 minutes of screen time to see how a truly talented thespian displays a range of conflicted emotions, none of them feeling inauthentic or cheap. Doubt isn’t just one of the best-acted films of the year but also one of the best, period, and I have little doubt to that.
Nate’s Grade: A