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Washington and Davis Swing for the Fences

Jeremiah

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Watching Fences, we are reminded that Denzel Washington is one of the best actors working today. Look, it’s all but set in stone that Viola Davis is of the same caliber as Meryl Streep. But most people like Denzel because he is Denzel. It’s easy to forget that along with his immense charisma beats the heart of a nuanced and towering actor.

The movie is based on the August Wilson play of the same name. Washington directs and wisely sets aside any visual cinematic flares. Instead, he relies on the faces of his fellow actors and the strength of Wilson’s words.

Washington plays Troy, a garbage man, father, a husband, and black man in the 1940’s. One of the many facets about Fences is how it shows the psychological damage of being systematically beat down day after day because of one’s race. The fractures that begin to form in one’s belief of self and others.

Jim (Stephen Henderson), Troy’s constant friend and companion tells him “Times have changed Troy. You just came along too early.” His reply is simple and powerful and filled with a quiet rage, “There ought never have been a time called ‘too early’.” Jim and Troy share much together. They’ve done time together, they work together, and they just talk together. Jim is like a comforting blanket to Troy. He makes him feel big and heard. It’s telling that Troy doesn’t afford Jim the same courtesy.

Washington’s and Henderson’s performances are so natural you can’t catch them acting. The way they laugh at each other’s stories, stories they’ve heard a thousand times. There is an easy camaraderie that belies a common shared and lived experience.

Fences is not just merely a story about race; it’s a story about survivors of abuse. How people who have lived through abuse can visit it on others without fully realizing it. How abuse can damage you in ways more than physical. There has a been a lot of groaning about the obvious physical metaphor of the ‘fence’ meant to keep people out as well as in. But what is overlooked by many is this is an ingrained symptom of abuse.

Survivors often prefer isolation from unknown people and things while also craving company and closeness of those they know and trust. The relationship between Troy and his family is complicated. Troy is angry and bitter at times, a violent man. Most of his abuse is aimed at his youngest son Cory (Jovan Adepo). Cory is talented, driven, and smart. He’s being recruited by a university for their football team.

Troy cannot fathom this as an option. For a man told he is one of the greatest ballplayers of his time while also being told he can’t play in the majors because of the color of his skin, this path for a future is unthinkable. Troy can not wrap his mind around the idea of a world that would give a young black man a scholarship for playing football, much less a world that would give that black man a job.

Instead Troy bans Cory from playing football. He demands he go down to the A&P (the first large chain grocery store) and get his job back. For Troy having a job, now, a reliable job, now, money now, is the thing. There’s no future in believing you’re going to make it. He can’t. He’s black. And also because he’s Troy’s son.

Washington and Adepo don’t talk to each other as much as they try to assert their masculinity to each other. Take the infamous moment where Cory asks his father “Why don’t you like me?” The scene is fraught with possibilities. Adepo show’s Cory’s fear and confident facade begin to slip away as Washington’s Troy edges closer and closer to him. They never come to blows, in this scene, but the threat of violence is in Troy’s laugh. Just as much as the fear of violence is in Cory’s stance.

Abuse is many tentacled beast that infects everything it touches. It’s like a corrosive acid of the soul. Sometimes you don’t even notice it’s been rotting until someone tells you. One of the underlying themes of Fences is Troy’s false bravado. He acts bigger than he is because he’s terrified of how small he is. Or even worse how other people might view him as weak.

Cory is not Troy’s only son. There is also Lyons (Russell Hornsby), a son from a relationship before Rose (Viola Davis). Lyons always seems to show up on Friday, payday. Troy for all his faults never turns Lyons away. He doesn’t give him the money, Rose does. Troy hands her the money from his paycheck and she gives ten dollars to Lyons. Troy can’t bring himself to give what sees is a handout. But he also can’t turn away his own flesh and blood.

Lyons is clearly in awe of his father. It’s clear he shows up not just to collect money but that he also wants to spend time with Troy. With every visit and request for money, comes an invitation to see Lyons play at a Jazz club. Troy always refuses. The hurt and desperation of even so much as a handshake is etched onto Hornsby’s features.

When Troy, Jim, and Lyons are sitting around drinking, Troy begins talking about his own childhood. Wilson’s dialogue is music, but like all music, it requires people to know the difference between quarter notes and whole notes. Washington knows his sheet music. He never feels sorry for himself, Troy can’t allow himself that. He talks about certain things in boastful way, where others would present them as things to be overcome.

“I left home when I was fourteen.” “Moved to the city, didn’t have no home, wound up down there by the river.” As Lyons becomes horrified at the childhood reality of his estranged father he also realizes how times have changed. He really can’t fathom the idea of walking that long. Why couldn’t he hitch a ride? ”I walked to Atlanta, two hundred miles. We didn’t have no cars then.”

Rose watches, as she always does, from off to the sides. The centerpiece of the story is Rose and Troy. How they relate to each other after 18 years of marriage. How they put up with each other. The joy and happiness they have brought to each other. As well as the hurt, pain, and betrayal they have visited upon each other by forces both beyond their control and forces from within.

Davis and Washington are mesmerizing to watch. Their scenes together are so effortless, so natural, so lived in, all the artificial storytelling trappings of the play fall to the wayside. These moments border on modern day cinema verite at it’s finest.

With friends and family Troy is treated with some respect and reverence. With Rose, he is treated as an equal. He treasures this. She knows it and does her best to keep his feet to the fire. But when Troy confesses something he’s been hiding she breaks the bond. She can’t take it anymore. Troy has finally pushed her too far.

His excuses and plaintive explanations are those of a caught child trying to evade a punishment he knows he deserves. While others would have coddled him, Rose refuses to let him wither out of his own accountability. It’s not just an affair, which other characters have been alluding to throughout the movie, but it’s the knowledge that Troy has another kid. One that isn’t hers.

“I never wanted a half family.” She cries. Rose herself is a product of a home with more than one father or mother. “It was always Your Dad or MY Mother…”. Again the fractures of abuse, this time systemic, show themselves. And it’s also here where we see Rose’s suffering from her own abuse. As she tells Troy, she believes his insides are rotted out, that nothing can grow in the blackness of his heart.

It is lucky for Troy he has his brother, Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson). Gabriel is a WWII veteran with a metal plate in his head. He is also possibly the one thing wrong with an otherwise perfect story. Williamson plays Gabriel as a little too broad and mannered. Yet there are times when he drops the affectations and allows the character to shine through.

Gabriel is meant to be the thing that shows us Troy is not beyond love. But the problem is he’s never given much to do aside from coming in and tell us how much he loves his brother, it’s a little off key from the other characters in the story. Washington and Williamson make it work but it’s a clear struggle as opposed to the effortlessness of the rest of the movie.

There will probably be much debate about the end. I think it fits perfectly with the remainder of the story. It’s a little bit magical, yes, but it’s not distractingly so. Gabriel blows his trumpet to the  cloudy sky and the sun shines. There will doubtless be people who think the movie is saying we must forgive our abusers. But the movie is doing no such thing. It’s saying that our abusers are individuals and must be judged as such. When a person is a part of your life for some eighteen years and change it’s hard to just write off their very existence as just tertiary flotsam.

Fences is a masterclass of storytelling. That it feels staged speaks to the people who refuse to let themselves be enveloped by Wilson’s dialogue. Washington, Davis, and Wilson are American treasures. Fences proves as much and more.


Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Jeremiah lives in Los Angeles and divides his time between living in a movie theatre and writing mysteries. There might also be some ghostbusting being performed in his spare time.

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The Official Trailer for ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ Is Here

Kori

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And my inner fourth-grader cannot stop crying. Based on the eponymous 1963 classic by Madeleine L’Engle, Ava Duvernay’s A Wrinkle in Time gives us a sneak peak on what to expect from her visionary imagining of the tale.

I’m probably not unique in my reaction. My aunt gave me this book as a Christmas gift when I was nine. She’d read it when she was a little girl and really enjoyed it, and she wanted to pass it on to me, because “you remind me a lot of Meg.” I fell in love with the book and over the next few years voraciously read L’Engle’s other works in the Murry (Kairos) series and in the Austin (Chronos) series.

Duvernay’s trailer does not disappoint. Stunning visuals and character insights await as we see Meg (Storm Reid), her brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), and friend Calvin (Levi Miller) journey across the universe with Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey).

For those of you who haven’t read the novel, Meg’s father (Chris Pine) disappears when testing out his theory of bending the fabric of space, leaving Meg, her siblings, and her mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) behind. Meg struggles in his absence and then meets the three Mrs. They reveal that Meg’s father is being held prisoner by a growing darkness, and they need Meg to help save not only him but the universe as well. This is a bold step from the House of Mouse, who have recently seemed content to rely on reboots of existing classics and established franchises for new film content.

A Wrinkle in Time is set to premiere on March 9th, 2018 and also stars Michael Peña, Zach Galifianakis, and Rowen Blanchard. 


Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

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‘Justice League’ Is Flat Out Magical

Jeremiah

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Justice League is bad like Road House is bad and great like The Highlander is great. In other words, it’s really not that good, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t have a great time. A fact Justice League seems more than okay with.

There is a debate about how much of the success, or failure, should go to Joss Whedon and how much should go to Zack Snyder. For simplicity’s sake, we will go with the name on the title card. Regardless of the obvious Whedon touches here and there, in an odd way this feels like vintage Snyder.

But the fact there were two different directors at the helm, both with vastly different styles and personalities, lends Justice League a distinctive flavor all it’s own. Justice League hums with a wonderful if bizarre, idiosyncratic manic energy. Yet, there’s a tonal consistency throughout the whole thing that makes it all feel part of one whole.

The opening scene is one of the more unusual moviegoing experiences this year. Superman (Henry Cavill) is being filmed and questioned by two excited kids. The scene itself is fine; the problem is Cavill’s mouth. After production wrapped, Cavill began filming another movie and grew a mustache. When Cavill was called back for re-shoots, the other studio wouldn’t let him shave the mustache off. The result is our being denied a beautiful mustachioed Superman and being gifted one of the most terrifying uncanny valley effects of an upper lip I hope to never top.

The phantom lip aside the opening credits are vintage Snyder. I would venture to say the opening credits are some of the best visual and narrative storytelling Snyder has done in a good long while. It sets the mood and gives us a feel for how the world is post-Superman.

The movie has the look and feel of a comic book movie. As Justice League steamed ahead, I found myself wondering why I felt so anxious. It was then I realized I was having good old fashioned fun. The type of fun that has the Batman (Ben Affleck) beat up a low-level thug just to use him for bait to attract a flying man-bug only to leave the thug on the rooftop after he kills the creature.

Justice League hits the ground running. It’s origin story devoid of laborious exposition. We start off with flying humanoid insectoids (parademons), move on to Mother Boxes, and then it’s on to Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds). Steppenwolf is what is known as a MacGuffin; he’s necessary but only to propel the plot forever onward.

As onward as a script with essentially three stories mashed together can go. Disjointed as the stories may be it’s never dull and often times kind of charming. I loved how Justice League opens up by showing us the arrival of yet another harbinger of the apocalypse only to abruptly switch to a story about a group of emo loners finding each other and start a band. It’s even better when that story stops cold and turns into a Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys adventure as the gang robs graves and breaks into Lexcorp labs to enact a Frankenstein-esque ascension.

I wouldn’t say Justice League forgets about Steppenwolf, but I would say it’s clear it’s only using Steppenwolf. But this is all fine considering Steppenwolf is hardly that interesting or fun of a character. How much time do you really want to spend with a villain who can easily find Mother Boxes in Themyscira and Atlantis but is so stumped by the location of the third in Metropolis that he takes hostages to suss out its whereabouts?

Thankfully we have Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot). Justice League outright makes the argument that Diana is actually the Superman we deserve. Even as Batman, of all people, talks about how much Superman was a beacon of hope, a shining light on a hill, he points to Diana and says “But you’re a leader.” So for much of the Justice League, we have essentially Bruce Wayne giving Diana Prince pep talks about essentially running for student council president. It’s amazing because fuck yeah Diana Prince is amazing and people should be telling her that every damn second of every day.

So when they finally do bring Superman back from the dead he’s basically utilized for his abilities, the leading is done in a wonderful sort of co-captain way by Diana and Bruce. Gadot is forced to play a different Diana, but it’s not markedly different. Because the story seems to be worked on by men at almost every stage of the process her arc has more to do with getting over the loss of Steve Trevor; literally a hundred years ago.

The fingerprints of men are all over this film. From the hilarious costume changes for the Themysciran Amazons to the numerous low angle butt shots. Some of this seems accidental. The Themysciran armor seems designed to show off the muscular abs and biceps of the warriors. It’s an attempt to show literal strong women. I’m not excusing it so much as trying to figure out why the hell they went in such a bizarre situation.

Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is reduced to the grieving girlfriend who doubles as a third act signifier. Martha Kent (Diane Lane) is made to utter some preposterous overly countrified things. Mera (Amber Heard) does, I don’t know what she does actually. But she’s onscreen for a couple of minutes, and she guilts Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) into doing the right thing.

All this only heightens the fact that men were clearly the head of every decision making process. Despite all of this Gadot proves herself, once again, a movie star. She walks through every scene of this movie with confidence, poise, and a fierce badassery. Not even the male gaze can diminish her presence and ability. No matter the outfit Gadot emerges unscathed as we are left desperately pining for Wonder Woman 2.

Everyone from Affleck to Ray Fisher as Victor Stone/Cyborg gives an enjoyable performance. Fisher is given little to do aside from trying to out-brood the Dark Knight.  But he manages to find moments in the rubble. “Why have you not told them I’m alive?” He asks his father, Silas (Joe Morton). “Are you afraid they would see a monster?”  Silas assures Victor that he’s not a monster.  “It’s odd that you thought I was talking about me.”

There are great bits of dialogue strewn throughout as well as some howlers. Such as when Ma Kent utters “You know bankers. They pounce like cougars on a dime.” But even when the dialogue ventures into the outright corny the characters are recognizable. For the first time in three movies, Superman feels like Superman. There’s such a joy when Kal-El shows up to the final battle I felt like a child again. The phantom lip comes and goes. It’s never as bad as the opening scene, but you’ll be on the edge of your seat as it reappears, like a jump scare.

There’s a lunacy to the whole Justice League affair, but it wears its lunacy on its sleeve with unabashed pride. It all works. The stuff that doesn’t work, the bad special effects, corny dialogue, hilariously misplaced music homages, it all comes together for a singular joyous, raucous good time.

Justice League feels as if people who love comic books got together and made a comic book movie that’s not ashamed it’s a comic book movie. There’s an undercurrent of despair undercutting most of the first half of Justice League. A feeling that the world is not as it should be and that basic justice and decency have fled for warmer climates. To Joss Whedon, Chris Terrio, and Zack Snyder’s credit Justice League never gives in to these feelings.

Instead, they have the audacity to be funny, sad, dorky, cheesy, and sincere. The heroes are actually heroic even if like Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) they need to be mentored along the way. Justice League is demonstrably hopeful as opposed to theoretically hopeful. The characters and story aren’t bogged down by ponderous, boring pseudo-intellectualized ideas about heroism.

The movie is a mixed bag to be sure. Sometimes what’s so great about it feeds into what also makes it so bad; like a Klein bottle. It’s a wonderfully nutty alchemy in which it’s hard to parse one from the other. Justice League is not the Citizen Kane of superhero movies, but then again it’s not trying to be. It is what it is, and what it is is something all it’s own.


Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

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Finally, the Incredibles 2 Has A Trailer

CJ

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Disney is about to give me a heart attack with this teaser for The Incredibles 2.

Featuring Jack-Jack and Mr. Incredible in this long (LONG) awaited snippet, the rumors are finally real: The Incredibles are making their return to the screens and super-crashing right into our hearts again. This has been the longest gap in Pixar sequels to date—a whopping 14 years. Honestly, I didn’t know if I would ever see it, and we still have some time to go.

As someone who watched the first Incredibles film way too many times, I am now absolutely giddy with excitement. From the looks of things and what has been confirmed, we’ll be picking up right where we left off. Although it is fresh off the presses, this trailer highlights what we already knew: Jack-Jack has powers, and destructive ones indeed. Now I’m sure the bulk of the film will feature how the Incredibles family will have to deal with him and controlling them, hopefully with the backdrop of a big bad that our leading little man can use for target practice.

My only true, real request is that the ensemble cast is just as good as its predecessor. The original film’s charm came from the ensemble. While I loved the family dynamic, Edna, Syndrome, and Frozone all made it memorable and gave Pixar fans a collective vendetta for a reprise.

The Incredibles 2 bursts into theaters next summer on June 15, 2018.


Images and Video Courtesy of Disney and Pixar

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