Common

Ava

10/12/20

Netflix

There seems to be a trend for art-house actors reinventing themselves as kick-ass action heroes. Jessica Chastain, previously best known for floating around in chiffon in films like The Tree of Life, is the titular star of this swaggering punch-em-up, directed by Tate Taylor. Here she plays a professional hit-woman, adept at donning disguises and dispatching powerful men in the most brutal fashion, pausing only to ask them why they think somebody hates them enough to have them offed. It seems she has some Daddy issues, after the callous treatment she received from her own father as a child. Now she’s basically eradicating him over and over again. It’s complicated, but it seems to work.

Ava takes her orders from another Daddy figure, Duke (John Malkovich), her former commander in the army, who seems to be the only person in the world she actually trusts. But, when her unusual approach to killing irks another of Duke’s protégées, Simon (Colin Farrell, sporting a truly horrible haircut), she suddenly finds herself in a very tight corner as her latest mission goes ‘accidentally’ wrong. Seeking a break, she heads home to visit her estranged Mother (Geena Davies), her sister, Judy (Jess Weixler), and her old flame, Michael (Common), who has now hooked up with Judy – which is… awkward, to say the very least.

As she is pursued by former-colleagues-turned-assassins, Ava faces a desperate struggle for survival…

The film is engaging enough in a video-gameish sort of way. There are many extended punch-ups, where Chastain has ample opportunity to display all the martial arts moves she’s clearly trained so hard for. If one or two of the fights feel unnecessarily protracted, well, that’s parr for the genre, I suppose. The emphasis on Ava’s parental issues lends this a little more depth than you’d usually expect to see in a film like this and Chastain has done a pretty thorough job of making her character believable. Farrell, always an actor full of surprises, manages to give Simon as much nuance as he can with his limited screen time, speaking softly and acting violently. It’s interesting to note that he’s an unreliable father, too.

There are the usual inconstancies. How is it, after being beaten within an inch of her life, Ava can arrive somewhere ten minutes later, sporting no more than a modest bruise on her cheek? And… I’ll just put this out there… how can we possibly be expected to believe that Geena Davis is now old enough to play the invalid mum of anybody older than Stuart Little? Can this be right?

The conclusion to this bruising tale suggests that Taylor and his team may be angling for another instalment, but I can’t help feeling that this franchise may have punched-thumped-kicked itself just about as far as it can reasonably expect to go.

Still, if mayhem is your go-to, this one should do the trick.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

The Hate U Give

27/10/18

Adapted from Angie Thomas’s YA best-seller of the same name, The Hate U Give is a powerful film, with a compelling central performance by Amandla Stenberg as Starr, a sixteen-year-old black girl struggling to fit in. Her mother doesn’t want her to attend the local public school, where the kids from her neighbourhood go to fight and get high. Instead, Starr is sent to a private – and mostly white – establishment, where she has to hide huge swathes of her identity to get along, to be ‘the non-threatening black’ her new friends find palatable.

So far, so standard teen movie, but then Starr’s childhood friend, Khalil (Algee Smith) is killed by a cop who pulls them over as they’re driving home from a party: shot dead for being a little mouthy, for reaching for a hairbrush, for doing these things while black. Starr is the only witness, and she’s afraid. She knows that speaking up will mean media coverage and instant fame, and she doesn’t want to draw attention to herself this way. Partly because of school, where she reveals little of where she lives, but also because of King (Anthony Mackie), the local drug lord, who doesn’t want the authorities to know that Khalil has been dealing drugs for him.

It’s an uncompromising story, with strength in its convictions, using Starr’s confusion to  confront this whole big ugly mess. When media pundits dismiss Khalil as a lowlife dealer, Starr demands they stop blaming him for his own death: we already know that he sells drugs because there’s no easy way to make money in their no-hope suburb, and that there’s no universal healthcare to ensure his grandma gets the cancer drugs she needs. When her white friends use the cop’s acquittal as an excuse to walk out of school to protest that ‘Black Lives Matter,’ Starr is appalled, not because she doesn’t agree with their sentiment, but because they’re blatant in their insincerity – they want to avoid a test. She doesn’t want them to co-opt his name for their own ends, especially not Hailey (Sabrina Carpenter), who’s unequivocal in her belief that the cop was just doing his job.

Okay, so sometimes it’s a little clunky and heavy-handed, more of a message than a story, but it’s a prescient and vital message nonetheless, told with nuance and with heart. We’re offered various points of view: Starr’s uncle Carlos (Common) gives us some insight into why cops might sometimes shoot before they should; her boyfriend, Chris (KJ Apa), shows us how to be a white ally. It’s a learning curve for me, at least, and I suspect I’m not alone.

4 stars

Susan Singfield