Denzel Washington

Fences

05/02/17

Fences is a compelling movie, with towering performances from each of its actors. Adapted by August Wilson from his play of the same name, it tells the tale of an African-American refuse collector, Troy Maxson, and is a searing indictment of the American Dream. The film wears its theatrical origins with pride; there’s little attempt here to render the claustrophobic domestic story more cinematic: we rarely venture beyond Troy’s half-fenced yard.

Denzel Washington is Troy, a Willy Loman-esque character, reflecting bitterly on a  lifetime of thwarted ambitions and unrealised dreams. Indeed, the whole piece is very reminiscent of Death of a Salesman, and just as unflinching in its exposure of the fallacies we are sold. Washington’s performance is stunning: Troy is just about as flawed as a man can be – he’s selfish, demanding, dictatorial and often wrong – but we are always aware of the insecurities that drive him; we can always see the vulnerability that lurks beneath the brute. We might not like him, but he has our sympathy.

Viola Davis is equally irresistible, exuding depth and dignity; the characterisation here is impeccable. Powerless to protect her son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), from his father’s injustice, she nevertheless holds up a mirror to her errant husband, and doesn’t let him shy away from the truth of who he is. When Troy betrays her, her anguish is palpable – but so is her love. And it’s this love, I think, that holds the piece together, and redeems Troy – sort of – in the end.

Denzel Washington’s direction is confident and assured. The film builds slowly towards the inevitable tragedy at its heart and, for the most part, this pace works well. I felt the last half hour dragged a little, with perhaps too much crammed in to what is essentially a coda – but overall, there’s not much to complain of here. It’s a fascinating, well-told, cautionary tale. The Oscar nomination is very well-deserved.

4.5 stars

Susan Singfield

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The Magnificent Seven

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26/09/16

This was always going to be an important film for me. In 1960, when I was nine year’s old, my father took me to see John Sturges’ original version of The Magnificent Seven. It’s one of the first movies I can remember seeing on the big screen. I recall being thrilled by it and it was certainly instrumental in kindling the flames of what would become a lifelong obsession with all things celluloid. But of course, its storyline (itself inspired by Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai) wouldn’t really fly in this day and age. It tells the story of seven heroic cowboys who come to the aid of a village full of ‘lowly’ Mexican peasants who are being terrorised year after year by a gang of marauding bandits. If somebody was going to remake this particular classic, they would have to find a new approach – and to director Antoine Fuqua’s credit, he’s managed to do that.

If this version of the tale resembles another classic Western, it’s actually High Noon, where a bunch of townsfolk fail to come together to challenge a force of evil. Here, the denizens of Rose Creek are threatened not by bandits but by greedy industrialist Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard, doing the latest in a long line of creepy, evil stinkers). Bogue wants the land on which the town is built so he can mine it for gold and has offered each family a pittance in exchange for what they own. Anyone who  defies him is summarily executed and this includes the husband of Emma Cullen (Hayley Bennett), who, looking for revenge, sets out to recruit some help and chances upon law officer, Chisolm (Denzel Washington) as he goes about his deadly duty. He listens to her tale of woe and finally gets interested when she mentions Bogue. It’s clear from the start that there is some unfinished business between the two men. Chisolm promptly recruits a band of misfit heroes to help him rescue the town… they comprise an ex-confederate sniper (Ethan Hawke), a roguish gambler (Chris Pratt) a Mexican gunslinger (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) a Chinese knife fighter (Byung Hun-Lee), a native American bowman (Martin Sensmeier) and a shambling mountain man (a barely recognisable Vincent Donofrio).

From there on, it’s pretty much a series of spectacular shootouts, set amidst stunning widescreen locations. (There’s an irony here in that the seven set out to protect Rose Creek and by the film’s conclusion, there’s not much of it left standing, but we’ll let that one go). Critics have complained that the film isn’t realistic (no, really?) but I think they’re missing the point somewhat. As a rip-roaring entertainment, The Magnificent Seven mostly succeeds in its aims and if it doesn’t quite match up to its famous progenitor, well, that was a shootout it was frankly never going to win, because what passed for valour in 1960 is going to look pretty reprehensible in 2016.

My favourite bit of dialogue in this version? Emma Cullen proudly telling the other townspeople that she’s quite clearly the only one with enough balls to take on the bad guys. Give this movie a fighting chance – it’s at least earned the right to that.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

The Equalizer

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05/10/14

Older readers may have fond memories of a TV series featuring Edward Woodward as McCall, a retired MI6 operative who operates as an avenging angel for hire by anyone who finds themselves oppressed by villains. This film shares the basic plot and the character’s surname but, after that, all similarities end. Denzel Washington plays the American McCall, a quiet, seemingly mild-mannered chap who likes nothing more than a good book and a cup of herbal tea. He works at his local DIY superstore and often enjoys late night chats with a young call girl, Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz), who is employed by a gang of Russian mafiosi. When Teri gets beaten up by them, McCall swings smoothly into action, unleashing a maelstrom of bone-crunching violence and we begin to realise that he’s not quite as mild-mannered as we might have thought. The plot thickens (and the body count rises) when top Russian hit man, Teddy (Martin Csokas looking like Kevin Spacey’s evil twin) arrives from mother Russia to take care of business.

Director Atoine Fuqua has directed Washington before, notably to Oscar glory in Training Day, but trust me, this film isn’t going to win any Oscars. It’s something of a mixed bag. Early action sequences are stylishly handled and Washington exudes a gravitas that carries much of the rather lightweight material, but the extended climactic shootout may as well have been titled 101 Ways To Die In B & Q, as Denzel unleashes every power tool in the shop in order to take out the veritable army of Russian thugs that has come to kill him. And how many times must we watch the same tired trope of the good man avenging the helpless female victim? (Washington has done that better in Man On Fire for Tony Scott.) Having said that, there is a kind of guilty pleasure to be had by watching the action unfold.

It’s a curate’s egg of a film. Good in parts, but more often indigestible.

3.2 stars

Philip Caveney