Viola Davis

The Suicide Squad

03/08/21

Cineworld

DC’s increasingly desperate attempts to rival the success of The Marvel Universe seem to be exemplified by this muddled and over-inflated offering from James Gunn. Not to be confused with David Ayers Suicide Squad, this is The Suicide Squad, but, much like its predecessor, it suffers from a bad case of #toomanysuperheroes. While it’s surely a more successful attempt to put those titular antiheroes onscreen, it still feels overlong, overcomplicated and, quite possibly, just over.

It starts well enough with the ruthless Amanda Waller (Viola Davis, playing it straight) recruiting convicted hitman Savant (Michael Rooker) for a dangerous mission. She offers him an opportunity to reduce his prison sentence if he manages to survive, but adds the pesky complication that, if he tries to bail, a device in his head will explode. We then meet the rest of the team, one of whom we know from the first film and the rest of whom seem expendable. The familiar face belongs to Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) and it soon becomes clear that his team only exists to serve as a distraction, while the real squad, led by Bloodsport (Idris Elba), gets on with the actual mission. He’s joined by another character we’ve met before, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), and by some very odd newbies, including Peacemaker (John Cena), Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), King Shark (a man with a shark’s head voiced by Sylvester Stallone) and Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior) who… well, suffice to say if you suffer from a fear of rodents, this film may not be for you.

There follow two hours and twelve minutes of fights, explosions, stunts and some explicitly bloody dismemberment, sailing very close to the wind considering the film’s 15 certificate. We’re treated to several shots of King Shark eating his opponents, which is probably meant to be comical, but is way too graphic for comfort. There’s also a sort of plot here, though it’s frankly bananas. The squad are sent to a South American country, where – in a ‘secret’ laboratory – scientists, under the supervision of Thinker (Peter Capaldi), are rearing a… giant starfish called Starro the Conqueror… yes, I know, at times it feels like a hyperactive six-year-old wrote the screenplay.

Like many of these big budget spectaculars, it’s a game of diminishing returns. There are too many punch ups, too many silly one-liners and too long a running time. Around the hour and a half mark, I’m starting to glance at my watch. Robbie’s Harley Quinn is by the far the best character, and she gets the film’s finest moment, an extended sequence where she escapes from prison to the tune of Just a Gigalo, the copious blood spatter replaced by flurries of animated flowers. It’s delightful and, if the rest of it were up to this standard, this would be a more positive review.

As it stands, it’s hard to be enthusiastic. A post-credits sequence which appears to offer a spin-off featuring one of the story’s less likeable characters is hardly an alluring prospect. Maybe I’ll give that one a miss.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

20/12/20

Netflix

The chances are you’ve never heard of Ma Rainey before: I know I hadn’t.

A quick glance at Wikipedia confirms that she was one of the earliest African-American blues singers, an entrepreneur who started her career on the Southern Vaudeville circuit in the early nineteen hundreds and who, through the twenties, became known as ‘Mother of the Blues.’ As the decade rolled on, she made a series of recordings, which introduced Blues music to a new – predominantly white – market.

It’s summer 1927 and Ma (Viola Davis) has ventured North to Chicago to lay down some tracks for the Paramount record label at the urging of her white manager, Irving (Jeremy Shamos). Her musicians duly arrive to back her up, among them a young and ambitious horn player, Levee (Chadwick Boseman). Unlike the other members of the band, he senses that the wind of change is in the air and that America is developing a new taste for jazz stylings. He’s eager to be a part of it. His fellow musicians, Toledo (Glynn Turman), Cutler (Colman Domingo) and Slow Drag (Michael Potts), urge him to toe the line. Ma is a tough cookie and he’d do well to do as she tells him, but he’s got his own reasons for wanting to spread his wings…

Director George C. Wolfe offers a lean, powerful adaptation of August Wilson’s original play, which is essentially a lament for the way in which prosperous white record producers continually took vibrant black music and bent it to their own whims, earning vast sums of money into the bargain – little of which went to the original artistes. In the titular role, Davis offers a brooding, snarling study of a embittered woman who knows only to well how her music is being stolen from her and who steadfastly refuses to lick the boots of the men who are taking it – even haranguing them when they neglect to offer her chilled Coca Cola in the sweltering confines of the studio.

But of course, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom also turns out to be Chadwick Boseman’s final performance and, at times, he comes close to stealing the show. It’s hard to believe that this passionate and talented young actor has already been taken from us. His performance here makes for a memorable farewell but it’s tragic to consider what else he might have achieved had he been given the chance. Levee is a compelling character, the product of horrifying events in his childhood, which have only served to fuel his overpowering desire to make good as a musician – but it is an ambition that will, ultimately, consume and destroy him.

There are some splendid musical interludes, but not so many that they overpower the drama – and, as the temperature rises and tempers begin to fray, there’s plenty of that to relish. The final musical sequence brilliantly pins down the kind of cultural appropriation that forms the central tenet of this film. Netflix has been raising its game in recent months and this is another success for them.

Watch it, and not just to say goodbye to Mr Boseman.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Widows

07/11/18

If I’d ever been asked to predict what Steve McQueen, director of 12 Years a Slave, might choose as his next project, there’s no way I’d have come up with the suggestion that a reboot of a Lynda La Plante TV series from the 1980s might be the perfect fit. But nevertheless, here it is: a big, brash, swaggering crime drama, bearing scant resemblance to the original series, other than its initial set up. For one thing, the story, adapted by McQueen and bestselling author Gillian Flynn, has been ripped from its English roots and relocated to the city of Chicago. For another, this is rather more than just a criminal potboiler  – it’s a nuanced, amoral tale that incorporates a whole bevy of dazzling twists and turns.

McQueen sets out his stall with incredible chutzpah, whizzing us through the opening sequence at an almost breathless pace. We meet Veronica (Viola Davis), loving wife of hyper-successful career criminal, Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson). We encounter Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), rather less happily married to a gambling-addicted member of Harry’s gang; and we glimpse Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), struggling through an abusive relationship with yet another of these charmers. We also witness Harry’s attempt to steal five million dollars from rival criminal, Jamal Manning (Bryan Tyree Henry), watching agog as it all goes spectacularly tits-up, transforming Harry, the stolen money and his gang into a pile of ashes – and the three women we’ve just met into the widows of the title. And that’s just the opening ten minutes. Phew!

No sooner is the funeral out of the way than Veronica gets a visit from Jamal, who tells her, in no uncertain terms, that he wants his money back and she has just a week to get it for him. Veronica is understandably terrified. She’s not a criminal, she’s a former representative of the Teacher’s Union. How is she going to find the necessary funds? And then she discovers that locked away in his regular hideout, Harry has left detailed plans for yet another audacious robbery…

As the story stretches out, more characters enter the scenario. There’s Colin Farrell as dodgy politician Jack Mulligan, running against Jamal for re-election as a local alderman and trying to shrug free of the embrace of his racist father and political predecessor, Tom (Robert Duvall). There’s Jamal’s terrifyingly brutal henchman, Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), tasked with the job of retrieving the stolen money that his boss was planning to use to finance his own political ambitions. And then there’s Belle (rising star, Cynthia Erivo), Linda’s muscular babysitter who is drawn into the ensuing heist when Veronica, Linda and Alice realise they need somebody to drive a getaway vehicle.

It’s all so confidently woven together that there’s barely time to appreciate McQueen’s storytelling skills – though a scene where Mulligan and his assistant drive several blocks in a car is a particular stand-out. The two characters talk off-camera whilst the audience’s gaze remains resolutely fixed on the scenery, making us appreciate what a short drive it is from the poverty stricken community that Mulligan represents to his palatial residence, just a few blocks away.

But this is only one sequence in a film that fairly bristles with invention and one where every character – politician, priest or passing person – comes complete with a hidden agenda and where nothing can be taken at face value. The action sequences are compellingly handled, and there’s a shock reveal half way through proceedings that actually makes me gasp out loud. With so much happening, the running time of two hours and nine minutes fairly gallops by, leaving me vaguely surprised when the closing credits roll.

Okay, you might argue, let’s not get carried away. After all, at the end of the day, it’s still just a crime drama, but one thing’s for certain: if other films in the genre were as assured as this one, chances are I’d be watching a whole lot more of them.

Go see.

4.7 stars

Philip Caveney

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