VIOLA DAVIS, ENTERPRISING KIDS, FOUR LEGENDS COME TO LIFE, NATALIE PORTMAN and other memorable turns.

ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI (2020)

Actor extraordinaire turned director Regina King avoids the formalities of a biographical presentation, down to the constraints of dynamic spacing and a roster of supporting speaking parts, to hone ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI as a character study of four legends. Fictionalizing a meeting among them in real life, back in the turbulent 1960s, liberates King to show us how the march of civilization is contingent not only with our past but on the present, more than anything else.

Mostly confined to a motel room and consisting of verbal fireworks among the likes of MALCOLM X(KINGSLEY BEN-ADIR), SAM COOKE(LESLIE ODOM JR.), CASSIUS CLAY (ELI GOREE) and JIM BROWN(ALDIS HODGE), this Kemp Powers written screenplay (adapted from his own play) is, of course, reliant on the power of words. The power of words here is to interrogate America’s history of racism and how deftly personal ideologies get integrated with socio-political grounding in facts and unchanging realities. Each a formidable force to be reckoned with in his respective field, from sports to entertainment and most importantly civil rights, together they plunge into the deepest trenches of what makes them stand out and still be vulnerable to racial fiats.

The intense exchanges between Malcolm and Sam especially stir our conscience so that the verbosity of this script doesn’t just remain a central conceit to grab attention. I remember my father being silent and fixedly attentive throughout these passages. Also give both Leslie and Kingsley all the plaudits there are for being so true to the personalities they portray based on their body language and effortless embodiment alone, coming from a place of pure instinct and contemporary relevance.

ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI is a celebration of BLACK HISTORY but is very particular about the complexities of that term as it affects us in the here and now. It hones in on the ennui and unexpected outcomes of this one night, to capture the highs and lows of being men of colour in powerful positions and reckoning with that double edged reality each day.

**

VIOLA DAVIS is, to me, the ultimate purveyor of stifled emotions and internalized pain, drawing us in to the racial forbears behind those feelings ever so competently, like she knows that being authentic in her own skin is a mirror to the lives of those who get to be seen and heard through her subtle artistry.

In WIDOWS(2018), she is witness to an amoral landscape of male hegemony in modern day Chicago, a city with class consciousness engraved everywhere, be it on high rises, ghettos or private apartment rooms. Profiteers(exemplified by the presence of DANIEL KALUUYA, BRIAN TYREE, COLIN FARRELL and ROBERT DUVALL) are on every stretch of this cityscape and the titular protagonists’ husbands’ deaths come in the crossfire of all it stands for. Davis opens up her heart and soul to tug at the depths of her son’s loss at the hands of police shooting him dead in broad daylight, being in a position of debt to threatening men and having a husband (Liam Neeson) who maintains a double life with another wife(Carrie Coon) and infant son.

But WIDOWS is very much about the other ladies who challenge status quo of a male hegemony along with Davis and it’s here that the roll of honour includes the likes of MICHELLE RODRIGUEZ, ELIZABETH DEBICKI and CYNTHIA ERIVO. They are front and center here. WIDOWS doesn’t wallow in the titular status of these women and instead unravels the diversity of a city and its people colluding with baser instincts of humanity. These women counter those impulses with tact and a keen knowledge of operating within binaries. Director Steve McQueen gives them the space to acknowledge that harsh reality and yet transcend those limits.

**

TROOP ZERO(2020) too benefits from the star power of Ms. Davis and I had longed to see it ever since I caught its Sundance interactive session. But the real stars here aim for a destiny far beyond mysteries of the universe, battling prejudices and conventional mindsets with the sweetness and lack of rancour that one can only associate with childhood. Davis leads this ensemble with a sensitivity attuned to its evolving sense of empathy and enterprise, in the process looking back and forward for her own prospects as a professional lawyer.

Beckon this delightfully executed tale’s cast with such colourful names like CHRISTMAS (MCKENNA GRACE), HELL-NO(MILAN RAY), SMASH(JOHANNA COLON) as well as ANNE CLAIRE(BELLA HIGGINBOTHAM) and JOSEPH (CHARLIE SHOTWELL); it empowers and entertains with its thrust on corraling a motley crew of underdogs who are more alike than they imagine, with the adult cast comprising of stellar performers like ALLISON JANNEY, JIM GAFFIGAN and MIKE EPPS.

TROOP ZERO is exactly what children and families need to see to get a sense of what dreams are made of and how adults have a large role to play in steering a generation towards achievement of often unattainable goals. Directing duo Bert and Bertie infuse it with innocence that earns its sheen.

***

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

VOX LUX(2018)

Opening with the gruesome incidence of a school shooting, VOX LUX employs, very ably and with a sense of acceptance, the iconography of violence that has carved a brutal face of the New Age. Like a Biblical odyssey, Willem Dafoe’s prophetic narration and its division into distinct chapters charts the loss of innocence, a fact splayed wide open for the youth of this century.

Lead protagonist Celeste (Raffey Cassidy and then Natalie Portman in adult form) becomes the unlikely eyes, ears and voice of a generation grappling with its history of violence. It is effectively reflected in her ascent to teenage stardom post the success of her tribute song WRAPPED UP, performed at her school’s memorial service, as we witness her churning within a socially feeble scenario, with Celeste standing there with a flickering spirit as the only survivor from the bloody carnage, after seeing death from such intimacy.

This history of violence continues to dot her turbulent odyssey through an unsparing media blitzkrieg and celebrity culture, as she is befuddled by the events of 9/11 and as an adult is answerable to a world questioning her artistry after masked assailants massacre a beachside town in Europe, imitating her music video’s iconography.

Director Brady Corbet and co-scriptwriter Mona Fastvold, music director Scott Walker and cinematographer Lol Crawley trace the fallout of this journey through the violence of the spirit and pop culture consumption for Celeste. Watch as she becomes a puddle of tears, like the child she could not fully become owing to her preternaturally early success, and lashes out like a tempest against all beneficiaries who treat her like a halo rather than a human being.

All the complacency of fame and tension of her unaddressed post traumatic stress is beautifully made bare by the ever-exquisite Natalie Portman and Raffey doubling up in the second half as her teenage daughter. Jude Law, Jennifer Ehle and especially Stacy Martin(no stranger to a kind of extraordinary reckoning with violence after appearing in the Bombay set, 26/11 survival saga TAJ MAHAL) aid her with gravitas.

This is essential viewing, sought after for its serrated edge and substantive content.

***

HEREDITARY (2018)

I will not divulge much about this Ari Aster directed piece of immersive filmmaking except to say that like every horror paradigm slinging at the hard facts of life, HEREDITARY lives up to its name.

It’s a painful meditation on the unsavoury personal histories which we are often unable to omit from our daily lives. The most gutting aspect of it all is that things implode with the finality of genetic inheritance. Mental health issues, the hint of hallucinatory nightmares getting too close to the bone and grief for losing loved ones get conveyed through the process of broken communication within a family.

The screenplay is designed with a dozen or so micro and macro scenes that are held firm by the photography of Pawel Pogorzelski and music by Colin Stetson. But Toni Colette’s bouts with anger offset by moments of tenderness and barely contained grief are etched memorably by her facial transparency while Gabriel Byrne shows the devastation of lifelong pain with the power of silence. Alex Wolff and Milly Shapiro are the younger perfects facing happenings beyond their control. Last but not the least, Ann Dowd fills her supporting arc with menace and an irreconcilable emotional tenor, to exhibit her range drawn from years of experience.

HEREDITARY is hauntingly devastating and gives an urgency to the horror genre. The horror that springs forth from the knowledge that we may become mirror images of our parents at their worst.

(Also can we please praise the casting here as this actually looks like a real family. Note the facial similarity, especially the nose structure)

**

MANK(2020)

David Fincher must be heavily lauded for not only delving into the particulars of a period piece but making sure that no modern insinuation floods his verbally prominent screenplay. Thank God that CITIZEN KANE screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz is made the star of the show and the brilliant Gary Oldman breathes life to this Haazirjawaab( witty man with a quip and verbal cascade for every occasion); it’s rare to see a high-spirited writer to counter all the stereotypes we associate with them, the Achilles heel being the thoughtful depressive governed only by melancholy.

MANK has a lust for life and an expansive vision which translates to the biographical imprints constituting the KANE scenario. Which is a great feat considering that Fincher pays tribute to his own father, Late Jack Fincher’s original screenplay. The cyclical sense of generational acknowledgement is hence rewarding for all wordsmiths.

From Erik Messerschmitt’s photographic layers to the cast comprising of AMANDA SEYFRIED, LILY COLLINS, ARLISS HOWARD, CHARLES DANCE, TOM BURKE and TOM PELPHREY, they all come up with aces. The affable friendship of sharing confidences and hypocrisies of the Hollywood milling machine between Marion Davies(Seyfried) and Mank(Oldman) is in the classic mould. As is this production on the whole. For me, Oldman’s dexterity with words is almost on a Shakespearean level.

***

One thought on “VIOLA DAVIS, ENTERPRISING KIDS, FOUR LEGENDS COME TO LIFE, NATALIE PORTMAN and other memorable turns.

  1. Hi PJ:

    I was chilled to the bone when I watched HEREDITARY. Toni Collette was phenomenal, as she in most films I’ve seen her in. But it was Aster’s MIDSOMMAR that really chilled (and challenged) all my senses. Have you seen this one? I took 2 years of Swedish at the University of Texas at Austin and practice my Swedish daily on Duolingo. I used to take lessons online with a Swedish teacher but it got pretty costly. When my teacher asked me why was I interested in learning Swedish, I am sure you know what I told him. 😉 He said he had never had that as a reason to learn Swedish from a pupil. While not fluent, I still work on my Swedish every day (in fact, gonna do a lesson in a few after I write this). So, all that to say, MIDSOMMAR was particularly interesting to me and particularly frightening because very much like HEREDITARY, Aster has this great knack for unsettling us with “things that go bump in the daytime.” 😲

    Warmth and love and blessings,
    Timothy (“Mr. T”)

    Like

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