Tag Archives: Viola Davis

The Suicide Squad

We actually saw this movie a few weeks ago, and like a good sport, I left it to Sean to review. You may have noticed it’s almost always Sean who reviews the super hero genre, and that’s me being my magnanimous self, giving these films a fair shake by not reviewing them myself. But Sean seems to have very little to say about this one, an indictment in itself, so it’s up to me to save the day.

I didn’t like it.

I really didn’t care for the first one either. I thought the music was both the best and worst part, the constant stream of pop songs perking me up, but their overuse indicative of weak writing and poor editing. This one doesn’t even feel as memorably bad, it was just a movie that failed to interest me despite a bevy of recognizable names and some enjoyable James-Gunn-isms.

Yes, the man has a way with manic expression, and away from Marvel’s PG-13 cage, he explodes with violent glee, shooting off confetti cannons loaded with human flesh, painting the scene with guts and gore. And while I welcome the sanguineous spectacle, I wish it splattered an actual story.

So we all know that Belle Reve is the prison where all the very worst super villains are kept, and that shady Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) is at it again. When she’s got a job that’s so high-risk only the most expendable will do, she assembles Task Force X, a gang of villains chosen from the prison’s population. They’re promised freedom if they survive the mission, and no one expects them to survive. That’s why they call them the Suicide Squad.

We’ve got some new faces and some familiar faces in this particular squad: Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Bloodsport (Idris Elba), Peacemaker (John Cena), and King Shark (Sylvester Stallone), among others, and Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman) to keep them all in line. Armed and dangerous, they’re dropped into the jungle of Corto Maltese, an island that’s overrun by enemies, including militaries, guerrilla forces, super villains, and a Big Bad that’s very Big and very Bad, threatening to take over the entire island – and then the world!

Much like the first, the only character worth watching is Harley Quinn, and that’s largely due to Robbie. Suicide Squad’s Harley Quinn isn’t nearly as compelling as Birds of Prey’s, but she’s charming, manipulative, and unpredictable, an irrepressible combination, And though Robbie’s boxed in by the male gaze and the narrower interpretation of her character, she still brings a psychotic empathy to the role that’s a lot of fun to watch. Unfortunately, with such a large ensemble, she can’t be on the screen at all times. More the pity. Once again, DC bites off more than it can chew, padding out the squad with forgettable villains who are ill-used and badly introduced, if at all. Since they don’t care, neither do we, which is the most disappointing part of this film. The first Suicide Squad didn’t get this right either, but considering James Gunn was able to galvanize a bunch of unknown galaxy-guarding losers into crowd-pleasing heroes, we hoped he’d be able to do it again. No doubt DC was counting on him for this as well, but instead this movie doubles down on stacking the deck with mostly filler – not enough to engage the audience, but just enough to steal time from the few things in the film that do work. Bummer.

I think this movie was relatively well-received because we’ve been living in a blockbuster drought. If you’re thirsty enough, you’ll drink muddy puddle water gratefully. James Gunn’s Suicide Squad is muddy puddle water: it will do in a pinch. People will drink it during a time of scarcity, but given any choice at all, they’d rather drink anything else. It’s already on its way to being forgotten with other drinks that ultimately flopped despite lots of hype and fanfare: Crystal Pepsi, New Coke, Suicide Squad.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Chicago, 1927. Welcome to a single recording session of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Ma (Viola Davis) is running late, of course, cause she’s the star. The band is rehearsing in the “studio,” a dank basement room that’s not big enough for the egos it’s asked to contain. Levee the horn player (Chadwick Boseman) in particular is testing everyone’s nerves with his outsized ambitions and his new $11 shoes.

When Ma arrives, tensions mount. Levee is trying to rearrange her music, and she’s got to show him his place. But she’s also battling the (white) management, who are subtly trying to push her in different directions, disrespecting her status as the mother of the blues, trying to control a product they don’t fully understand. The other band members – Cutler (Colman Domingo), Toledo (Glynn Turman), and Slow Drag (Michael Potts) – try to run interference, but they know their place and are loathe to stray from it.

Ruben Santiago-Hudson adapts from August Wilson’s excellent play. You may know that Denzel Washington intends to bring all 10 of Wilson’s “century cycle” plays to screen, starting with Fences, for which David received an Oscar, and following this one with The Piano Lesson, for which he’ll cast his son, John David Washington. Of course, he wasn’t far off in casting Boseman for this one; Boseman was his longtime protégé; Washington had sponsored him at Howard University, paying his tuition so he could take Phylicia Rashad’s coveted acting class. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is Boseman’s last role. He was secretly receiving treatment for the colon cancer that killed him earlier this year while filming.

As far as legacy goes, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is about as good a final role as you can hope for. He’s magnetic, vital, crackling with suppressed rage, electrifying and dangerous. Opposite him, Viola Davis’s Ma can afford to be a little more confident, a little more sedate. Perhaps because of her career she has more experience dealing with the white man’s power struggle, but she holds her own, knows her worth and insists on it.

August Wilson’s play is urgent and alive (I personally prefer this one to Fences). Director George C. Wolfe does an excellent job of making us feel every inch of that tiny recording studio’s claustrophobic walls. It’s hot, it’s crowded, there is little room for maneuvering (physically and symbolically) and plenty of potential for mistakes. Egos and tempers are bouncing off each other in desperate and menacing ways. Meanwhile, the white managers and producers sit comfortably upstairs, dictating how the session will go, depriving even their star of a 5 cent bottle of Coke.

This recording session is a microcosm of the Black experience in America in the early 20th century. Generational trauma, informed by racism, religion and violence, is evident in every note sung in the blues, and white men stand by to monetize and profit from it. It is no wonder that this session may turn explosive at any moment, and very telling that when that escalating pressure so carefully cultivated finally does release, the lateral violence is just another heartbreaking blow to an already wounded community.

Troop Zero

A little girl named Christmas (Mckenna Grace) is fixated on the stars, in part because her mother died and now belongs up there, among the comets and the black holes. When she learns that the winners of the upcoming Jamboree will have the opportunity to record a special message to be sent into space, she’s determined to win. But first she has to assemble her very own Birdie Scout troop to compete.

Recruit #1 is her best friend Joseph, who will choreograph the winning dance. But with her short list of friends thus exhausted, she has to choose among the bullies to round out the numbers. Her father (Jim Gaffigan) is a mostly unpaid lawyer and busy dog owner and single father, so he appoints his long-suffering assistant Miss Rayleen (Viola Davis) as their den mother. She prefers criminals and murderers to little girls, but she’s getting paid, allegedly, so Troop Zero is born.

I could watch this for Davis alone. I’d watch a spin-off show of her character reacting to courtroom dramas all day long. Or her going head to head with Allison Janney playing rival troop mother, Miss Massey. But you know what was a nice surprise? Because Davis and Janney excelling is on-brand and totally expected. But the kids in this are actually interesting little characters. It’s an underdog-outsider story, as many tales about childhood are, but screenwriter Lucy Alibar has some tricks up her sleeve and directors Bert & Bertie know how to make a mark.

Christmas longs to break away from what’s expected of her, but the lessons learned here are more like pride and dignity. Owning who you are and realizing we all contain multitudes. And of course there’s always value in shelling out for a well-placed Bowie tune. Charmed the pants right off me. In fact, by the end of this little film, it gathers enough steam to laugh a sneak attack on my emotions. There’s a cosmic feel-goodness to it that’s hard to resist.

TIFF18: Widows

The world didn’t need any further proof of Viola Davis’ talent or range, but director Steve McQueen is serious about his star, and he painted her the perfect sky in which to shine.

Ronnie (Davis) is devastated by the death of her husband in a robbery gone wrong. But she barely gets him buried before the guys he robbed come calling, and she’s the one on the hook for the 2 million dollars that’s missing. So she rounds up all the widows whose husbands died on that job (Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez) and takes over the family business, such as it is.

But this is not your typical heist movie. Like Scorcese’s The Departed, it’s about more than just the criminal element. While Scorcese looked at dirty cops, McQueen takes on crooked politicians, and he ably blurs the line between felon and city councilman. Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall) is the departing alderman of District 18, but after a recent heart attack, he’s vacating the spot that his family has held for generations, and his son Jack (Colin Farrell) is planning on stepping into his shoes at the next election. But strangely (to him), he’s not running unopposed. Turns out, he’s not the only willing to be corrupted for cash and kickbacks. The two worlds collide rather impressively when it’s Mulligan’s house the widows break into.

There are a thousand little details that make Widows into a truly great movie, but here are just two:

The opening scene. Liam Neeson and his gang of merry men are pulling a heist, but shit goes down. It’s frantic and violent and spectacular. But it’s intercut with almost its polar opposite: scenes of domesticity. Each man in the gang is shown at home, with his wife, widows-2018-viola-davis-liam-neesonhis kids, his little dog Olivia. Sure they’re criminals but they’re also doting dads, bill payers, lawn mowers, trash taker-outers. So you’ve got this brilliant back and forth of the two, somewhat disparate, halves of their lives. The hard and soft, the why and the how of tough jobs with lots of risk. We don’t spend much time with them, but we already know they are much than just their crimes, and when they meet their end, it’s not without sadness, a loss that is earned. And it’s also a highly effective way of introducing both theme and character. Brilliant, nimble work.

The second scene that really struck me was of Jack Mulligan (Farrell) in the back of a car. We already know his dad (Duvall) is an unapologetic racist. He rants gross inaccuracies about immigrants (even as he seems to employ them as servants in his home) and says the n-word while basically looking us in the eye. He’s not shy about it. He’s old school racist. His son is a little more savvy, but perhaps no less racist. Sure he trots out black woman business owners at his rallies, “success stories” he calls them, dismissively taking credit for their achievements. But as soon as he’s back inside the tinted-window safety of his car, he’s laying down some pretty shitty things to his poor assistant. Interestingly, the car, and thus the man inside, remain impenetrable during the scene. McQueen frames it with the car filling just a small portion of the bottom right-hand side of the screen as it drives the alderman-to-be away from the unsavouriness of his district, to the furthest border where his own palatial home is built and gated. Why would McQueen show Duvall so plainly while uttering his slurs but have Farrell hidden away? What makes Jack different? And what does it mean that the only person we make any contact with the entire time is an occasional glimpse of Jack’s black chauffeur, who Just. Keeps. Driving.

This movie is so well-made it gives me the tingles. I know I started this review singing Viola Davis her praises, but I want to end it that way too. Girl deserves her applause. She is so powerful. She can show vulnerability without making it about a lack of strength. She is commanding and flexible and she brings to this role her own kind of super power – called Strong Black Woman.



SAG Awards

The 2017 awards season heats up as the SAG awards declare its winners.

hidden-figures-d2253fe9-c421-4a79-bce3-f3a344eae3aeOutstanding performance by a cast was won by Hidden Figures, edging out fellow nominees Captain Fantastic, Fences, Moonlight, and Manchester By the Sea, which was the most-nominated movie at the SAG awards but won absolutely nothing.



23rd Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards - Arrivals

The 23rd Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards, Arrivals, Los Angeles, USA - 29 Jan 2017rs_634x1024-170129170349-634-2017-sag-awards-kristen-dunstrs_634x1024-170129151155-634-glen-powell-cm-12917

Denzel Washington took home his first SAG award for his work in Fences, which denzel-washington-7d58843b-c112-4664-9626-c3247cc5cbf3means Casey Affleck for Manchester By The Sea got shut out, as well as Andrew Garfield for Hacksaw Ridge, Ryan Gosling for La La Land, and Viggo Mortensen for Captain Fantastic. This is a rare exception in the Casey Affleck train. Do you think it’s likely to be repeated?




Emma Stone’s performance in La La Land topped Amy Adams for Arrival, Emily Blunt forEmma Stone The Girl on the Train, Natalie Portman for Jackie and Meryl Streep for Florence Foster Jenkins. This makes her the frontrunner for the Oscar, with Isabelle Huppert and Natalie Portman possible upsets.




viola-davis-23699bb3-331e-456a-b72f-4cd76124e741Viola Davis won  for supporting actress for Fences over Naomie Harris for Moonlight, Nicole Kidman for Lion, Octavia Spencer for Hidden Figures, and Michelle Williams for Manchester By The Sea. She’ll be pretty unstoppable come Oscar time. I applaud her bold performance even though I radically disagree with her presence in the supporting category at all.

The 23rd Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards - Red Carpet



Mahershala Ali took the supporting actor trophy for Moonlight, besting Jeff Bridges for mahershala-ali-694ef816-f229-4b29-a4ef-756b3ffc8d94Hell or High Water, Hugh Grant for Florence Foster Jenkins, Lucas Hedges for Manchester By The Sea, and Dev Patel for Lion. This is the right move and I hope it repeats itself.




Hacksaw Ridge won outstanding performance by a stunt ensemble in a motion picture over fellow nominees Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange, Jason Bourne, and Nocturnal Animals.



Lily Tomlin received the SAG Lifetime Achievement lily-tomlin-30c3e284-59c0-4c49-bfc0-7888e8f6bc1dAward, presented by Dolly Parton and Jane Fonda. Amid the many political speeches of the night, including digs against Donald Trump and his insane ban on Muslims, Tomlin quipped What sign should I make for the next march?




The 23rd Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards, Arrivals, Los Angeles, USA - 29 Jan 2017

So, what do you think? Best dressed? Biggest upset? How did it stack up to your expectations and how will it affect your Oscar pool?



Denzel Washington says more in the first 5 minutes of Fences than Casey Affleck does in the entire 137 minutes of Manchester By The Sea. Fences was adapted from August Wilson’s brilliant play of the same name, a 2010 Broadway revival of which garnered Tony awards for both Washington and Viola Davis. Both reprise their roles for the movie, alongside Broadway costars Mykelti Williamson (as Gabe), Russell Hornsby (as Lyons) and Stephen Henderson (as Bono) also rejoining the cast. The performances are thus flawless: believe the hype. But as for the movie, I was less convinced.

The adaptation is a little too literal. A play will necessarily take place in the same few fences-640x427locations, but a movie doesn’t have such limitations. This one sticks closely to its confines, however, and as director, Denzel Washington uses a series of tight shots to further the exposition. The characters, and Washington’s in particular, are talky, prone to excessively lengthy essays that explore 1950s racial tensions in relation to their lives.

After an arduous life, Troy Maxson has just been promoted and will be the first African-American garbage truck driver in Pittsburgh (despite not holding a license). But good news is never so simple in the neighbourhood where he lives, and frankly, neither is Troy. The most compelling thing about this movie is that Washington and Davis give such thorough, riveting performances. Their characters are complicated, interesting, complex. It’s an excellently crafted play, but its transfer to film was a little too minimal for my taste. I needed a little energy between the marathon monologues. Powerful as the sermons may be, too many in a row meant that I was dozing off, sometimes barely able to keep up with the rapid-fire speechifying. And the monotony of the locations and the lack of movement from the cameras made me very aware that Fences was and is a great play but that as it is, it is not a great movie. It’s a true testament to some of the greatest living actors today that they master the language and the rhythms of the dialogue, overcoming the verbosity if sometimes overreaching.

Fences is a bit bloated; at 138 minutes there was plenty of opportunity to lose some fat. Washington is not a strong director, and some of his choices flat-out confounded me, though he mostly is reverential of the work, which is a complaint rather than a compliment. To me this movie is dead in the water as far as the Best Picture race is concerned, but both Denzel and Viola will be in strong contention as far as their roles go. Viola Davis, however, has engaged in some category fraud in order to better her odds: she’s campaigning as a supporting actress when as a matter of fact she constantly steals thunder from Denzel. It’s still early to predict how Oscar will go, but Fences is an electrifying vehicle for some incendiary performances, even if it never reaches true cinematic scope.

2018’s Top 10 Badass Female Characters

10. Riley North (Jennifer Garner, Peppermint): when a gang murders her husband and daughter, Riley doesn’t just get mad, she gets even. She goes underground for years to train and get tough, and resurfaces on the anniversary of their deaths to exact revenge on the killer and all those she holds responsible.

9. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis, Halloween): riddled with PTSD for the past 40 years, Laurie has nevertheless steadfastly prepared herself and her home for the inevitable return of her tormentor, Michael.

8. Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson, Annihilation): she’s a whip-smart physicist who undeerstand the changing world around her as it’s happening AND she kills a bear that’s just ripped the jaw off her colleague.

7. Shuri (Letitia Wright, Black Panther): she may be young but she’s hella smart and she invents the most badass weapons ever. She’s got the brains to be behind the scenes and the courage to head straight into battle when needed. Her blasters are just plain cool – and leave it to Shuri to make sure they look fierce too.

6. Meg (Storm Reid, A Wrinkle In Time): wow, I’m seeing a real pattern of super smart women in this list. Meg is just a kid but she’s prepared to face her fears and do what she must in order to save not just her family, but the universe. And trust me, there are some pretty scary things out there.

5. Helen Parr/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter, Incredibles 2): she’s the mom of 3, but Elastigirl has always been able to hang with the best super heroes out there. She’s prepared to face the villains alone to spare her family, but she’ll have to unlock even higher levels of bravery when her family becomes involved.

4. Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg, The Hate U Give): Starr is just a teenager when her friend is gunned down by a cop right in front of her. It takes guts to speak up and take on institutional racism, but Starr finds her voice and uses it.

3. Veronica (Viola Davis, Widows): planning a heist is the least of what Veronica’s had to do in her life. She is one tough cookie and she’s confident enough to go after what she wants. Better still, she takes her friends along with her.

2. Okoye (Danai Gurira, Black Panther): hot damn this woman is all kinds of fierce. And she’s got such decisive morals and values. She’s a warrior, but she fights on the right side. This is the hero we need and deserve.

1. Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG): no need to travel to Wakanda for this one; this tough lady can be found on the U.S. Supreme Court actually making this world a better place.