Denzel Washington

The Mighty Quinn (1989, Carl Schenkel)

Right until the action-packed finale of The Mighty Quinn, there’s nothing the film can do lead Denzel Washington’s charm can’t forgive. But the finale, which incorporates poorly choreographed and poorly shot capoeira (from obvious fight doubles), a helicopter, a machine gun, suddenly awful music from composer Anne Dudley, and a handlebar-mustached M. Emmet Walsh in a tropical shirt… well, Washington can only do so much. And it seems like Quinn realizes it, because it doesn’t even try to leverage Washington for the rushed epilogue. Actually, it sort of leans away from him.

Because even though Washington is The Mighty Quinn, the film’s never comfortable being about him. Certainly not about his mightiness. Instead, Washington’s protagonist—police chief on a small, unnamed Caribbean island—is in a state of disarray. He’s functionally separated from wife Sheryl Lee Ralph (because he’s trying to sell out like island governor Norman Beaton, though we don’t find out about it until relatively late in the film), he’s a loving but absent dad to son David McFarlane, and he’s a lousy best friend to local pothead and ladies man Robert Townsend. Townsend’s barely in the film, but the whole thing hinges on him. He is the prime suspect in a murder investigation, after all, but he’s also the people’s hero. Washington is not. Washington (we find out—again—very late) went off to the States to join the Marines and then go to FBI school only to return home to the island… presumably for Ralph, but it’s very unclear. Washington’s character revelations usually come either in brooding expository scenes or drunken expository scenes. The film avoids Washington’s backstory, instead concentrating on the mystery… and Washington’s charm.

And the charm focus works. For a long, long time.

The mystery? Not as much.

At the start, there’s conflict with crappy White guy resort manager James Fox. There’s never overt racism from Fox but it’s always there. Until Fox disappears anyway. The scenes aren’t good because Fox is a lousy villain-type. He can’t stand up to Washington, but the character’s written to be pompous and Fox isn’t believably pompous. There’s also the weird way director Schenkel handles tone. Fox’s part of the mystery, including Mimi Rogers as his unhappy, abused, unfaithful wife, is all noirish. Or Schenkel’s version of it, which is stylized and self-aware. After Fox disappears, Rogers sticks around a bit to provide some flirtation for Washington. She’s that part of the film’s femme fatale, even though the film doesn’t really need one, because the mystery soon turns more to conspiracy thriller involving a suitcase of money, a company man (M. Emmet Walsh) arriving in town to clean-up the situation (officially), and a professional soldier (Alex Colon) also in town, but unofficially. Townsend figures into the conspiracy thriller a little, but never the noir stuff.

Not even when the film tries really hard.

After the conspiracy thriller takes over, there’s more of Washington away from the White folks. And the movie’s better when he’s away from them. The mood is lighter. He’s got gross old white man Walsh tagging along for a bit, but for those scenes, Schenkel still has the more playful touch. It’s the best stuff in the film—Washington with McFarlane and Ralph (even though the former scenes are just for exposition on the island’s colonial history and the best moment between Ralph and Washington was created in editing, not with the actors opposite one another), Washington with the other cops, whatever. Everything but the subplot about some other woman after Washington. Because Schenkel can’t figure out the mix on the noir and comedy in it, because a femme fatale stalking a sullen but lovable cop is noir but it’s for laughs. The film doesn’t know how to be sincere. It wants to be, but Schenkel doesn’t make it work.

It’s not all his fault, of course. Townsend is… lacking. He’s amusing enough. And some of the problem is the direction, but Townsend doesn’t have a presence opposite Washington. Fox doesn’t have one either. Only Ralph and Walsh hold up their part of the scene. Rogers does too—mostly—but there are a lot of style problems in her scenes, often both visual and narrative. Townsend needs to be Quinn’s secret mighty weapon and he’s not. Not even when he gets action sequences, which always come off like the filmmakers are trying too hard on their limited budget. Lots of silly at the end of Quinn. Lots of silly.

Until the end, there’s also fantastic editing (except on the action set pieces) from John Jympson and an affable score from Anne Dudley. Neither of them come through in the finish. Though Jacques Steyn’s photography is unchangingly solid throughout the film. It has some good moments, but what appear to be stylistic choices sometime just turn out to questionable standards. Schenkel’s direction isn’t successful, but it’s interesting and engaging. If he could get the mix between comedy and thriller right, it’d be fine.

Washington is mighty but Quinn is not.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Carl Schenkel; screenplay by Hampton Fancher, based on a novel by written by Albert Z. Carr; director of photography, Jacques Steyn; edited by John Jympson; music by Anne Dudley; production designer, Roger Murray-Leach; produced by Ed Elbert and Dale Pollock; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Denzel Washington (Xavier Quinn), Robert Townsend (Maubee), Sheryl Lee Ralph (Lola Quinn), M. Emmet Walsh (Fred Miller), Art Evans (Jump Jones), James Fox (Thomas Elgin), Esther Rolle (Ubu Pearl), Norman Beaton (Governor Chalk), Alex Colon (Jose Patina), Tyra Ferrell (Isola), and Mimi Rogers (Hadley Elgin).


Devil in a Blue Dress (1995, Carl Franklin)

Devil in a Blue Dress is almost so much better. Director Franklin gets easily distracted and follows tangents, both in the script and the directing. The latter makes sense–he’s always too enthuastic about the (excellent) production design, recreating late 1940s Black Los Angeles. With Tak Fujimoto’s warm but vibrant photography, the “regular life” part of the film is breathtaking. Sadly, Franklin’s too loose on the mystery side and he can’t bind the two.

The script’s the same way. Franklin has devices for lead Denzel Washington, including the narration, but also just how Franklin directs the scene. How he visualizes the space Washington occupies with the people he comes across. Washington’s a Black WWII vet turned amateur P.I. tracking down missing rich white guy’s white girlfriend Jennifer Beals. Franklin and Washington pay a lot of attention to personal space and what it reveals about character relationships, race relationships. But when they get the most ambitious, the narration fails. Or just isn’t present.

And Washington’s biggest character development arc is out of nowhere, introduced over halfway into the movie, with Don Cheadle’s arrival. Franklin desperately tries to forecast Cheadle through dialogue, narration, even one of the film’s ill-implied flashbacks. Yet when it comes time for Cheadle to get called up, Franklin botches the narration. Franklin sets up Devil in a Blue Dress to need narration–even though he and Washington could easily get away without it, Washington’s great and Franklin’s great with his actors–but he sets it up as an essential, then botches it.

It’s really unfortunate.

There are stops and starts throughout the film–scenes transitions are usually awkward, either too heavy or too light. Fujimoto’s photography on the investigation stuff is bad, which is an additional problem given the first act visual tone doesn’t match the rest of the film. But Franklin doesn’t know what to do with those scenes either. Devil in a Blue Dress tries to avoid film noir tropes so bad it ends up putting its back out.

The acting is either good or great. Washington is great. His performance has a sadness Franklin the director focus on, but Franklin the screenwriter ignores. Cheadle’s phenomenal as Washington’s loyal, unrepentent murderer sidekick. Tom Sizemore’s good as Washington’s mysterious client turned nemesis. Mel Winkler and Jernard Burks are real good in smaller parts. Lisa Nicole Carson’s good.

But then there’s Beals, who’s just okay. Some of it is Franklin’s direction; she’s supposed to be a femme fatale, but Devil in a Blue Dress doesn’t believe in femme fatales and she’s written as one. She’s another victim to Franklin’s indecision.

And Maury Chaykin is just bad. He’s only in a couple scenes, but they’re important ones, and he’s just too much. Same thing. Written as a noir villain, but Franklin doesn’t want to engage it.

Elmer Bernstein’s score is oddly half on, half off. Either way, it lacks personality, which is a no-no for Devil in a Blue Dress; everything else about it exudes personality. Except, obviously, Fujimoto’s “noir” shots.

Devil in a Blue Dress features some wonderful possibilities, some great photography, some great direction, some great performances. It should be amazing. It’s sad it isn’t.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Carl Franklin; screenplay by Franklin, based on the novel by Walter Mosley; director of photography, Tak Fujimoto; edited by Carole Kravetz Aykanian; music by Elmer Bernstein; production designer, Gary Frutkoff; produced by Jesse Beaton and Gary Goetzman; released by TriStar Pictures.

Starring Denzel Washington (Easy Rawlins), Jennifer Beals (Daphne Monet), Don Cheadle (Mouse Alexander), Tom Sizemore (Dewitt Albright), Terry Kinney (Todd Carter), Mel Winkler (Joppy), Jernard Burks (Dupree Brouchard), Lisa Nicole Carson (Coretta James), and Maury Chaykin (Matthew Terell).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE COLOURS BLOGATHON HOSTED BY THOUGHTS ALL SORTS.


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Flight (2012, Robert Zemeckis)

There are so many easy targets in Flight. Not really the acting, even though a lot of the supporting cast is phoning it in. They’re good actors–Don Cheadle, John Goodman (doing a riff on Big Lebowski)–and they’re capable at phoning it in.

It’d be impossible for them to do anything else, however, given director Zemeckis. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a feature film where the famous songs playing in the background always directly inform the action. It’s either incredibly condescending to the audience or it’s just supposed to be the most obvious movie ever made.

Occasionally, because the acting from Denzel Washington and Kelly Reilly is so good, I thought there might be a chance it was all a ruse and Zemeckis and writer John Gatins were lulling the audience into a false sense of security. Flight isn’t about a happy ending, it’s about Denzel Washington, movie star and good guy, playing a fundamentally decent human being who has a lot of problems. But he can overcome those problems… because he’s Denzel Washington, good guy.

The film savors each moment of Washington’s failed attempts at redemption, every time he goes lower into the depths–it’s telling Flight skips ahead during what would have been its most difficult section dramatically.

Ignoring the trite foreshadowing, the manipulative writing, the general cheapness of the film overall, Flight is incredibly watchable. Both for Washington’s performance and, sure, to bemusedly regard Zemeckis’s vapid pseudo-sincerity. It takes major hits in the third act before going down.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Zemeckis; written by John Gatins; director of photography, Don Burgess; edited by Jeremiah O’Driscoll; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, Nelson Coates; produced by Walter F. Parkes, Laurie MacDonald, Jack Rapke, Steve Starkey and Zemeckis; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Denzel Washington (Whip Whitaker), Don Cheadle (Hugh Lang), Kelly Reilly (Nicole), John Goodman (Harling Mays), Bruce Greenwood (Charlie Anderson), Brian Geraghty (Ken Evans), Tamara Tunie (Margaret Thomason), Nadine Velazquez (Katerina Marquez), Peter Gerety (Avington Carr), Garcelle Beauvais (Deana) and Melissa Leo (Ellen Block).


The Pelican Brief (1993, Alan J. Pakula)

If you’re ever stuck watching The Pelican Brief, you can amuse yourself wondering if the film would be better had Pakula shot it 1.85 as opposed to Panavision. Pakula shoots it empty Panavision, the right and left sides of the frame empty for easier pan-and-scanning. It’s an inexplicable choice from Pakula, but not as inexplicable as him doing a Grisham adaptation in the first place (wait, never mind… money). It’s the modern Hollywood version of his paranoia trilogy (which was seventies Hollywood and, therefore, quite different).

The film is a disastrous piece of garbage. It’s boring, it’s long, it’s stupid—James Horner is just recycling scores again. There’s nothing like a Julia Roberts movie with Star Trek II music.

It’s also not a real conspiracy thriller. All of Roberts’s fears are validated… ad nauseam. Of course, since it’s a Grisham movie, it’s unlikely, but uncertainty might’ve improved the film.

Roberts is terrible. She’s supposed to smart in Pelican Brief, which is hilarious. It’s absurd to think she might have even found the LSAT testing room.

Denzel Washington’s great, in Warner’s attempt to turn him into a marquee star. But John Lithgow (as his boss) is horrendous—and Lithgow’s constant concerns over a racial discrimination suit are painful.

The supporting casting is phenomenal. Robert Culp’s good as the stupidest president ever. John Heard’s good, Stanley Tucci’s wasted. James Sikking is good. William Atherton and Anthony Heald are wasted in small roles. Sam Shepard is slumming.

It’s a dreadful film.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Alan J. Pakula; screenplay by Pakula, based on the novel by John Grisham; director of photography, Stephen Goldblatt; edited by Tom Rolf and Trudy Ship; music by James Horner; production designer, Philip Rosenberg; produced by Pieter Jan Brugge and Pakula; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Julia Roberts (Darby Shaw), Denzel Washington (Gray Grantham), Sam Shepard (Thomas Callahan), John Heard (Gavin Vereek), Tony Goldwyn (Fletcher Coal), James Sikking (FBI Director Denton Voyles), William Atherton (Bob Gminski), Stanley Tucci (Khamel), Hume Cronyn (Justice Rosenberg), John Lithgow (Smith Keen), Anthony Heald (Marty Velmano), Nicholas Woodeson (Stump), Stanley Anderson (Edwin Sneller), John Finn (Matthew Barr), Cynthia Nixon (Alice Stark), Jake Weber (Garcia) and Robert Culp as the President of the United States.


Unstoppable (2010, Tony Scott)

It would go a little far to say Scott’s reinvented the disaster genre with Unstoppable, but he’s certainly reinvigorated it. He borrows from the traditional standards (the Irwin Allen is heaviest in the first act, when setting up innocent people–children no less–in peril), then a little from the revisionist standards (the Die Hard approach), while maintaining a brisk pace. The present action isn’t quite real time, but close to it.

Scott maintains his formula (solid composition if you can catch it–he cuts away from his shots every one and a half seconds) and it works out. He and cinematographer Ben Seresin construct a thoroughly acceptable action picture. But–even though Mark Bomback’s script waxes melodramatic for the protagonists’ ground situations–the movie really succeeds because of Denzel Washington.

Why Washington, maybe the most assured movie star of his generation, wastes his time with Scott films is inexplicable. His performance here is outstanding, whether it’s chewing or hopping from train car to train car. It’s so good, in fact, it hurts Chris Pine.

Pine does an okay job. Bomback’s script gives him a stupid backstory and continues it through the entire film instead of just setting him up and leaving him alone. Worst is when Jessy Schramm, as his wife, shows up. She probably has three lines and she’s absolutely godawful.

Great supporting turns from Rosario Dawson and Kevin Corrigan and an excellent score from Harry Gregson-Williams round it out.

It’s easily one of Scott’s strongest films.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Tony Scott; written by Mark Bomback; director of photography, Ben Seresin; edited by Chris Lebenzon and Robert Duffy; music by Harry Gregson-Williams; production designer, Chris Seagers; produced by Julie Yorn, Scott, Mimi Rogers, Eric McLeod and Alex Young; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Denzel Washington (Frank), Chris Pine (Will), Rosario Dawson (Connie), Kevin Dunn (Galvin), Ethan Suplee (Dewey), Kevin Corrigan (Inspector Werner), Lew Temple (Ned), Kevin Chapman (Bunny), T.J. Miller (Gilleece), Jessy Schram (Darcy) and David Warshofsky (Judd Stewart).


The Book of Eli (2010, Albert and Allen Hughes)

I guess if The Book of Eli were a bigger hit, someone would have told Nick Cave composers Atticus Ross, Leopold Ross and Claudia Sarne ripped off the beginning of his “In the Ghetto” cover and turned it into the musical score’s theme.

Someone else might let Kevin Costner know about the… ahem… similarities between Eli and The Postman, but… those are the only good parts of Eli, so maybe don’t.

For about half the movie–it’s so split there should be a title card reading “End of Part One”–The Book of Eli is real good. It’s Denzel Washington doing an action movie, but one where he gets to play his age, and also a samurai. There’s Gary Oldman playing the boss of an Old West town, only in a post-apocalyptic future. It’s solid. It’s good.

I mean, the Hughes Brothers can direct. Their action sequences in this film, undoubtedly tied together with CG, are astoundingly good.

So what goes wrong? A couple things. First, Mila Kunis. She’s more convincing as a voice on “Family Guy” than actually giving a full performance. She’s incredibly weak and it’s not believable Washington’s hardened road warrior would have let her tag along, much less become emotionally attached to her.

Second, it’s got a moronic, “affecting,” “real” ending. I’m sure the filmmakers thought it was honest or something.

But it’s not honest to the good parts of this film, so it must be being honest to something else.

Total waste of time.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Albert and Allen Hughes; written by Gary Whitta; director of photography, Don Burgess; edited by Cindy Mollo; music by Atticus Ross, Leopold Ross and Claudia Sarne; production designer, Gae Buckley; produced by Joel Silver, Denzel Washington, Broderick Johnson, Andrew A. Kosove and David Valdes; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Denzel Washington (Eli), Gary Oldman (Carnegie), Mila Kunis (Solara), Ray Stevenson (Redridge), Jennifer Beals (Claudia), Tom Waits (Engineer), Frances de la Tour (Martha) and Michael Gambon (George).


Virtuosity (1995, Brett Leonard)

Virtuosity, being from the 1990s, is from the era when both Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington didn’t only appear in films directed by the Brothers Scott and Kelly Lynch was still in movies getting theatrical releases. It’s an early CG movie, with lots of computer references and set in the “near future.” It’s incredibly solid, however, for what it is–an action thriller.

Barely anything happens in the film not related to the main plot. There’s no romance between Washington and Lynch–partially, I’m sure, because of Washington’s boycott on interracial romances but also because there’s just no time for it. The movie’s present action is something like forty hours. Enough time to introduce conflict then go through a lot of action to resolve it.

While Washington’s great in the film, it’s a sturdy, leading man great. He’s barely charming here, as Virtuosity is well into his asexual film career (was it Gene Siskel who said he was the only guy who could play James Bond?). Instead it’s Crowe who gets to have all the fun, playing a psychotic virtual reality serial killer or something. It’s mostly about him just being crazy and good at it. It’s maybe not daring, but a lot more than what his acting has become.

Leonard’s a fine director. He can compose shots. It’s the 1990s, there’s a Peter Gabriel song over the end credits.

Unfortunately, the principal supporting cast member–Stephen Spinella–is beyond terrible. Amongst the sturdy character actors, he seriously hinders Virtuosity.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Brett Leonard; written by Eric Bernt; director of photography, Gale Tattersall; edited by B.J. Sears and Rob Kobrin; music by Christopher Young; production designer, Nilo Rodis-Jamero; produced by Gary Lucchesi; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Denzel Washington (Lt. Parker Barnes), Kelly Lynch (Madison Carter), Russell Crowe (SID 6.7), Stephen Spinella (Lindenmeyer), William Forsythe (William Cochran), Louise Fletcher (Elizabeth Deane), William Fichtner (Wallace), Costas Mandylor (John Donovan) and Kevin J. O’Connor (Clyde Reilly).


The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009, Tony Scott)

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 might be the worst directed film I’ve ever liked. I haven’t seen a Tony Scott effort in eight years and he just gets more and more obnoxious with the post production effects. It’s like he’s competing with himself to affect more style and be more visually incoherent than any other filmmaker working today. With the possible exception of Simon West, he seems to be succeeding.

But even Scott can’t ruin a solid Denzel Washington star vehicle and, with the exception of John Travolta, Pelham is rather well-cast. Luis Guzmán is wasted, but James Gandolfini has some good moments, as does John Turturro. Instead of teaming with Scott again for this one, Washington should have brought in Spike Lee, whose realistic sense of New York would have played well with Helgeland’s script’s more fanciful, Hollywood characterization.

The film’s only source credit is the novel, which it doesn’t resemble much narratively, and it doesn’t improve anything on the earlier adaptation. In fact, it wastes the potential with Travolta, who does better than usual I suppose, but he’s not interesting to watch opposite Washington. He’s just not in the same caliber of acting and it isn’t interesting.

The film’s way too long, with the third act dragging on and on. The end’s a little bit absurd too, as Scott tries to pretend he’s capable of an honest observation of the human condition.

But it’s a decent hostage thriller. Even if Scott’s mise-en-scène horrifies.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Tony Scott; screenplay by Brian Helgeland, based on the novel by John Godey; director of photography, Tobias A. Schliessler; edited by Chris Lebenzon; music by Harry Gregson-Williams; production designer, Chris Seagers; produced by Todd Black, Scott, Jason Blumenthal and Steve Tisch; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Denzel Washington (Walter Garber), John Travolta (Ryder), John Turturro (Camonetti), Luis Guzmán (Phil Ramos), Michael Rispoli (John Johnson), James Gandolfini (Mayor), Frank Wood (Police Commissioner Sterman), John Benjamin Hickey (Deputy Mayor LaSalle), Gary Basaraba (Jerry Pollard) and Ramon Rodriguez (Delgado).


Inside Man (2006, Spike Lee)

Inside Man has got to be the cleverest remake of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three made to date, starring Denzel Washington as Walter Matthau and Clive Owen as Robert Shaw and Jodie Foster as Martin Balsam. Okay, just kidding. Kind of. Inside Man, rather pointedly, follows in the Dog Day Afternoon tradition of the present action being the robbery and hostage situation and the film’s running time being divided, more or less equally, between cops and robbers. And Denzel Washington is playing Walter Matthau, or the same kind of role Matthau played in Pelham… a non-specific cop role with a little back-story but only enough to confuse the most gullible viewer he’s not just a cog in the plot. Washington turns in Inside Man’s least compelling performance (except maybe the–until this film–always reliable Chiwetel Ejiofar, who follows Washington around and gets shown up by Daryl Mitchell in a practical cameo)–Washington wears a hat to make him stand out. In terms of being an actor’s role or an actor’s film, it’s embarrassing, but Inside Man doesn’t offer either of those things. Instead, it’s a real solid, traditional bank robbery movie.

One of the film’s most traditional elements, after it opens–almost as a tease to the audience–different (more in line with a Spike Lee “joint”), is Terence Blanchard’s score. It’s classic Hollywood music for the genre. It’s really good and effective, but it’s the norm. Spike’s direction reminds a lot of the third Die Hard, probably the first time I’ve ever thought of John McTiernan during a Spike Lee film, with only one patented walking shot and a few too many dolly zooms (like four–Spike’s a little too good of a director to use exclamation points).

Clive Owen’s excellent, turning in the film’s best performance (though the morality angle of the script is kind of cheap and uninteresting). Jodie Foster is okay in her role, though it seems like they really wanted her name on the poster or something, because any number of non-Academy Award winning prestige actors could have played the part. Willem Dafoe has a smaller role and he’s excellent, getting in to the communal spirit of the cop scenes in a way Washington cannot. Even Ejiofar manages well in those moments, but Washington is in a movie star role and can’t break for the small stuff. Christopher Plummer–in the hiss-friendly villain role–does a little less than he could, even if the character is terribly defined in the script.

The script’s high points are the plotting–which Spike and Blanchard had a lot to do with making great–and the heist itself. They aren’t so good in the character moments. Also really good are the cop moments, though it’s weird to see Spike do a traditional cop movie after he made such pointed changes–with great success–to Clockers. There’s a neat little Clockers reference in Inside Man, but I’d imagine the films are for very different audiences.

I do have to say, I find the film’s reputation for it’s plot innovations a little silly. Besides being predictable–except perhaps in regards to its MacGuffin–it’s essentially a remake of Quick Change, only serious….

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Spike Lee; written by Russell Gewirtz; director of photography, Matthew Libatique; edited by Barry Alexander Brown; music by Terence Blanchard; production designer, Wynn Thomas; produced by Brian Grazer; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Denzel Washington (Detective Keith Frazier), Clive Owen (Dalton Russell), Jodie Foster (Madeline White), Christopher Plummer (Arthur Case), Willem Dafoe (Capt. John Darius) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (Detective Bill Mitchell).


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