Viola Davis

Troop Zero (2019, Bert & Bertie)

Troop Zero is heartwarming but not too heartwarming. It doesn’t promise the stars as much as it promises a gradual slide to fairness; it promises redemption to some but not the ones who really need it. It avoids any seriousness to instead provide consistent, constant entertainment. Often in the form of amusing montage sequences with good soundtrack accompaniment and excellent editing from Catherine Haight. But as anything other than consistent, constant entertainment? Troop Zero’s got a lot of problems.

The film’s the story of a girl living poor in rural Georgia in the late seventies (Mckenna Grace, who’s likable and perfectly fine but has any great moments; she’s a solid child actor, who isn’t doing anything special). She finds out if you’re in the Girl Scouts (they’re called something else, obviously), you might be on the gold record NASA is shooting out into space on a Voyager spacecraft. If you’re wondering why there’s not a Star Trek: The Motion Picture reference right about now, it’s because it’s too hard. Needless to say, I tried.

Anyway. Grace gets her neighbor, pre-gay Charlie Shotwell–Troop Zero has that heartwarming Hollywood take on poor rural Americana when it comes to marginalized people: everyone’s poor and no one cares if you’re gay or Black. There’s a lot of awful bullying in Troop Zero and a bunch of horrific female characters—which is all good because the directors and writer are woman but also maybe not a great look because it implies a lot more seriousness than the film’s ever willing to engage with—but there’s never any overt racism, homophobia, or even sexism. There’s some subtle racism but it’s just to make the main mean girl (Ashley Brooke) even meaner. Sorry, tangents again, which is particularly inappropriate for Troop Zero. It doesn’t have any tangents. When its subplots get attention, it always sticks out because the moments seemed forced in—like top-billed Viola Davis’s law school ambitions or her bonding with stuck-up school principal Allison Janney (who’s redemptive moments seem contractually obligated for all the good they do). So… sorry.

Grace and Shotwell set about getting enough kids for a new troop. See, the manual, which Grace can read and understand because her father (Jim Gaffigan) is a lawyer who never wins his cases but because the clients are always guilty and encourages her critical thinking skills, never specifies gender requirements. They get Christian girl Bella Higginbotham, then bully and extorter Milan Ray, and Ray’s enforcer, Johanna Colón. To varying degrees, the kids are all entertaining. Colón and Shotwell get the most situational comedy, Ray’s got a decent sort of subplot about unexpectedly bonding with Grace (which gets mostly forgotten in the third act), and Higginbotham’s always sympathetic. They never quite bond with troop leader Davis, which makes sense as boss Gaffigan ordered her to take the gig. Will the troop get over their differences and band together to take it to the finals? Will they defeat the mean girls?

Those questions might be important if Troop Zero needed them to decide anything. There’s a definite lack of conflict in the film outside the bullying. Gaffigan’s a sweetheart and in permanently in the red with his law practice, meaning Davis can’t get paid, but they’re always okay. There’s never much narrative danger. Often there’s none at all. So when the film fails to muster enough enthusiasm to seep through on the grand finale, it’s not unexpected. Troop Zero, despite the energetic montages and the directors adequate inventiveness as far as composition—cinematographer James Whitaker ably assists—never has much directed energy. Never much focus. Grace gets scenes to herself, Davis gets scenes to herself, Janney gets scenes to herself. Grace is the de facto protagonist because she narrates the film; otherwise, she’d be sharing focus with Davis, Janney, and maybe even Gaffigan.

And Grace has got a kids’ story arc. It’s got some real depth to it, but it’s still a kids’ story arc. The film’s handling of Grace clashes with its handling of the adults. Davis and Janney, for example, they don’t have kiddie arcs. Widower Gaffigan wouldn’t have a kiddie arc. My pejorative use of kiddie here is just to mean non-confrontational. Bullying aside.

Davis is great, Gaffigan’s great, Janney’s great. Grace is okay. Ray’s good. Colón’s adorable. The kids are all fine—Higginbotham, Shotwell—when something doesn’t work out for them, it’s just as often the script or direction versus the kid.

For the actors’ sake, it’d be really nice if Troop Zero was more successful, less uneven. It’s got a good (albeit unrealistic) heart and a very likable cast. And the grand finale talent show is true delight.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Bert & Bertie; written by Lucy Alibar; director of photography, James Whitaker; edited by Catherine Haight; music by Rob Lord; production designer, Laura Fox; costume designer, Caroline Eselin; produced by Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal, Kate Churchill, Steve Tisch, and Viola Davis; released by Amazon Studios.

Starring Mckenna Grace (Christmas Flint), Viola Davis (Miss Rayleen), Jim Gaffigan (Ramsey Flint), Allison Janney (Miss Massey), Charlie Shotwell (Joseph), Milan Ray (Hell-No Price), Johanna Colón (Smash), Bella Higginbotham (Anne-Claire), Mike Epps (Dwayne Champaign), Ashley Brooke (Piper Keller), and Ash Thapliyal (Persad).


Widows (2018, Steve McQueen)

Widows is very real. You know it’s very real and not Hollywood because it takes place in Chicago and it’s real Chicago and not Hollywood Chicago. Though Robert Duvall, who gives a fine performance, does make it feel a little like Hollywood Chicago. But it’s also real because Liam Neeson has nose hairs. And because even as horrific events, plot turns, plot twists, horrific revelations bombard lead (and ostensible protagonist) Viola Davis, she’s able to harness all of them and make it all seem reasonable and not contrived. Because she’s Viola Davis and she’s what makes Widows possible. Without her gravitas, director McQueen and co-screenwriter Gillian Flynn couldn’t get away with half of it.

McQueen and Flynn are adapting a six hour British series. Might explain the episodic plotting, might not. Widows has an expansive plot. Until it doesn’t. There’s a switch thrown somewhere in the middle when McQueen and Flynn stop with the expanding. Once Cynthia Erivo is on the team, everything changes. Including who gets character development. The film’s well-paced enough you don’t even realize a couple characters go on pause and Davis is in the picture less and less after her inital story arc ends. But it also means when the finale comes up short and awkwardly so… well, all of a sudden it’s time to cash in Widows’s chips and McQueen’s been bluffing.

Not to mix metaphors.

The film is about Widows Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, and Carrie Coon. Erivo is actually a babysitter; unfortunately the original British series is not called Four Widows and a Babysitter. The film opens with the women and their men. Then their men, career robbers, all die. Horribly. So now the widows have to figure out what to do, because none of their men left them in good shape financially.

Coon, for instance, has a newborn. She was married to Coburn Goss, who has no personality in his few scenes. Unlike some of the other dead husbands. Manuel Garcia-Rulfo is a deadbeat who steals all wife Rodriguez’s money. She has a thrift store. Debicki’s husband, Jon Bernthal, is mentally and physically abusive. But mostly physically. And then there’s crew leader Liam Neeson. Charming career robber, known and hated by cops, beloved by crooks, on and on. He’s married to Davis. Her scenes imagining Neeson still with her–nose hairs and all–should be some of Widows’s best moments for McQueen. Instead, he just showcases Davis’s acting and doesn’t do anything else with it. Because Widows is too real.

As such, all mastermind thief Neeson leaves beloved widow Davis is his Moleskine. It’s got the plans to his next job. He also leaves her Garret Dillahunt, driver and boy Friday. Dillahunt’s good. In hindsight, his part should’ve forecasted McQueen and Flynn’s later problems.

Well, turns out Neeson stole from crime brothers Brian Tyree Henry and Daniel Kaluuya. They have an ill-defined criminal empire. Henry is trying to take the family straight, Kaluuya isn’t so sure. Henry’s plan is to get elected alderman. He just needs to beat corrupt public official and Chicago political family guy Colin Farrell. Duvall is Farell’s dad, the outgoing alderman. He had a heart attack or something. Doesn’t matter.

Henry then goes to Davis and tells her he wants the money–for his campaign, which he doesn’t mention–and she’s got a month to get it. She recruits the other widows to pull Neeson’s last job.

Through their new, sometimes dangerous experiences, Rodriguez and Debicki get character development. Well, Debicki gets it. Rodriguez gets a hint of it, then gets shut down. She becomes more functional, bringing in Erivo later on. Erivo who’s actually part of a C plot about small businesses too. McQueen and Flynn is overloaded with texture. Widows has enough material to be twice as long, because either its supporting characters need to get developed or they need to go away. The first act has a bunch of throwaway characters around just to play with expectations.

The texture–very realistic and don’t you dare acknowledge the adorable puppy–works. When Widows is expansive, it’s because of all that texture. Well-written, well-acted, well-directed texture. Narratively pointless because not even Davis can bring enough gravitas to fix a somewhat craven epilogue. McQueen–intentionally–eschews so much of the heist genre for Widows. And when he finally does employ genre narrative tropes, they’re all the bad ones. He’s also trying not to direct the thriller sequences–Kaluuya takes it upon himself to stalk and terrorize Davis in another C plot–but McQueen does a bunch of thriller sequences. And rather well. His narrative instincts are strong and he can do a lot with his cast, but the script’s the script. The twists, the turns, the disappearing characters.

Davis is great, Debicki is great. Rodriguez is good. She doesn’t get enough to do. She doesn’t even get C plots, she just gets to bring in Erivo, who does get a C plot. But Rodriguez is probably in the movie more than Erivo. She’s at least more active in the first act.

Erivo’s good. Again, thin part. Erivo acts the hell out of it.

Farrell ought to be great but his election subplot gets more time in the middle than Davis and crew planning. The whole Farrell thing–which also gets into the Chicago corruption and related institutionalized racism–takes up too much time in the film, which loses track of Davis and skips over Rodriguez. Great acting, great direction of that acting, good part, not great part.

Duvall’s a cameo pretending to be bigger. Henry’s fine. Kaluuya’s good, but the part’s too functional. And has no character development. None of the men get character development. At best they get some revelations. And it’s fine. But it’s thin.

Technically, the film’s perfect. McQueen’s composition, Sean Bobbitt’s photography, Joe Walker’s editing, Adam Stockhausen’s production design. It’s all great. The Hans Zimmer score is good but very functional.

Widows is fine work, with some near exceptional elements. And some particular problems.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Steve McQueen; screenplay by Gillian Flynn and McQueen, based on the television series written by Lynda La Plante; director of photography, Sean Bobbitt; edited by Joe Walker; music by Hans Zimmer; production designer, Adam Stockhausen; produced by Iain Canning, McQueen, Arnon Milchan, and Emile Sherman; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Viola Davis (Veronica), Elizabeth Debicki (Alice), Michelle Rodriguez (Linda), Cynthia Erivo (Belle), Carrie Coon (Amanda), Colin Farrell (Jack Mulligan), Garret Dillahunt (Bash), Daniel Kaluuya (Jatemme Manning), Lukas Haas (David), Brian Tyree Henry (Jamal Manning), Liam Neeson (Harry Rawlings), Jon Bernthal (Florek), Manuel Garcia-Rulfo (Carlos), Coburn Goss (Jimmy Nunn), Molly Kunz (Siobhan), Jacki Weaver (Agnieska), Kevin J. O’Connor (Bobby Welsh), Jon Michael Hill (Reverend Wheeler), and Robert Duvall (Tom Mulligan).


Suicide Squad (2016, David Ayer)

Suicide Squad is a terrible film. It’s poorly directed, it’s poorly written, it’s poorly acted (some of the bad acting is the fault of the script, which doesn’t have a good moment in it, some of it’s just the actors), it’s terribly photographed, edited, it’s got lousy special effects, it’s this kind of bad, it’s that kind of bad.

Suicide Squad is the pits of mainstream motion pictures–though, you take a movie about a bunch of comic book supervillains and give them lame, pseudo-edgy back stories, and try to entertain the eight year old boys seeing it, with director Ayer and his risibly inept crew, what else could it be? From the first few minutes–outside a couple decent flashback sets (not shots, not scenes, just the sets)–it’s clear the film’s terrible. Once it’s clear Viola Davis is going to have a terribly written role and be terrible in it–you can see the pain of accepting the role in her eyes–there’s nothing to look forward to in the film.

Almost every performance is either bad or awful. Scott Eastwood has about four lines and is background scenery the rest of the time, but he’s far better than most of the other actors. Cara Delevingne is easily the worst performance in the film, followed by Joel Kinnaman as her love interest and the guy who bosses all the supervillains on their lame mission (Ayer’s script is crap at exposition, it’s crap at character development, it’s crap at plotting).

You know, let’s go through the performances bad to best. I might be able to handle that approach, because otherwise the reaction to Suicide Squad is to never want to see another film again. It’s such a disservice to the medium.

Worst is actually Jared Leto, not Delevingne. Delevingne’s awful, but Leto’s far worse. His Joker isn’t crazy, just a blinged-out crime lord who doesn’t so much commit crime as fetishize committing crime. In clubs. Where girlfriend Margot Robbie pole dances. She used to be his psychiatrist. Robbie seems way too young to have gone from clinical psychologist to deranged “queen of crime,” but there are far more obviously deficiencies as far as her character goes. Director Ayer relishes objectifying her; along with the casual violent misogyny and occasional but consistent racist jokes, Robbie betrays Ayer’s target audience: immature male viewers stupid enough to think his movie is cool. Because Suicide Squad isn’t even chilly. Not at its most outlandish moments does it even approach chilly, Ayer’s really bad at directing his bad script. His photographer–Roman Vasyanov–is incompetent at shooting it. His editor, John Gilroy, can’t cut it either. Though Gilroy gets the closest to a pass because it’s not like there are any good takes or setups.

Back to the actors. Leto’s the worst, then Delevingne, then Kinnaman. At that point it starts to get a little confusing. Robbie’s not good. Her part’s lousy, Ayer’s direction of her is lousy, but she never gets a good moment across either. Maybe because Ayer really enjoys victimizing her throughout. Oh, Adam Beach. He likes to hit women. Though he’s convincing in the role. He doesn’t do anything else really.

Maybe sorting the performances isn’t a good idea. There a lot of crappy supporting ones too.

The least embarrassed actor is Jai Courtney. He doesn’t have enough material and his “manic” character is barely around enough to leave an impression, good or bad. He’s trying though. Jay Hernandez is also trying. He’s got a lot of terrible material, but he does try. Will Smith isn’t as bad as he could be. He’s got some bad dialogue and a dumb character arc, but he’s better than most of his costars. Ike Barinholtz is terrible. Sure, his part of abusive sadist is thin, but he’s still bad.

Suicide Squad is an abject waste of time. It’s not well-made in any way, its only surprises come from Ayer’s constant inabilities to direct any of his crap screenplay. The saddest thing about the film is its existence at all. It’s embarrassing it could get made. Any Warner Bros. executives with their fingerprints on this piece of excrement should take the Long Walk as an act of contrition.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by David Ayer; director of photography, Roman Vasyanov; edited by John Gilroy; music by Steven Price; production designer, Oliver Scholl; produced by Charles Roven and Richard Suckle; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Will Smith (Deadshot), Margot Robbie (Harley Quinn), Joel Kinnaman (Flag), Viola Davis (Amanda Waller), Jai Courtney (Captain Boomerang), Jay Hernandez (El Diablo), Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Killer Croc), Karen Fukuhara (Katana), Cara Delevingne (June Moone), Adam Beach (Slipknot), Ike Barinholtz (Griggs), Scott Eastwood (GQ) and Jared Leto (The Joker).


Prisoners (2013, Denis Villeneuve)

Director Villeneuve takes a very interesting approach to how a thriller works with Prisoners. He ignores it. During the first act, there are quite a few flirtations with thriller standards. But the film almost always immediately dismisses them–like Villeneuve and writer Aaron Guzikowski are holding up a standard, tossing it away. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s music helps them through these quick examinations, as does Roger Deakins’s photography. Villeneuve gets some truly astounding shots with Deakins. Many are so good one wonders how Villeneuve resisted showing off. He never does.

That restraint carries over to the performances as well. Prisoners is constantly difficult. In theory, the four primary actors should be Hugh Jackman, Maria Bello, Viola Davis and Terrence Howard. They play two couples who have had their daughters abducted, they should be the leads. Well, them and Jake Gyllenhaal as the primary detective.

But no. And there’s another break–Gyllenhaal doesn’t have a partner. When’s the last time a movie cop didn’t have a partner. But Jackman takes matters into his own hands and the film juxtapositions his pursuit against Gyllenhaal’s. They aren’t alter egos; Guzikowski wouldn’t never be so simplistic. The script’s phenomenal.

Both Jackman and Gyllenhaal are amazing. Gyllenhaal wins out. He has a more complicated role and more screen time.

Great supporting work from Davis and Wayne Duvall. Bello and Howard have the least to do in the film, another of Villeneuve and Guzikowski’s plays on expectations. They’re both good. There’s no weak performances.

Prisoners is truly exceptional.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Denis Villeneuve; written by Aaron Guzikowski; director of photography, Roger Deakins; edited by Joel Cox and Gary Roach; music by Jóhann Jóhannsson; production designer, Patrice Vermette; produced by Kira Davis, Broderick Johnson, Adam Kolbrenner and Andrew A. Kosove; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Hugh Jackman (Keller Dover), Jake Gyllenhaal (Detective Loki), Viola Davis (Nancy Birch), Maria Bello (Grace Dover), Terrence Howard (Franklin Birch), Melissa Leo (Holly Jones), Paul Dano (Alex Jones), Dylan Minnette (Ralph Dover), Zoe Borde (Eliza Birch), Erin Gerasimovich (Anna Dover), Kyla Drew Simmons (Joy Birch), Wayne Duvall (Captain Richard O’Malley), David Dastmalchian (Bob Taylor) and Len Cariou (Father Patrick Dunn).


Knight and Day (2010, James Mangold), the extended cut

Cameron Diaz only gets to be unbearably obnoxious–her usual persona–when Tom Cruise is off screen during Knight and Day, which, luckily, isn’t often. Amusingly, Cruise’s absence coincides with supporting cast member Maggie Grace’s principal scene and seeing her and Diaz together is chilling… Attack of the content-less blondes.

Luckily, Cruise is around for most of the film and he makes it a breezy, amusing experience. There are a few concepts at play–it’s a James Bond movie told from the perspective of the good Bond girl, it’s Cruise slightly aping the Mission: Impossible franchise, but mostly it’s just seeing what a movie star can do. I find most of Cruise’s work post-Risky Business and pre-Magnolia to be unbearable (the male Cameron Diaz?), but Knight shows, whatever the hiccups, he’s a movie star and, thankfully, still able to turn in a good performance.

It’s unfortunate it’s not in a better script with a better director (Mangold’s reliance on awful-looking CG composites for action scenes is inexplicable), but couch-jumping has its costs.

Besides Paul Dano, who’s great in a small but essential role, the supporting cast is surprisingly weak. Peter Sarsgaard has a lousy accent, Viola Davis can’t figure out how to play a terribly written role… Marc Blucas is barely in the film, but he gives one of the better performances.

A lot of Knight and Day plays like Romancing the Stone, only less charming (Diaz is most appealing when playing drunk).

It’s up to Cruise to carry it and he does.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by James Mangold; written by Patrick O’Neill; director of photography, Phedon Papamichael; edited by Quincy Z. Gunderson and Michael McCusker; music by John Powell; production designer, Andrew Menzies; produced by Cathy Konrad, Todd Garner and Steve Pink; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Tom Cruise (Roy Miller), Cameron Diaz (June Havens), Peter Sarsgaard (Fitzgerald), Jordi Mollà (Antonio), Viola Davis (Director George), Paul Dano (Simon Feck), Falk Hentschel (Bernhard), Marc Blucas (Rodney), Lennie Loftin (Braces) and Maggie Grace (April Havens).


State of Play (2009, Kevin Macdonald)

Who has the least personality when it comes to State of Play? Director Kevin Macdonald? He shoots the most boring Panavision-sized frame I think I’ve ever seen. I’ve never seen a Brett Ratner movie from start to finish, but… Macdonald’s boring. He’s not bad, he’s just not any good at all. The lack of a distinctive screenwriter is also a problem–Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray are all hacks. I mean, they’re–at times–fine hacks, but none of them is a distinctive screenwriter. They’re the kind of guys Carrie Fisher comes in to fix up and, watching State of Play, one can’t help but think she rewrote the scenes between Russell Crowe and Robin Wright.

But it’s not just the behind-the-camera talent… no one in front of the camera has any personality either. I mean, Helen Mirren does because she occasionally swears with her British accent. It’s The Queen swearing; laugh. And the audience does laugh, because it’s why she’s swearing. For comic relief. State of Play is a newspaper drama in the post-newspaper age, which means lots of derogatory blog comments. But, you know what? It doesn’t provide a useful defense of printed media. There’s nothing, after all the film’s emphasis on Crowe as the traditional reporter and sidekick Rachel McAdams as the blogger, to show McAdams’s blog couldn’t have done all the narrative’s whistle-blowing.

McAdams and Crowe are both fine. Really, they’re fine. I mean, they have all the personality of a “Tonight Show” guest and it’s like the film’s producers didn’t understand Crowe is an actor, not a screen presence, so casting him in a lousy role, one needing a presence, was a bad idea. McAdams is the same situation. She has no character and no personality. For the majority of the film, State of Play relies on Mirren for relief. Sometimes, it’s Wright. She’s been doing these crappy wife roles for ten years, so it’s no surprise she doesn’t break a sweat doing another one, even one where she’s supposedly married to Ben Affleck.

Ben Affleck is, at the time of this film’s release, thirty-seven years old. Russell Crowe is forty-five. Robin Wright is forty-three. Crowe and Wright look fine together. State of Play puts Affleck in a bunch of aging make-up. He looks silly. It’s unbelievable he, Crowe and Wright went to college together. It’s unbelievable he and Crowe ever knew each other before the film’s present action. Affleck and Wright are both solid enough to make their marriage, however silly-looking thanks to Affleck’s make-up, work.

Affleck gives the film’s second best performance, after Mirren. Then, I guess, Wright. Then everyone else. They really don’t matter. Andy Garcia would have been far superior in the Crowe role. Anyone with some kind of non-character-based screen presence. Russell Crowe’s an actor, not a matinee star. State of Play needed a matinee star.

Originally, it was going to be Brad Pitt in the Crowe role and Edward Norton in the Affleck role. With them, the film would have at least made sense. It wouldn’t have been good unless Macdonald was gone and the script got a rewrite from a real writer.

Wait, I forgot about Jason Bateman. He gave the film’s best performance. He was fantastic.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Kevin Macdonald; written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray, based on the television series by Paul Abbott; director of photography, Rodrigo Prieto; edited by Justine Wright; music by Alex Heffes; production designer, Mark Friedberg; produced by Andrew Hauptman, Eric Fellner and Tim Bevan; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Russell Crowe (Cal McAffrey), Ben Affleck (Stephen Collins), Rachel McAdams (Della Frye), Helen Mirren (Cameron Lynne), Robin Wright (Anne Collins), Jason Bateman (Dominic Foy), Jeff Daniels (Rep. George Fergus), Michael Berresse (Robert Bingham), Harry Lennix (Det. Donald Bell), Josh Mostel (Pete), Michael Weston (Hank), Barry Shabaka Henley (Gene Stavitz) and Viola Davis (Dr. Judith Franklin).


Doubt (2008, John Patrick Shanley)

There’s a good movie somewhere in the idea of Doubt (a nun suspects a priest of molesting a child, but it’s 1964 and the patriarchy of the Church isn’t going to listen to her). The film’s full of almost detective moments (and faux-auteur Shanley pulls out some Hitchcock angles after the big reveal), but the film never embraces that nature. As a character study masquerading as a detective story, Doubt would have been fantastic. As an awkward conversation drama–Shanley opens the film in the church’s neighborhood, then never returns to this neighborhood, it’s all malarky to make a theater adaptation seem opened up for the screen–it’s a failure.

The fault lies, obviously, with Shanley. There are two major problems with his script here. First, either Philip Seymour Hoffman is a good guy priest unduly hunted by Streep or he’s a child molester. I’m sure Shanley feels the movie–ultimately–lets the viewer decide, but that position isn’t just a cop-out (Doubt is in no way a piece about the way people talk to each other so it doesn’t get any leeway for being wishy-washy), it’s also a load. The entire movie, Shanley makes ever action Hoffman takes suspicious. It’s like watching, well, Suspicion. Presumably, the viewer is supposed to wait for proof, for the climatic showdown between Streep and Hoffman where all is revealed. Here’s the problem–if Hoffman’s a pederast, if there’s even a possibility of it, why not just judge him right out. It’s not like Shanley’s just making a movie about a guy killing his wife or robbing a bank, Doubt‘s an argument to–against all the weighted evidence Shanley presents–give the pederast the benefit of the (sorry) doubt. It’s kind of an icky feeling.

The second problem is the lack of character depth. Again, I’m sure Shanley thinks it’s all about the way things play out objectively, but the characters all have hints of depth, but it’s just matte paintings. Streep could have one of her most interesting characters in this part of her career, but instead, she’s playing a mix of the Emperor from Star Wars, the Wicked Witch, Grampa Simpson and the bad lady from Sleeping Beauty. It’s amazing she turns in such a good performance, especially since Shanley wrote most of her dialogue and reactions to get laughs. Her funniest line, the one where Doubt becomes a hilariously turgid melodramatic turd, is actually not for laughs, which goes to show how aware Shanley is of his work.

Sadly, Hoffman isn’t good. His performance shows off his ability–Shanley’s even got him making voices–but the role’s faulty.

Amy Adams is actually pretty darn good, but watching her act opposite Streep and Hoffman… it’s watching a personality (Amy Adams as a naive nun) against actual craftspersons. A trailer for one of Adams’s upcoming pictures played before Doubt and the biggest difference were the vows and the outfit.

Viola Davis has one major scene and is fantastic. Streep’s quiet for most of the scene too, which allows for comparison between the two–Davis wins.

Until that absurdist, goofy last moment, Doubt isn’t terrible. Streep and Adams pull it through–and Hoffman’s fine for the first half, until he’s all of a sudden got to play a real person (something Shanley apparently refuses to write). Alice Drummond’s got a thanklessly small role and she’s awesome. Howard Shore’s music and Roger Deakins’s photography are both excellent.

So where does it go wrong? With Shanley. I’ve never seen someone more ignorant of his or her own work.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by John Patrick Shanley; screenplay by Shanley, based on his play; director of photography, Roger Deakins; edited by Dylan Tichenor; music by Howard Shore; production designer, David Gropman; produced by Scott Rudin and Mark Roybal; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Meryl Streep (Sister Aloysius), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Father Flynn), Amy Adams (Sister James), Viola Davis (Mrs. Miller), Joseph Foster (Donald Miller), Alice Drummond (Sister Veronica), Audrie Neenan (Sister Raymond), Susan Blommaert (Mrs. Carson), Carrie Preston (Christine Hurley) and John Costelloe (Warren Hurley).


The Pentagon Wars (1998, Richard Benjamin)

I can’t remember why I queued The Pentagon Wars. When it started, I kept waiting for the writing credits because I figured it must have been for the writers (it wasn’t). The Pentagon Wars chronicles a colonel’s efforts to get the Pentagon to responsibly develop an armored personnel carrier. It’s also an absurdist comedy. Kelsey Grammer’s the bad guy, the general who can’t answer a straight question and is just waiting for his cushy defense industry job post-retirement. The film alternates between being laugh out-loud funny (Grammer’s fantastic) and depressing. The military-industrial complex shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone and the film actually skirts over that issue quite a bit. Instead, it concentrates on just how much the Pentagon brass is willing to sacrifice troop safety for fashionable accouterments.

The Pentagon Wars was an HBO movie (produced by Jersey Films, which explains some of the quality) and director Richard Benjamin never quite makes it anything more than a televised film. There’s no real character development, no real character arcs, no real character relationships. There’s a bunch of good acting–Grammer, Richard Schiff, John C. McGinley, and Tom Wright (actually, Benjamin’s fine in his cameo too)–and the film’s scenically constructed to allow these actors to amuse. As the straight man, Cary Elwes gives his standard wooden performance. While the script doesn’t involve itself too much with the depth of Elwes’s character, he’s still entirely incapable of giving it any. That arrangement works out, because no matter how many times Elwes fails, the film isn’t requiring him to do anything.

The film, though it never actually quite earns that descriptor, manages to endear itself (mostly due to Benjamin’s amiable handling and the performances). Watching the film–even appreciating it and its humor and its successes (it’s a safe quirky)–I kept wanting it to take itself seriously, as its subject is not a particularly frivolous one. When the seriousness finally did arrive, it came too late–and then the film called upon Elwes… and he couldn’t handle it (surprise, surprise). Still, the attempt was enough to hinder the experience.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Benjamin; screenplay by Jamie Malanowski and Marytn Burke, based on the book by James Burton; director of photography, Robert D. Yeoman; edited by Jacqueline Cambas; music by Joseph Vitarelli; production designer, Vincent M. Cresciman; produced by Howard Meltzer; released by Home Box Office.

Starring Kelsey Grammer (Maj. Gen. Partridge), Cary Elwes (Lt. Col. James Burton), Viola Davis (Platoon Sgt. Fanning), John C. McGinley (Col. J.D. Bock), Tom Wright (Maj. William Sayers), Clifton Powell (Sgt. Benjamn Dalton), Dewey Weber (Sp4 Ganger), Richard Schiff (Col. / Brig. Gen. Robert Laurel Smith), J.C. MacKenzie (Jones), Richard Benjamin (Caspar Weinberger) and Olympia Dukakis (Madam Chairwoman, Armed Services Committee).


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