Tag Archives: Viola Davis

The Clinical and the Expressive — “The Unforgivable”

“The Unforgivable” has a lot of plot to sell you – even more than I think is wise. That doesn’t change the fact that it does so exquisitely. Based on a British series from 2009, “The Unforgivable” stars Sandra Bullock as Ruth Slater. She’s just been released early from prison, after serving 20 years of her sentence for the murder of a police officer. Ruth tries to jump-start a new life while tracking down her sister Katie, who was five when Ruth was arrested.

This is the bare premise for what follows. I went in expecting an examination of the experience of an ex-con trying to rebuild her life and reconnect with family. The ex-con and family legal drama genres are there, but the scope of “The Unforgivable” expands well beyond that. It reaches into an investigation of trauma and sacrifice, but also into the bounds of thriller.

Director Nora Fingscheidt helmed one of the best films of 2020, “System Crasher”. That film followed a young girl with rage issues who had exhausted every resource the social system had to care for her. She became a danger within group homes and with foster families alike, so she was shunted from one place to another. As each reached its limit and passed her on, she became unable to form permanent or stable bonds.

Despite the narrative being very linear, Fingscheidt tells that film in a dual manner. She has command of a documentarian, clinical approach to depicting systems. She meets this with an eye for sensory expression: departures through visuals and syncopation in editing that draw us extremely close to the kind of protagonist we might not otherwise seek out.

That’s on show in “The Unforgivable” as well. The system Ruth navigates is bluntly, clinically depicted. As the audience, we see that story in order, but her experience within all this is a jumble of memories, tensions, and anticipations introduced out of order. In this way, Fingscheidt delivers a linear narrative and a nonlinear emotional experience.

This is merged with an incredibly internalized performance by Bullock. There are moments of explosion and outburst, sure, but for the most part Ruth is contents under pressure. The tension in the film isn’t about seeing her burst, it’s about wondering how she hasn’t yet. The tumultuous moments are well acted, but it’s all those other moments of emotional suppression that define the film.

Bullock has a rare ability to carry movies almost single-handedly (just see “Gravity”). Here, she’s constantly surrounded by people, but her performance feels no less isolated or desperate. It’s among her best performances, if not her best work altogether.

The film’s written well in terms of its moment-to-moment dialogue. It carries multiple threads efficiently. As for the direction the plot takes, it can feel like a ride that jerks you back and forth a few times too many. The amount of cushion for this is going to vary by viewer. A subplot about the children of the police officer Ruth killed – now grown up and seeking revenge – feels like it visits from a less realistic universe.

In the hands of a lesser director, or lesser actors, the number of left turn additions would collapse the whole thing. Yet Bullock is joined by Jon Bernthal, Viola Davis, Vincent D’Onofrio, Rob Morgan, and Aisling Franciosi, among an even larger ensemble cast that more than pulls its weight.

Every revelation too far or late genre shift too many is so perfectly anchored by the performances and filmmaking that I was willing to go along. Pushing around suspension of disbelief as you go is a tricky maneuver, but there’s such an ample well of talent on tap that tension and motivation are pretty well maintained. The intrigue to know what happens next, and how it’s acted and told, outpaces the deluge of plot development.

I did find myself questioning whether these extra shifts were really needed, but I think the film ultimately pulls them off. The initial pitch can seem like “Maid” without the (admittedly well-done) sentimentality, especially when talking about the contrast between an uncaring systemic experience and the personal emotional experience. I don’t think this comparison lasts long, though.

“The Unforgivable” reminds me of a very different genre that nonetheless uses a similar narrative structure. We don’t have to look further than Ben Affleck’s early directing career in “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town”, or to Scott Cooper’s rustbelt noir “Out of the Furnace”, to see other good films that share a similar mentality of excess additions and twists within an otherwise deeply realized, practical, and gritty world. I’d say “The Unforgivable” is better than at least two of these.

There are some key differences. Fingscheidt’s direction doesn’t go toward noir. While all three directors have a keen interest in people screwed over by the system, Fingscheidt’s is the only one that really communicates a clear view of what that system is beyond plot impetus. Furthermore, at least in “The Town” and “Out of the Furnace”, anger at that system merely serves as an excuse for violence. I’d say in “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Unforgivable”, there’s a deeper contemplation of the messy intersection between idealism, accomplishing change, and mitigating harm. Fingscheidt did the homework in substance and not just style.

There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes talent at work here, too. Guillermo Navarro was Guillermo Del Toro’s go-to cinematographer for the first two-thirds of his career. This includes work like “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Devil’s Backbone”, and there’s a similar visual sense of empathy for traumatized characters whose ability to express themselves is stunted and discouraged.

Hans Zimmer joins David Fleming in composing an exceptional score. Fingscheidt’s “System Crasher” editor Stephan Bechinger is joined by Denis Villeneuve’s go-to editor Joe Walker. It’s a blend of sensibilities that works beautifully to create a unique rhythm.

Fingscheidt’s vision for fusing such different approaches is what makes the unwieldy scope of “The Unforgivable” work. Bullock’s performance is spellbinding without ever letting us into this walled-off, incredibly internalized character. It’s not the sort of thing we’ve seen from her before. A performance like that needs Fingscheidt’s ability to present a narrative in two simultaneous tones: the clinical, systemic, and linear joined with the personal, chaotic, and expressive.

Putting these two elements together is what makes the film special. “The Unforgivable” constantly has to find a way to communicate what Bullock won’t, and it connects these fragments beautifully. Does it heap too much plot on and ask too much of your suspension of disbelief? Viewers will have different answers to that question, and that sheds light on the different ways we watch movies.

If your suspension of disbelief and your interest in the emotionally expressive half of the film are both pliable enough to meet, there can be a relatively smooth handover between them. For viewers who treat one or the other of these with more rigidity or definition, there’s a greater gap to cross. Instead of serving the film, that dissonance can be its breaking point for you. You probably have a very good idea which type of viewer you tend to be, and whether you like movies that cross those boundaries or stay within them.

You can watch “The Unforgivable” on Netflix.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write articles like this one.

New Shows + Movies by Women — December 10, 2021

The first series up this week is a pandemic-driven dark comedy from New Zealand. It brings up an interesting conversation when it comes to genre. Shows about pandemics are hardly new. Hits from “The Last Ship” and “12 Monkeys” to more procedural takes like “The Hot Zone” and “Helix” have dominated the last decade. Hell, even “The Strain” kept on straining for four seasons.

Yet during COVID, shows like “The Stand” and “Y: The Last Man” have not lived up to expectations in terms of either viewership or quality. Now, both were in substantial development before COVID hit, so it may not be a case of platforms thinking this is a topical moment. That’s reserved for tackling ill-advised pursuits like “Love in the Time of Corona”. What it does show us is that the fascination with pandemic-driven fare may have waned. After all, it’s no longer escapism for many.

Where does a dark comedy from New Zealand that features pretty explicit imagery of a pandemic and a similar premise to “Y: The Last Man” land? I couldn’t say, but it is one that I have some hope for – in part due to the involvement of Roseanne Liang, director of this year’s massively underrated “Shadow in the Cloud”. The film’s an ambitious period thriller that veers from tight “Twilight Zone” storytelling into absurd pulp action and makes astonishing use of a relatively small budget. If one person can fuse the starkness of a pandemic to a dark, gender-driven comedy, it’s Liang.

Ultimately, interest in pandemic-driven stories is going to be up to the viewer. Some may not want to be reminded in their escapism, while others will see making comedy out of it as a way of reclaiming a sense of control within their escapism. Neither takeaway is right or wrong; just be sure to respect your own reaction about whether watching pandemic-driven stories feels stressful or relieving.

NEW SERIES

CW: pandemic imagery

Creamerie (Hulu)
directed by Roseanne Liang

A plague has killed nearly all men on the planet. The remaining 1% of men are sent to a facility in New Zealand. It’s thought that even they died, until three dairy farmers run over a seemingly impossible survivor.

“Creamerie” is created by actress-producers J.J. Fong and Perlina Lau, and producer-director Roseanne Liang. As mentioned, Liang delivered “Shadow in the Cloud”, which may not be for everybody but is one of my favorite films of the year.

You can watch all six half-hour episodes of “Creamerie” on Hulu.

Under the Vines (Acorn TV)
showrunner Erin White

A man and woman who hate each other inherit a failing vineyard in rural New Zealand. Neither knows a thing about how to run or work a vineyard, so of course they make a go of it.

Erin White is a longtime director in New Zealand and Australian TV.

You can watch the first two of six episodes of “Under the Vines” on Acorn TV, with a new weekly episode dropping every Monday.

NEW MOVIES

The Unforgivable (Netflix)
directed by Nora Fingscheidt

Sandra Bullock plays Ruth. She’s being released from prison after a 20-year sentence for killing a cop. Very few people are willing to give her a chance or forget her past, even as she searches for the little sister she may have been protecting.

In addition to Bullock, Viola Davis, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jon Bernthal, and Rob Morgan also star.

Director Nora Fingscheidt helmed the incredible “System Crasher”, an unflinching yet sympathetic portrayal of a girl with rage issues. It was one of the best films of 2020.

You can watch “The Unforgivable” on Netflix.

Off the Rails (VOD)
directed by Jules Williamson

Three women in their 50s bring the daughter of their late friend on a European rail trip. Things go “Off the Rails” in a series of comedic accidents, with a bit of romance sprinkled in.

This is the first feature film from director Jules Williamson.

See where to rent “Off the Rails”.

Anonymously Yours (Netflix)
directed by Maria Torres

In this Mexican romantic comedy, a mistaken text message between classmates leads to a real friendship. The pair fall for each other without realizing they’ve already met and can’t stand each other. I can’t find a trailer with English translation online, but the film will have one available.

This is the first film directed by Maria Torres.

You can watch “Anonymously Yours” on Netflix.

CW: NSFW, body horror

Two (Netflix)
directed by Mar Targarona

This Spanish horror film finds a man and a woman waking up next to each other and realizing their abdomens have been attached.

Director Mar Targarona helmed “Secuestro” and “The Photographer of Mathausen”.

You can watch “Two” on Netflix.

Take a look at new shows + movies by women from past weeks.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.

The Most Important Actor of 2014

Under the Skin cap

by Gabriel Valdez

The Oscars award the best performance of the year. They don’t take into account the sum total of an actor’s work across that year. What if you took every project an actor worked on, and used that to judge the best actors of 2014?

This year, we have to recognize the 2014 that Scarlett Johansson had. She led the action movies Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Lucy. She displayed incredible range going from a restaurant hostess in the foodie comedy Chef to an alien sociopath in the experimental horror Under the Skin.

Years ago, I had dismissed Johansson as nothing more than a “show horse,” an actor who’s trotted out to look good and not say much. It’s the same way I look at, say, Chris Hemsworth (Thor) now – an actor with limited talent who is nonetheless charming when he’s not asked to do much.

Either Johansson evolved or I was wrong – probably a little bit of both. She was the best thing about Captain America and expanded her Iron Man and Avengers role into a more complex, layered character. Even the Captain doesn’t develop in his film – he’s the same at the end as he is in the beginning. It’s his ethical constancy we admire (and, the film suggests, that all sides in government have lost). It’s Johansson’s Black Widow who’s asked to develop and change over the course of the film. She has to do this without ever taking center stage from Captain America (Chris Evans). That’s a demanding task and, at the same time, she even goes toe-to-toe against the film’s titular villain. It should’ve been called Captain America & Black Widow, but that doesn’t roll off the tongue as well.

This Season's Underslung Grenade Launcher

Lucy isn’t what I’d call a good film – it’s very average – but Johansson is very good in the role, bringing a confused humanity to bear in a character who becomes a demigod. She also proved that her $40 million action movie could beat a more established star’s big budget extravaganza. The two opened the same weekend, but Lucy earned twice as much as The Rock’s Hercules on less than half the budget, adding one more nail in the coffin to the idea that women can’t launch films or lead action movies.

Chef is a joyous comedy that features Johansson at her charming best. She infuses her character with far more nuance than the role demands, and she adds some of the film’s best comedic timing to her scenes with co-star Jon Favreau.

Under the Skin is the most challenging film here, a mature psychosexual thriller in which Johansson plays an alien in the skin of a human. She picks up hitchhikers and others who won’t be missed from the Scottish countryside. In order to film this, hidden cameras followed an unrecognizable Johansson as she prowled the streets of Edinburgh in a nondescript van, talking strangers into the van while completely in character. Most of the later film is scripted, but it’s in these early, improvised moments that Johansson communicates a master manipulator to whom conscience is an incomprehensible notion.

Under the Skin dark center

It’s a deeply disturbing role – she is a sociopath and sexual predator every bit as disturbing as what Anthony Hopkins does to Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, except she’s more single-minded. When she arrives at a moment of horror that isn’t of her own making – some swimmers drowning as their lonely child cries on the shore – she communicates a terrifying and inhuman depth of dispassion.

Johansson deserved an Oscar nomination for it, although Under the Skin is the type of film the Oscars wouldn’t recognize in a million years. If her action roles are her calling card as a box office heavyweight and Chef keeps up her indie viability, Under the Skin is the role that reminds us she’s one of the best actors working today, someone who is far more than the show horse I once pegged her as, a high caliber talent just as capable of unsettling and disturbing an audience as she is of charming them.

Does Johansson give the best performance in a single role from last year? The Academy awarded a superb Julianne Moore performance. When we took a poll of seven writers on my website, Johansson barely lost out to the similarly un-nominated Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Belle. Look at her entire body of work for 2014, however, and it’s hard to deny that Johansson is the Most Important Actor of the Year.

When I asked the six other critics who joined me in our End of Year Awards for best acting and best films, we came up with the following ranking for actors across multiple projects. Here’s the top 10, and the others who earned multiple votes. Obviously, this is very Western-centric. Most of us haven’t had a chance to enjoy very many non-English films from 2014, so please take these rankings with a grain of salt. The world is full of a lot of performances we haven’t seen yet:

1. Scarlett Johansson. We were all in agreement here.

2. Martin Freeman, for his roles in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, BBC’s Sherlock, and FX’s Fargo. Benedict Cumberbatch gets all the fame and glory on Sherlock – what people overlook is that Freeman’s the real gem of the show.

3. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, for her roles in Belle and Beyond the Lights. This group voted her performance in Belle as the best performance by an actress this year.

Interstellar Jessica Chastain

4. Jessica Chastain, for her roles in A Most Violent Year, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, Interstellar, and Miss Julie. Only four films in a year is an off-year for Chastain, who would’ve walked away with this in her six-film 2011.

5. Viola Davis, for her roles in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, Get on Up, and ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder. She’s taking part in a sea change on television where minority actors are getting the leads Hollywood refuses them.

6. Matthew McConaughey, for his roles in Interstellar and HBO’s True Detective. Sure, it’s only two projects, but you can’t get much better than these two.

7. Reese Witherspoon, for her roles in Devil’s Knot, The Good Lie, Inherent Vice, and Wild. For launching four films, it’s been an absurdly quiet year for Witherspoon, with little recognition for the amount of work she’s done.

Selma Martin Luther King David Oyelowo

8. David Oyelowo, for roles in A Most Violent Year and Selma, as well as a brief part in Interstellar. Selma is obviously the standout role. The other two are supporting, but he’s just that good in Selma.

9. Willem Dafoe, for roles in A Most Wanted Man, Bad Country, The Fault in Our Stars, The Grand Budapest Hotel, John Wick, Nymphomaniac, and Pasolini. Too bad we don’t give out a workaholic award.

10. Kevin Hart, for his roles in About Last Night, Ride Along, Think Like a Man Too, and Top Five.

Mockingjay Jennifer Lawrence 2

Others who got multiple votes included:

Benedict Cumberbatch, for his roles in The Imitation Game, BBC’s Sherlock, and his motion capture performances in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.

Common, for his roles in Every Secret Thing, X/Y, Selma, and AMC’s Hell on Wheels.

Michael Ealy, for his roles in About Last Night, Think Like a Man Too, and Fox’s Almost Human.

Mireille Enos, for roles in The Captive, If I Stay, Sabotage, and AMC’s/Netflix’s The Killing.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, for being the only watchable actor in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, and – more importantly – for creating and hosting Pivot TV’s game changing HitRECord on TV.

Chloe Grace-Moretz, for roles in The Equalizer, If I Stay, and Laggies.

Eva Green, for her roles in 300: Rise of an Empire, The Salvation, White Bird in a Blizzard, and Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, and despite her role in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.

Shia LaBeouf, for his roles in Fury and Nymphomaniac, as well as his Crispin Glover-level performance art that both inhabits and trolls method acting and our obsession with celebrities and their lifestyle.

Jennifer Lawrence, for her roles in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, Serena, and X-Men: Days of Future Past. In my eyes, she won this in 2013, but while she was good in 2014, her roles didn’t seem as crucial.

Logan Lerman, for roles in Fury and Noah that both find a young man who wants to co-exist with the world being taught to dominate it instead.

Andy Serkis, for his motion capture roles as Caesar in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, his uncredited work as Godzilla in Godzilla, as well as behind the scenes motion capture consulting and second unit director work on The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.

Emma Stone, for her roles in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Birdman, and Magic in the Moonlight.

Shailene Woodley, for her roles in Divergent, The Fault in Our Stars, and White Bird in a Blizzard.