Widows

A slow burn with a heist that does not carry much weight in the end. “Widows” is a quality film about a criminal enterprise, unfortunately, it is the political system in Chicago as opposed to the robbery that is at the heart of the film. The cast for the film is impressive and the story is full of unpleasant twists but there is something about it that holds me back from a strong endorsement. Those who want a slick crime film will be disappointed because this movie travels down some byzantine alleys and the thing that is around the next corner is usually a downer.

The grime and decay of the neighborhood featured in this movie should be enough to tell you this is not “Ocean’s 4”. There is nothing cute or charming or fun happening here. This is a story focusing on rich criminals robbing each other in the midst of urban decay and neglect. That the criminals are all politically connected should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with how things work in these big urban centers. One crooked deal makes way for another and the only thing more depressing is that everyone considers this de rigueur. The only thing that changes is who gets the power. This movie attempts to shift the power to a group of women by turning them into reflections of evil men. I’m not sure that is the best way to create a story of female empowerment.

It is a little hard to tell what the basis of the opening theft is. The story starts mid-crime when there is a shootout between the robbers and the security team for a local thug who has delusions of political grandeur. Half an hour later we see what happens to those crooks who were supposed to be providing security and got taken. They should have just asked to jump in the van and take off with the money. As it turns out, getting tagged and tracked down to a local warehouse is part of the plan. I can tell you that this detail was not included in the notebook containing the plans for all of the criminal masterminds plans. Viola Davis is an excellent actress and she shows her worth in a couple of grieving scenes. Her husband has been killed in the robbery and her moment trying to gather herself rings very true. In a flashback, we see another death that she mourns and again, it plays realistically although that death plays like a note from a producer on the film who is a little too “woke”.

As the widows begin to plan their robbery, there are several tasks they have to accomplish. Michelle Rodriguez has a very solid scene where she gets caught in a lie and still manages to get a piece of human behavior awkwardly into the moment. Had it gone any further, the moment would seem unrealistic but the guilt and the loneliness of the two people involved really does provide some emotional core for what is otherwise a very cold film. Elizabeth Debicki has the only moments in the film that could be thought of as light. As she tries to get a proxy to buy guns for her, she uses a story that is grimly amusing. Unfortunately, as we have learned, physical abuse at the hands of a man is not a fiction in her life. Cynthia Erivo who I just saw in “Bad Times at the El Royale” is equally good here as a babysitter/hairdresser who gets recruited for the job and turns out to be just the right touch of bad ass under the skin.

As for the rest of the cast, well there are a lot of them and most are solid. Lukas Haas who I just realized was in “First Man”, is a man with a cynically realistic view of romance who enables the women to get a key piece of information. Garret Dillahut makes a second appearance in a Steve McQueen film and this time he is a lot more sympathetic. Colin Farrel, Bryan Tyree Henry and Robert Duvall, dance around each other as political hacks with ambitions that confound each other. Jackie Weaver is the most cynical Mother you will ever hope to meet. It is Liam Neeson however who manages to turn a small roll into a strong performance and with one plot twist turn most of our assumptions around. What starts off as grief turns to long term resentment and finally to the worst sort of betrayal you can imagine. Finally, Daniel Kaluuya lurks in the background, menacing everyone with his crazy eyes and and reckless disregard for humanity.

The exposition that goes on in long conversations between the characters often reflects danger but it is not just physical danger but moral danger we are facing. Only the very last shot in the film provides any hope that the world might be an OK place to live.There was a point in the story where the worst crime we can see coming is directed at an animal, but at least the immorality of all of the characters is not taken out on the dog.

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Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwlad

I need a safe house in Paris, because things have gone terribly wrong. J.K. Rowling has finally exhausted her creativity and has delivered the first vapid filler of the Wizarding World. “The Crimes of Grinelwald” could easily be called the “Exposition of Grindelwald”. Almost nothing that happens in this film makes a difference in the narrative that is supposed to be coming. After the opening escape sequence, we get two hours of visual imagination signifying nothing.

Last week on the Lambcast, we covered all eight of the Harry Potter films. I was only on the second show covering the last four films, but if you listen, you will hear everyone at some point praising these movies for making the books come alive and entertaining us. I doubt that on tomorrow’s Lambcast, anyone will be saying the same things about this movie. I fell asleep several times because nothing seemed to be going anywhere. Every time a new scene came up, it involved giving us backstory on a character we just met and who may very well be out of the story by the end of the movie. Halfway through the film I realized I had no idea what was happening and why. I think it’s because nothing was happening and there was no reason.

Let me pick out two or three things that irritate me about the “story” and then I will try to find some things that I can complement. Jacob and Queenie were my two favorite things about “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them“,  in this movie, Jacob is wasted and has lost most of the charm that made his presence in the first film so refreshing. Queenie is completely misused, including having her character undermine the relationship that was so pleasing in the first film. If you get to the end of this movie and you think what happens to her makes sense, please post an explanation so the rest of us can figure it out. Was Katherine Waterson’s “Tina” even in this movie. I don’t recall any scene where she was essential. Her character appears and mostly stands around while other people explain things. She gets back to being an Aurour, but has the investigative ability of a Niffler. She can only see the shiny distraction in front of here and she lets her relationship with Newt turn sour for the stupidest reason imaginable. Newt Scamander is supposed to be the central hero, but Eddie Redmayne is so understated and boring in the film that he is an invitation to nap until something starts to happen (which it rarely does). Now I have a policy on this site to not give spoilers and to avoid recapping the whole movie. The later of these two is easy today because I can’t recall much of the story. As for the former, it is not much of a spoiler to say that Credence, the character from Fantastic Beasts who was responsible for the Obscurial is back. How? I don’t know. Why? the same reason in the first film. What happens?, the exact opposite of what we saw in the first movie.  Again it makes no sense.

There are a wide variety of spectacular visual sequences in the movie. I thought the opening escape from custody by Johnny Depp’s Grindelwald worked really well. The rally sequence at the end also looks solid. There are a few creatures that manage to get our attention as well, but none of them except the nifflers are really relevant to the plot and that is peripheral as well. Jude Law turns out to be perfect casting as a young Dumbledore but he mostly stays on the sidelines. It’s not till we get to the end of the movie that we sort of learn why, and I guess that will be a plot thread for the next film.

Speaking of the end, there is a major issue with the climax of this film. In addition to one of the best characters in the first movie wandering off the reservation, we get a major piece of retconning. It is so unlikely, given the previous materials that if it turns out to be anything other than a convenient lie, I may have to reassess any desire I have to see subsequent film in this series. This is not a good film, and it is a major disappointment for fans of the Wizard World we have been visiting for the last seventeen years.

Hunter Killer

So, a couple of weeks ago we had a MOTM episode on “The Hunt for Red October”. Most of the participants would put it at or near the top of the list of submarine movies. I can’t say that “Hunter Killer” is going to displace “Red October” but I can say it belongs on the list of entertaining sub movies. The plot here is a little too full of melodramatic twists to be very realistic, but it keeps you engaged and there is a nice amount of tension as you go along. If you don’t mind a few shots of models standing in for real submarines, rather than more extensive CGI, you will also like the look of the movie. It feels like a 1960s film, shot in the 1980s, with some contemporary actors standing in for folks like Charlton Heston or Rock Hudson.

The political scenario has the U.S. and Russia at odds over international policies, but there is no particular tipping point that the conflict rests on. A Russian sub, as it is leaving it’s base, is attacked and the U.S. sub following it is also attacked. We don’t know what is going on but it looks to the major powers as if one side has opened war on the other side. The Russian President conveniently arrives at the Navel base as the U.S. has inserted a SEAL reconnaissance team to investigate and report from the ground. A second American Submarine is sent into the area as back up and potentially as point in a navel battle. The captain of the American boat is Joe Glass, an officer who came from the ranks rather than the Academy, and he is played by Gerard Butler.

If this was a conventional action movie, Butler would be killing people right and left. He has made a career for himself as a tough guy hero in several recent films including “Olympus Has Fallen”. In this film, he is oddly cast because he is not required to break anyone’s neck, punch them in the face, or deliver six shots to the chest at close range. In fact, Captain Joe is reluctant to ever pull the trigger on his torpedoes and missiles. He regularly seems hesitant to take the sort of cowboy action that his casting would suggest is coming. Butler seems to be in the role because he can come off as a commanding presence who can stare down an opponent or reluctant subordinate. For this story he mostly works, although I would have liked him to go all Liam Neeson on someone at some point.

The late Michael Nyqvist plays the Russian Submarine Captain and when he and Butler are on the bridge together, this movie does come across as a poor man’s version of Red October. They have to manage to trust each other through a major crisis and hope to avert a World War. Since there is only a limited amount of sub action in the film, a big chunk of time is taken up by the covert mission on the surface. In another twist requiring Russians and Americans to trust one another, the SEAL team is asked to rescue the Russian President from an attempted coup. In another example of a Brit stealing American roles, Toby Stephens leads the seal team, much as he did in “13 Hours”.  Both he and Butler are convincing as American military officers. Less convincing are rapper turned actor Common, who looks to young to be a Rear Admiral, and current Academy Award Winner Gary Oldman, who shouts too much to be the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

The stuff that works includes a series of shootouts around the Russian navel base, and the submarine moments when Nyqvist and Butler have to stare down metaphorically, the Russian fleet and the narrow passages leading into the bay where the Navel base is. I was a little disappointed that bad guy Igor JiJkine, who I remembered from “Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls”, doesn’t get a memorable death. You usually want that in a film like this. We just have to assume he gets his along with all the other coup conspirators. I won’t say the movie is great but I will say I had a great time. If you measure by popcorn consumption, I finished a whole bucket by myself before the movie was two thirds done. That my friends is an entertaining flick.

PIG

Mani Haghighi is an Iranian director that I was unfamiliar with until this film. I hope to see more of his other movies after experiencing this vastly entertaining piece of sick humor about social climbing and status in the country of Iran. The set up is pretty simple and intriguing. Hasan Kasmai is a director of films in Iran, but he has run a fowl of the government censorship  rules and is basically barred from working in film for an unspecified period of time. While he is making due with commercial shoots and keeping up with the film community in the culture world, other Iranian film directors are being murdered by a serial killer, who has the unmitigated Gaul to ignore Hasan.

It might seem that serial murder and laughter are not complimentary companions, Haghighi as screenwriter, director and early victim, manages to argue persuasively that they do. Hasan is a close friend of the first victim we see and is asked to identify the body, correction, not the body, just the head. A moment from a Farelly Brother’s movie follows. It is painful, hysterical and gruesome all at once. Hasan is the central figure and his displacement in the community is heightened by the fact that everyone else in the community seems to be a target except him.

Some moments of grisly farce are interspersed with fantasy dream sequences as Hasan goes from being neglected potential victim to social media star suspect. His interviews with investigating officials don’t seem to lead anywhere except into a deeper hole. His aged mother has some dementia issues but at times she comes across as his strongest defender and the one who makes the most sense in the story. The other women in his life are breaking his heart or stalking him. We can’t really tell if one is a red herring or a black widow.

The character of the director who is lost emotionally and professionally is still pretty sympathetic. With his hangdog face and moribund demeanor he seems like a sad sack case but one that manages to be a provocative outsider. In every scene he appears in  Hasan wears a metal band tee shirt, including two Kiss shirts featuring the image of Gene Simmons. This was not something I expected to see in an Iranian movie but it clearly made an impression on me. Two other items that made a deep impression are the pesticide commercial he is directing and the music video he creates in his head as he is held in solitary confinement for a period.

The absurd story plays out with a great deal of violence and ridiculous imagery, which was all entertaining as hell. I’m sure Howard might have his own thoughts to write about but he told me this was the best thing he saw at the AFI Fest, and I could easily believe it. I can hardly wait for a blu-ray release.

Lemonade

So I had an opportunity to meet up with a Fellow member of the Lamb at the AFI Fest yesterday. Howard Casner and I are the two senior sheep in the flock so to speak. Most of the other lambs are half our ages. We were talking on a podcast a few weeks ago and he mentioned he would be attending the AFI Fest in Hollywood. Since Monday was a school holiday, I was able to accept his offer of a couple of tickets to screenings at the festival. We greeted each other and had a nice conversation at McDonalds before getting in line for the first of the two films.

“Lemonade” is a Romanian production filmed in the U.S. and featuring actress Mãlina Manovici. She plays Mara, an immigrant who has married an American that she took care of at a convalescent hospital. She is seeking a green card and has arranged for her son to join her in the States. This is a stark tale of immigrant struggles against bureaucracy,  culture clash and toxic male  hegemony. It is a well told story but bleak for a number of reasons.

It is easy to appreciate the desire to locate to the U.S. when your economic opportunities are limited. Mara seems to have lucked out by connecting with a kind man who seems to care for her and is trying to cope with some medical issues at the same time. There are a number of hoops she must jump through as a result of the marriage. The Immigration agent investigating her case asks pointed questions of her and it’s not long before some shocking unpleasantness rears its ugly head. The main issue I had with the film concerns the way in which the difficulties start stacking up. In addition to potential and real exploitation, she is swept up in a child neglect case, her husband is not very understanding about the abuse that has been directed at her, and the strategy her lawyer recommends is full of danger and potential humiliation.

Manovici is suitably hopeful and naive as she confronts a pretty dark vision of America. The emotional scenes are handled well and she is appropriately defiant and cowed in a long conversation in an automobile. As loathsome as this encounter is, another one is coming up that will make you equally sick. As is typical in the American system, justice cannot be had simply because a rule or law has been broken. Her attorney sums it up well when he explains that victims get the benefit of the doubt and the system protects them more than it punishes the guilty. There is a little bit of convoluted hope at the end of the story and the aphorism that gives the movie it’s title is revealed.

Overlord

Frankly, this was the most entertaining movie I have seen in a while. It’s not artistic, or deep. It lacks the elegance of some fine movies that I have seen in the last few months. But if you were to ask me to go with you to see this movie, I’d do it in a heartbeat because I had so much fun the first time. This is the Nazi Zombie movie about D-Day. If that thumbnail does not turn you on immediately, you are reading the wrong blog. This premise could have been done 40 years ago. That it is a current film is just coincidence. This is well made pulp horror, that scares you and takes it’s time building tension and does so with energy.

“Overlord” starts as a typical WWII film, with the exception that black American soldiers are integrated into the combat units fighting the war, that just was not the case.  Otherwise, this is just a few men on a mission to destroy a radio tower that is crucial to the success of D-Day. Most of the Platoon is obliterated by anti-aircraft flak and German soldiers on the ground. The four who make it together to their destination include a milquetoast black private, a stereotypical wise guy, a photographer who is sort of in the way of the tough corporal who is the demolition expert and ends up as the leader of the team. The combat scenes are brutally realistic and there is some vivid sound editing in the film that will make the battles stand out. Of course it turns out there is more to the location than just the radio tower and that’s when the horror really begins.

Like a lot of WWII films, this one manages to get a female into the story so it is not completely male-centric. That does not make this a feminist film by any stretch of the imagination but Chloe, the young woman in the story played by Mathilde Ollivier, turns out to be pretty tough and when she picks up a machine gun or flame thrower, you better watch out. Jovan Adepo, who was very good as Denzel’s son in “Fences“, shows a lot of range here as a mild mannered man, sent to war, who has to overcome not only the horrors of war but of the nightmare horror story this turns out to be. At first he believes that Corporal Ford as played by Wyatt Russell, may be the worst kind of monster. Soon he discovers that the SS officer in charge of the local area is barely a human at all. When things go south from there his expectations get shifted quite a bit.

The less we see, the more unnerving things can be. That is typical in horror films, but there are also some things that need visualization. The practical effects and make up that are at the center of the story sell the horror factor much more than a lot of CGI blood would have. The fact that these are combat soldiers who are armed and capable, is a little like “Predator”. Russell may not be Arnold, but his bad ass is in for some reversals that are pretty scary. In the end he turns out to be a righteous guy who sees the dangers of technology in the hands of men willing to use it. Don’t worry, it’s not a peace polemic, it is just an interesting aside.

This was just exactly the movie it sets out to be. There is violent war action and tense drama with the civilian population, and then things take a hard left into zombieland.  The music in the  score builds tension and it clearly is designed to turn that tension into scares. The cast is game, the editing is crisp, the visuals are solid and it all works. Maybe it is not a great film, but read the premise again. If it appeals to you at all, I think you will have a heck of a good time.

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

There are a lot of things I see in this idea that might make sense for a Holiday movie. The opening is set at Christmas time, the motif uses the Nutcracker Ballet and music, and it is family friendly. Having seen the film however, I can’t really say who it is for. The music is incidental to the story, as is most of the Nutcracker story itself. This is a stand alone movie that is too weird for it’s own good. It lacks the charm to overcome it’s weaknesses and frankly, it is not very well acted.

Set in Victorian Times, this new telling of the Nutcracker focuses on a young girl named Clara, who is mourning her Mother but also trying to be a bit independent. The family dynamic suggests a close bond with her younger brother and older sister, but neither of them become a part of the fantasy here. Her widowed Father also mourns but in the style of keeping a stiff upper lip and conforming to expectations and appearances. This drives a wedge between the two of them which is more appropriate for a contemporary film than one set in the 19th Century. When Clara is lead into the fantasy Realms of the Nutcracker, it is then she discovers how her Mother created this world and brought it to life. The four realms are sometimes ignorant of the real world but at other times seem to be well aware of what is going on there. The world building in this fantasy makes very little sense and never seems consistent.

Morgan Freeman appears as Drosselmeyer, and in this story, he gives gifts and is an inventor, but not as good an inventor as Clara’s Mother or her. He is in the bookend segments of the film only. Occupying the main story, which involves a war between one of the realms and the others, is Keira Knightly as the Sugar Plum fairy and Helen Mirren as Mother Ginger. We at first do not understand what is at the base of the conflict, and at the end we are equally ignorant. The contrivances the story comes up with are just odd. The mouse king is not really a king, the evil is very unclear, and the ray gun that transforms toys into soldiers is ridiculous. The fact that it operates using the key that Clara is searching for is so forced as to make this film feel more mechanical than it intends to be.

No one in the movie is very good, with the exception of maybe Matthew Macfadyen as Clara’s father. Mirren gets little to do and Knightley overplays both the sweetness and the reveal. Jaden Fowora-Knight is well cast as the Nutcracker, because he is as wooden as you can get. He is a handsome young man with some potential but even this children’s story seems out of his grasp. Mackenzie Foy has the look that Clara needs but her skills are also a bit weak, She is trying to carry this whole production on her shoulders with her charm, and frankly that is an unfair assignment.

The production values on the film are impeccable however. This movie looks like a Christmas picture book and both the “real world” settings and the four realms are lavishly decorated and use color design in interesting ways. The CGI exteriors are picture perfect but the best things are the costumes and the practical set designs. There is a five minute segment where Clara watches an abbreviated version of the Nutcracker Ballet, and the stage craft there is the most inventive aspect of the film and it doesn’t use CGI at all. There is a stacking clown sequence that uses a combination of CGI and costumes to achieve it’s look and that was also worthy. Lasse Hallström with an assist from Joe Dante, directed this film. It reminds me a lot of the  Barry Levinson misfire from 1992, “Toys”. Both have mildly interesting premises and are being sold as Family Holiday movies, but despite amazing art direction, they just don’t connect with an audience.