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.

AMC Best Picture Showcase Day 2

So just a few random thoughts on the Best Picture Selections this year. Last week we watched two films with Lucas Hedges back to back. He was in “Lady Bird” and “Three Billboards”. Timothée Chalamet was in “Lady Bird” and today’s “Call Me By Your Name”.  Nick Searcy was in “Three Billboards” and “The Shape of Water”. Today we had Bradley Whitford in back to back “The Post” and “Get Out”. Finally Michael Stuhlbarg was in “The Shape of Water, “Call Me By Your Name” and “The Post”. These actors have got to have great agents to get into the top pictures of the year not just once, but two and three times.

“Phantom Thread” and “The Post” were the two films I needed to catch up on, and while I admired them both, I don’t see either of them as a likely winner in the big category. “Phantom Thread” lacks anybody likable in the cast of characters, and “The Post” is so traditional that it won this award two years ago when it was called “Spotlight”.

Speaking of actors who appeared back to back in some of the films on the program, we had a historical event do exactly the same thing. “Dunkirk” was followed by “Darkest Hour” and it was almost as if Joe Wright’s film was just another segment of the Christopher Nolan film. It’s Title Card would read Parliament: Two Weeks.

I feel confident in my choice of “Dunkirk” as the best film of last year but I am not at all confident that the Academy will go along with me. 

Dunkirk   Christopher Nolan’s film was the most visually impressive, forward moving, and meaningful film of the lot. Listening to the score and watching how he masterfully integrated three separate time lines into a single narrative with clever overlaps and great timing, I know that this was the best directing job this year. Nothing against Guillermo Del Toro, but this complex story, logistical nightmare and historical memorial is simple better constructed than the odd fish love story. This is a film that tells a real historical story that will last long after the fashion of the fairy tale set in a mythological era in U.S. history, is a charming oddity. 

Some people complain that the characters here are not well developed, that is true. This however is not a character piece but a prism on the events that were taking place during a military disaster that became a turning point in a manner that was most unexpected. 

Darkest Hour  This film was even stronger the second time I saw it. The first viewing I was overpowered by Gary Oldman’s performance. He will surely be the winner in the acting category. I admired the film before but I have come to really respect it on this second encounter. Joe Wright manages to make a tale of political intrigue into a fascinating study of a character and the country who’s character he came to represent for the duration of the war. The one clumsy moment is a scene set in an underground train car. The only reason it is clumsy is that it feels so distinct from everything else, like a deliberate movie moment. That shows that the rest of the movie does exist as something more than the typical fare.  But even that scene works emotionally because it bespeaks of a real sense of what the British people felt at the time. 

Call Me By Your Name  I am being a little facetious when I say this film is a pain in the neck. That’s because in the first half I went to sleep and got a crick that is staining my muscles still. My least favorite of the nominees, this film is slow moving, meandering and confounding. I felt like I was listening to a play frequently, with dialogue written eloquently but sounding artificial. A couple of podcasters that I listen to love this film and especially the sequence with Michael Stuhlbarg as the father of Elio, consoling his son on the “special” friendship he had with Oliver. It ends on s deliberately false note when the Dad tells his son that he doesn’t think that Mom knows about the nature of their friendship. The mom had just picked up a near weeping Elio at the train station and she dropped hints for the previous hour that she knew how special Elio thought Oliver was. When Mr. Perlman says he never had a relationship with anyone like Elio had with Oliver, we can believe him because he so obtusely ignores how insightful his wife is. This will probably win the Screenplay Award, and it shouldn’t, if it takes the big prize I might yell loud enough to ruin my voice for a month.  

The Post  So this was the one new film we saw on day two. This has the phrase “Oscar Bait” pasted all over it. It features Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, a ton of high end supporting players and it was directed by Steven Spielberg. The subject matter concerns the fight of the press against preemptive shut down of news publication. It is a first amendment issue that was understandably important, yet at the same time it ignores some pretty egregious behavior. We can always applaud someone after the fact when their actions seem just and there was no blow-back,  but there were issues regarding the acquisition of the Pentagon Papers that probably still need to be discussed.  Spielberg and co-screenwriters Josh Singer and Liz Hannah, manage to make a bureaucratic legal process look and sound like a courtroom drama with some mystery tied in.  Singer in particular is working on familiar ground since he won an Academy Award two years ago for a very similarly structured newspaper story “Spotlight”.

This is supposed to be a resistance film, about the Media vs. the President in a time when everyone wants to be standing up to the current administration. The parallels are not really there to give this much resonance. This is a two hour commercial for the Washington Post and the heavy handed feminist slant in some of the visuals makes it feel too much like a lecture at times. That said, it is well made and the John Williams score is excellent as usual. Because “Bridge of Spies” and “Spotlight” are just a couple of years old however, this feels like it is old territory and not quite as distinctive as it needs to be. 

Get Out  This one is the outlier. You rarely get a horror film nominated for Best Picture, but if you do, it is usually more of a big budget film. This Jordan Peele written and directed film seemed to come in under the radar, it made a huge splash, and it is getting some end of the year accolades. The intersectionality of this film is in keeping with all the film buffs who are much more woke than I am. I just enjoyed the twist and the characters in the film. Rod from TSA is a saving grace that adds more straightforward humor to the mix. Instead of a haunted house we get a upscale suburban plantation. The need for subtlety on the race subject is probably eliminated by the DNA of the movie. Being an outsider in an nearly all white environment makes Chris, our lead character played by nominated actor Daniel Kaluuya, mildly uncomfortable but also keenly aware of how different the culture he is visiting is. 

While most people will consider the “Sunken Place” to be the most horrifying image in the film, to me it is the silent auction with bingo cards. We still don’t know what is going on, but the suggestion is truly awful. Seeing it for a second time, I could pay more attention to some of the interesting choices that were made. Grandma and  Grandpa are certainly clever twists, although it seems strange that for the duration of Chris being a guest, the force required to hold those characters would be counter-intuitive to the actual plan. The creepy factor also takes Chris a little too long to respond to. His buddy is right, and he should be listening to him sooner. There is an outside chance this could take the award, the voting system gives weight to the number of ballots a film appears on, and this would be a popular ad to the list but not necessarily high on the list. Should it when I expect to see some “Get Out” Memes that mine the fertile teen speak use of the terminology. 

As an aside, let me rant about the misquotes being used to decorate the entry way to the theater. Both “Cool Hand Luke” and “Jaws” are misquoted in the floor below. 

Get Out

Last night I had a disappointing experience. We decided to watch a horror film and we chose “The VVitch” because we’d heard a lot of positive things about it. Maybe it works for other people but I was not happy. In fact I found it quite irritating in the way the story gets resolved, or at least sort of resolved. Today, to wash the bad memory out of my brain, we picked another widely acclaimed horror film. This movie is more contemporary and it has an interesting perspective on the world. I’d seen the trailer and I was afraid it was going to be a polemic on white privilege, instead, the movie twists the idea of cultural appropriation in a way that is totally off the wall and satisfying.

Daniel Kaluuya is a name I did not recognize, but he was in a movie I saw a couple of years ago, “Kick Ass 2”. His part in that movie was not significant, but his role in this movie is impressive. He is the lead and he carries most of the drama and horror of the film on his shoulders. The only thing I know Allison Williams from is the highly criticized Peter Pan Live form a couple of years ago. She was also very good in this film and her character has surprising elements to it that will turn the story at some points. Three other well known old timers are also in the cast. Bradley Whitford from the West Wing and “Cabin in the Woods” plays the neurosurgeon father of Rose, the white girl that is dating Kaluuya’s character Chris. Dad is just enough of a social justice liberal to be disarming, but still he and his wife player by Catherine Keener, are just a little off.  Mom is a psychiatrist who uses hypnotherapy to help clients deal with smoking and other issues. At first they seem just a little odd but as time passes, Chris begins to listen to the doubts that he might be expected to have as a lonely black face in a well off suburban neighborhood. The third character played by an old hand is Jim Hudson, another blind character played by Steven Root. He turns out to be a key element of the reveal when it shows up.

 

The slow burn creep factor in this movie is exquisitely patient. We know things are off but we have no idea exactly what is going on. Chris gets warnings from his friend Rod, who is concerned about him going into the country with all the white people.  Rose is supportive in the way a girlfriend ought to be, but she is also a bit nonplussed by the potential of her black boyfriend meeting her parents without their knowledge of his background. All of the family friends that show up at the parents house are also a little too awkward and direct about Chris and his ethnic difference. There are a couple of disturbing or frightening scenes that involve the servants at the house, and there is definitely a Stepford Wives feel to the goings on.

The twist comes and it is a dozy. Suddenly things are more frightening than they might have appeared and the story gets clever with the social conventions but maybe a little to direct with the horror elements. Rod gets some great sequences that add some comic moments to the film, and that makes the story feel a lot more believable than it otherwise would have. I can’t give away anything, it’s not my style to do so, but I can say that the story is a lot more satisfying than the psychological supernatural film I saw last night. The wrap up to this film may be more conventional, but at least it feels like it is part of the story that we have been watching.

Writer /Director Jordan Peele is a guy I recognize but I have not really paid much attention to. I have seen the routine with the substitute teacher, in fact, I plan on using it in my classes. As an actor, I remember him from the “Fargo” TV series, as one of the FBI guys who screws up massively. This film shows that his talent is not limited to comedy and he clearly understands the check points for a good horror film. This probably does not need any recommendation from me, the movie is doing good business after all, but I will be telling anyone who will listen, this is worth your time. As I said to my daughter at the end of the film, “Now that’s how you make a horror film!”.