TIFF 2018: ‘Widows’ Tears Deep Into the Darkness of Modern Day America
With a stellar ensemble cast and a great script, ‘Widows’ establishes itself as one of the best crime thrillers in recent memory.
While on the surface Widows is just a really well-made heist movie that will have you stuck to the edge of your seat, there’s an entire analysis of a city and way of life deep below the facade. Steve McQueen’s fourth film evokes shades of The Wire’s third season, wrestling with grief under financial stress. It’s a powerful statement in today’s climate, as a widow tries to get her life back on track after being left with nothing but problems from her husband’s passing. For all the nuance presented in Widows, however, it still comes back around to being a pulse-pounding thriller. It also happens to also carry a gravitas that situates it above the rest.
Led by Veronica (Viola Davis), a group of widows come together after their husbands have all been murdered in a botched heist job. Each has their own set of issues to contend with, but it all comes down to one mutually shared problem: money. Working together, they plan a heist that will net them enough dough to pay off the crime-boss-turning-politician, Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), and move on comfortably with their lives.
What’s most interesting about Widows is its breeziness with regards to the actual heist. Despite being a major component of the story — it’s what brings Viola Davis’s character together with Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, and Cynthia Erivo’s respective characters — it still feels like a plot device as opposed to the main hook. The point doesn’t even feel like it’s really about seeing any of these characters work together to achieve a common goal. Much of what makes the proceedings all so captivating is seeing how each individual character grows because of this heist — a distraction from and result of grief. They grow separate from one another, but are forever intertwined because of the job.
McQueen has delivered an exhilarating thriller that burrows deep into the class struggles of modern day America
It’s that stitching together of their lives that gives us more of a chance to see all of the actors shine brighter than they have in many of their roles before. Viola Davis takes no prisoners with her extremely commanding performance, deftly moving between grief and anger. There’s always a calm before the storm with her, and she delivers some of the best lines of the film while elevating every scene from the moment she enters. The insanely talented supporting cast also bring their A-game, with some of the best performances we’ve seen lately from Daniel Kaluuya, Elizabeth Debicki, Brian Tyree Henry, and Michelle Rodriguez. Hell, even Colin Farrell and Robert Duvall hold strong with some of the best characters of their lengthy careers.
Those previously mentioned shades of The Wire are most strongly felt in the plotline involving Farrell’s Jack Mulligan running against Henry’s Jamal Manning for office in contemporary Chicago. Mulligan uses underhanded tactics to maintain his family’s dominance in the city, while Manning is a former crime lord trying to enter the political landscape and make waves. Both help illuminate a city of people working hard in a world where what you own can easily be taken away.
From the first couple minutes, it is apparent that Widows is not just a heist movie. It’s a tale of a city left struggling to survive. Gillian Flynn gives a lot of McQueen’s film the pulp and thrills that it needs, but it’s the drive derived from grief that gives the main characters the spotlight they so deserve. The incredible screenplay co-written by Flynn and McQueen sees even its sillier moments handled with such care and expert craftsmanship that you can forgive them for initially feeling like cheap twists. They instead seep deep into the DNA of the film and tear at the characters inch by inch.
Widows is strongest in its execution. McQueen has delivered an exhilarating thriller that burrows deep into the class struggles of modern day America. It rips into people who have nothing but crime left to turn to in order to keep hold on those they love. With a stellar ensemble cast and a great script, Widows establishes itself as one of the best crime thrillers in recent memory — and one that adds to McQueen’s already incredible filmography.
‘Ford v Ferrari’ Drives Fast with Little Under the Hood
A classic Hollywood drama with fast cars and a stellar Christian Bale performance that feels great despite a lack of emotional substance.
Many directors always struggle with producers and other businessmen to retain their vision. What might work most for that vision may not be what focus tests and audiences have proven to enjoy, so the film gets reworked and reworked until it becomes a box office hit, and potentially retains a director’s intent. Ford v Ferrari doesn’t necessarily feel like that — this is a James Mangold film in many regards — but by the end of its story of vision and skill versus marketing and business agendas, Mangold’s latest wrestles with placing trust in an individual against an entire body of suits.
When Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) is approached by Ford Motors to create a car fast enough to beat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans (an annual racing event where drivers go all day and night around the same track), he is forced to fight tooth-and-nail to get the best driver for the job: Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Shelby’s fight is singular; he wants to win the Le Mans, and knows that Miles is the only one who can do it. Yet, Ford Motors is still a company with many eyes on them, and employing the hot-headed Miles as a driver could be disastrous. So begins a struggle for Shelby and Miles to have their desires met by a company looking at the bottom line. That struggle — one that underscores every decision made by the characters in the film — is what sits at the core of Ford v Ferrari, and keeps things interesting. Set that aside, however, and the film loses a lot of momentum.
Still, the racing will grip audiences throughout. The final Le Mans challenge runs for a decent portion of Ford v Ferrari and is engaging throughout, but there are several other races and practices where Mangold’s craftsmanship as a filmmaker shines bright. Miles sits in the driver’s seat of all of these moments, and Bale’s performance is never stronger than when his character has that need for speed. Miles is a passionate driver with pure intentions, and Bale gives him a lot of wit and heart in between huge swings of emotion. It’s a performance that stands tall but doesn’t distract, instead meshing extremely well with the action.
Meanwhile, the other performances are also solid. Matt Damon is very good in the role of Shelby, though his character is quite often reserved because he has to be. When you put him against Bale, however, it’s clear that Shelby pales to the race car driver’s fleshed-out character, as we follow the latter’s family, his rejections and successes, and his pure heart. In the backdrop is a wide array of supporting actors, including Caitriona Balfe as Mollie Miles, Josh Lucas as the thorn in Shelby’s side, Jon Bernthal playing a standard Jon Bernthal role, and Tracy Letts chewing up scenery whenever he can as Henry Ford II. Letts and Lucas in particular give great caricatured performances, planting Ford v Ferrari into a more standard Hollywood drama.
Largely that’s the problem: Ford v Ferrari is a technical achievement with some incredible craftsmanship and performances that just never feels as great at slow times as it does when it’s moving past 7000 RPMs. It has a need for speed, and the pacing shows that, but it also doesn’t really rise very high above what’s needed to please an audience. Mangold is great at deriving emotional substance out of a subject, but a lot of that in Ford v Ferrari is left on the shoulders of Bale’s performance. Instead, the film focuses heavily on the bureaucratic side of things, and how that hinders talented people from being who they are destined to be. While fun to watch, there isn’t much more that will have Ford v Ferrari lingering with audiences. Instead, this will be a movie that resonates with racing fans and those that struggle against restrictions, keeping general audience satisfied in their big Hollywood dramas for the time being.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 14 as part of our coverage of The Toronto International Film Festival.
‘Motherless Brooklyn’ Is a Twisting Homage to Classic Detective Films
Edward Norton writes, directs, and stars in this meditative and absorbing adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s neo-noir novel.
In 1999, Jonathan Lethem published his fifth novel, Motherless Brooklyn, and went from being an under-read but respected postmodernist with a science-fiction bent to a writer with a growing mainstream audience. The book was an odd choice to suddenly get people’s attention — a tribute to the classic detective fiction of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, but featuring a detective with Tourette’s syndrome, and taking place in the 1990s. But Lethem’s flair for language, along with the novel’s equal portions of humor and sincere longing, made it a striking success. Back in the early 2000s, Edward Norton began developing the film, shortly after making his directorial debut. It took almost 19 years, but miraculously, Norton has made a version of Motherless Brooklyn that’s fun, engaging, and a tribute to classic detective films of the past.
Norton takes the lead as Lionel Essrog, a member of a shady detective agency that mainly takes on cases for organized crime rather than regular citizens. He has worked there for years after being rescued from a brutal Catholic school for orphans by Frank Minna (an asleep-at-the-wheel Bruce Willis), the head of the detective agency and a major contact to underworld figures. Lionel suffers from Tourette’s, as well as a smidgen of obsessive-compulsive disorder. His speech is interrupted at varying times with shards of curse words, nonsense phrases, and plays on words (he says the condition is like having “glass in my brain”). The Maryland-raised Norton isn’t an obvious choice for someone who grew up in the outer boroughs, but he brings dueling amounts of chagrin and decency. These qualities are necessary following his ticks and outbursts, which would seem obnoxious from nearly anyone else.
Motherless Brooklyn opens on Lionel surveilling his own boss. Frank is meeting with an unnamed group of men, and he’s having Lionel keep tabs on the meeting so that he can burst in should anything go wrong. Of course, something does go wrong, and Frank is left with a bullet in his belly and no answers to give. In the wake of the shooting, Lionel makes it his personal quest to find out who shot his boss. The twisting plot, which grows exponentially more labyrinthine over time, pulls the burgeoning detective into a tangled web involving New York City’s development. Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), a power-hungry figure modeled after Robert Moses, seems to have some connection to Frank, as does Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a young assistant to a Jane Jacobs-like figure who opposes everything Randolph stands for.
The convoluted plot will surely turn off some viewers, as did the more gonzo plot of last year’s Under the Silver Lake, but it’s a key component of all noir-inflected mysteries. The core books in the genre were written around WWII through the Cold War, and they illustrated a world gone mad — where the protagonist could never trust the word of another, and there was always more crucial information being hidden than he could ever real. The sense of disorientation that accompanies prime noir novels and films is a feature, not a bug.
Norton loses some of the wonderful strangeness of the novels ‘90s settings by setting it in the ‘50s, but it fits the story well, and some of the New York development details make more sense in mid-century. There are perhaps some tangents that could have been pruned involving various jazz clubs, and Bruce Willis’ phoned-in turn as Lionel’s mentor is an utter shame, robbing the film of some much-needed emotional moments, but Norton’s own performance makes up for many of the shortcomings, and he strikes up a charming rapport with Raw. Motherless Brooklyn can’t come close to topping its source material, but it’s still a lively mystery that might make you wish they still made this kind of detective story.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 11 as part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.
‘Dolemite Is My Name’ Is a Return to Form for Eddie Murphy
Eddie Murphy is back and in fine form as the creator of a hit Blaxploitation film, though the film doesn’t always live up to his talents.
It’s hard to remember the last time that Eddie Murphy was good in a movie, so it’s with great pleasure that I can report that he’s back and actually trying in Dolemite Is My Name, a new film for Netflix about the creator of the wildly successful blaxploitation hit, Dolemite (1975). It’s a fairly conventional piece of work, and much of the humor surrounding Rudy Ray Moore’s Dolemite act doesn’t hold up any more, but there are still enough laughs and palpable passion from Murphy to make it a worthy story.
It’s the early 1970s when we first see Moore trying to pressure a DJ (Snoop Dogg) into playing some singles. Moore thinks of himself as a renaissance man — someone who has worked every facet of the entertainment industry — and wants to do it all, like his idol, Sammy Davis Jr. But his music dreams never went anywhere, and the closest he ever came to success was working in a record store. At nights, he gets five minutes of stand-up time before introducing acts at a local club, though he often stretches his time limit.
After a run-in with a homeless man who tells braggadocious stories about the hardest man he ever met (the improbably named Dolemite), Moore adopts the same rhyming style and crafts a stand-up act in which he puffs himself up and trash talks others mercilessly, all while dressed like a dandy pimp. The character is an instant success at the club, and soon Moore is taking his new act on the Chitlin Circuit, where he’s joined by Lady Reed (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), a singer with her own stage persona.
Raunchy comedy records that reach the Billboard 25 follow, though Moore is interested in something even bigger: the movies. He hires playwright Jerry Jones (Keegan-Michael Key), who is interested in respectability and social issues, and has him write the story for a blaxploitation crime film starring his Dolemite character. Along the way, Moore enlists actor D’Urville Martin (Wesley Snipes, having a lot of fun) as the film’s director and villain, while assembling a crew mostly made up of his friends — talented people who know nothing about making a movie.
Dolemite isn’t as well-known now as some of its more famous Blaxploitation peers, but the film was a major success among black audiences, who came out to see it in droves in major cities. Though Murphy is often in comedic mode throughout, the awe Moore displays from people finally wanting to see something he has made is touching. Murphy also gives a performance that manages to channel Moore’s speech patterns as Dolemite, without ever slipping into parody.
Meanwhile, screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski excel at dramatizing the uncertainties and inevitable failures that come with the ultra–low–budget film production, but they’re oddly incurious when it comes to Moore’s personal life. We never understand where his desire to be a jack of all trades comes from, and his responses to a life full of failures are only briefly covered. The two excelled at writing complicated real-life characters in earlier successes like Ed Wood (1994), The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996), and Man on the Moon (1999), yet they don’t give Moore the same in-depth treatment. The director, Hustle & Flow’s Craig Brewer, doesn’t help matters either. He can’t make the visuals and period details of those earlier bio films, and never really displays any directorial flair, while some of the supporting performances are perfunctory at best.
But it’s Eddie Murphy that people will want to see, and he’s at least in fine form. Perhaps this film, as well as his upcoming Coming 2 America (also directed by Brewer), will help to usher in a new era of Eddie Murphy movies that aren’t terrible. One can hope.
This article was originally published on September 13, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.
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