Connect with us

Film

‘Widows’ Stylishly Explodes Its Genre Trappings

Published

on

There’s an intriguing duality that clings to Steve McQueen’s new film, Widows. For much of its runtime, the movie works as a compelling socio-political drama, one that explores the nature of race and representation in Chicago, a city that has long suffered from corruption in its political machinery. It’s a logical subject for McQueen to explore, considering the political nature of his previous films, especially Hunger (2008) and 12 Years a Slave (2013). And yet, in its second half, the film mutates into a high-octane crime thriller, one that ranks among the best work of Michael Mann. It’s in those sections that the film reveals its dual authorship, both to McQueen and Gillian Flynn, the talented writer of thrillers and mysteries (Gone Girl, Sharp Objects). Neither film is quite hardy enough to support itself, but when combined, the two create a sumptuous piece that’s as thrilling as it is moving.

Widows is, as the title would suggest, a film about women, and about women coming into their own. It’s with men that the film starts, however; unsurprisingly, they create a mess. After having said goodbye to their spouses, four men initiate a robbery. It’s clear that the group is led by Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson), and they’re obviously well-versed in the mechanics of the crime. But something goes wrong this time, and a squadron of police cars are waiting outside the warehouse where the men have camped out. As the door opens for the truck to escape, the police open fire, engulfing the vehicle in flames.

Widows

The story then shifts to Rawling’s wife, Veronica (Viola Davis) in the days after his death. McQueen mastered the ability to portray depression and despondency in earlier films like Hunger and Shame (2011), and he’s able to extract an uncomfortably realistic performance from Davis as a grieving woman. There are none of the false histrionics we’ve been led to normally expect; her version of mourning is about detaching herself from the world, and shrinking until there’s nothing left.

But the world isn’t about to forget her. The money Harry stole didn’t belong to some faceless bank or corporation — it belonged to Jamal Manning (Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry), a crime figure running for an alderman position on Chicago’s South Side. For decades, the position has been held by Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall), and now his son, Jack (Colin Farrell), is running to replace him. The Mulligans have used corruption and deception to their advantage for years, claiming to represent the area’s black residents while lining their pockets with cash. Manning hopes to unseat the Mulligans with the money that Rawlings had stolen, despite being just as power hungry as they are.

After a visit from Manning and his fixer/brother, Jatemme (a chilling turn from Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya), Veronica is tasked with rounding up the $2 million that her husband stole. Now that she’s a social pariah, she determines that theft is the only way to get the cash, and she assembles a team of the dead men’s widows (Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki) along with one outsider (Cynthia Erivo).

McQueen resists the temptation to immediately switch back into thriller mood. He devotes a large chunk of the film to following these women in their daily lives as they navigate their new statuses. The scenes with Debicki in particular are heartbreaking. She plays a woman who hasn’t figured out her place in life before being confined to the role of wife, and now her young marriage is over, and she’s once again adrift. Debicki is over six feet tall and lithe, something her previous film work has mostly tried to hide, but McQueen embraces it. She stands out and apart from others in scenes, as if she doesn’t quite belong. He imbues her with a sense of isolation that helps us to understand her desire to join a wildly dangerous mission — it’s her first chance to have a real purpose and a connection with others. She provides an interesting counterpoint to Davis, who is nothing if not established in her life.

Widows

As excellent a drama as Widows is, it’s equally adept as a thriller. While watching, I had forgotten about Flynn’s screenwriting credit, but a shocking twist half-way through the story makes her contributions clear. The screenplay has a great sense of the way each woman’s private life conflicts with their mission; Erivo’s character puts her job as a babysitter and her relationship with her wife on the line as she plots the robbery, while Debicki’s character has to juggle her controlling mother and a distant playboy (Lukas Haas) she meets while escorting. They can’t drop everything on a dime the way their husbands did, but failure isn’t an option.

McQueen’s go-to mode is to film steely, modernist spaces with an eye for ennui, but the grittier Chicago locales bring him down to earth a bit, which in turn gives the film a lively mood that hasn’t existed in any of his previous work. You get the sense that he’s actually having fun with the material, something that’s not evident in 12 Years or Shame (as great as those films are).

It’s hard not to watch Widows without comparing it to another heist film from this year: the failed Ocean’s 8. That picture attempted to recycle the style of Steven Soderbergh’s original, with none of its cleverness and no real insights into the lives of the women doing the robbing. McQueen and Flynn studiously avoid making the same mistake; their characters come first, and the heist second. It’s a winning difference.

Brian Marks is Sordid Cinema's Lead Film Critic. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, LA Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, and Ampersand. He's a graduate of USC's master's program in Specialized Arts Journalism. You can find more of his writing at InPraiseofCinema.com. Best film experience: driving halfway across the the country for a screening of Jean-Luc Godard's "King Lear." Totally worth it.

Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Film

Girl Power? The ‘Black Christmas’ Remake is About as Subtle as a Sledgehammer to the Face

Published

on

Black Christmas 2019 Review

1974’s Black Christmas is not one that is regularly referenced on Best Horror Movie lists, as it’s a standard foray into the sub-genre of slasher movies. Having already been remade in 2006 to a terrible response, it’s the kind of film ready to be re-visited — a not-so-classic in need of a boost. Directed by Sophia Takal, it’s unfortunate that 2019’s version does nothing to make the premise something worth watching, and instead falls very short of its mark.

During the Christmas break at Hawthorne College, sorority sisters Riley (Imogen Poots), Kris (Aleyse Shannon), Marty (Lily Donoghue), and Jesse (Brittany O’Grady) prepare to host an “orphan dinner” for those left at the college over the holidays, only to be harassed and eventually attacked by a group of masked, hooded men.

Black Christmas 2019

In order to make the premise more relevant for today’s crowd, writers Takal and April Wolfe update the nuts-and-bolts slasher with a feminist twist, including on-trend topics of toxic masculinity, rape culture, and female empowerment. Whilst its heart is in the right place, its execution is sloppy and comes across as condescending. Conversations about missing DivaCups and dildos are just as commonplace as those on white supremacy and the patriarchy, making it an often embarrassing watch and feeling like a cynical cash-grab.

The characters we’re supposed to be rooting for are likeable enough, but so paper-thin; a small breeze could knock them over. With one-trait personalities (PTSD-ridden, activist, loved-up, and comic relief), the film fails to create a truly well-developed female character, or one of any gender; men fall into one of two categories: chauvinist or sensitive love-interest, both to the extreme.

Black Christmas 2019 REview

Horror is a difficult genre to make work, but the fundamentals are to scare. Unfortunately, Black Christmas also lacks in the basic necessity of frightening its audience. Most supposed chilling moments come in the safe-bet form of a jump-scare, a lazy device that considers making a film-goer bolt in their seat as a result of a loud noise a win in their efforts to unsettle — and that’s if they work. Quiet for long stretches of time before the inevitable jump, the scares here will only work if this is the first horror film you’ve ever seen.

There is something to be commended in the fact that director and co-writers have attempted to differentiate from the original by adding a supernatural element to the proceedings, but by the third act, this ploy is so absurd as to be laughable (protagonists receiving text messages from a supposed ghost should never be a thing), and does nothing to enhance the story.

Black Christmas 2019 Review

It’s a shame for lead Poots, who has shown in the likes of Green Room that she is a talented actor, and worth more than the sum of this movie’s parts. Doing her best with what she’s given, Poots is a light in an otherwise dim proceeding, along with Shannon as sorority sister Kris, and the two have decent chemistry when on screen together. None of the rest of the cast stands out — most likely due to their lack of character — but the performances for a horror film of this ilk are par for the course, passable.

With good intentions, Black Christmas is a frustrating watch, with its overt dialogue and occasionally patronizing tone. It’s disappointing that a film with feminism at its core, directed by and co-written by women, misses its target by such a large distance.

Continue Reading

Film

‘Richard Jewell’ is Both For and Against Character Assassination

Published

on

Sam Rockwell and Paul Walter Hauser in Richard Jewell (Warner Bros.)

With Richard Jewell, director Clint Eastwood does two things at once: tell a compelling story of something that was all over the news about 25 years ago, and seek to make an incendiary political point meant to play to very specific modern-day resentments. Let’s just say the former objective is much more defensible than the latter. 

The film tells the story of a security guard (Paul Walter Hauser) in the Atlanta area who was working in Centennial Olympic Park during the 1996 Olympics when a bomb went off in the park. Jewell was first treated as a hero who rescued people during the bombing, but was later considered a suspect in the bombing by the FBI and named as such in the media. But Jewell, it turned out, was innocent, with domestic terrorist Eric Rudolph confessing to the crime years later. 

As depicted in Eastwood’s film, Richard Jewell bears more than a passing resemblance to Shawn Eckhardt, the character Hauser played two years ago in I, Tonya — a real-life creature of a sensational mid-’90s true crime case who hadn’t done much with his life, but has aspirations of something greater. In Jewell’s case, it’s thwarted dreams of becoming a cop, which haven’t kept him from worshiping and idealizing law enforcement. He’s also depicted as a man so simple-minded that he keeps doing things that made him look super-guilty, even though he isn’t.

Richard Jewell reporters

Richard Jewell takes us into how exactly the man came to be accused. The FBI, in the person of agent Jon Hamm, applied its vaunted profiling tactics — the ones you’ve seen lionized on such shows as Criminal Minds and Mindhunter — to the case, and came up with the wrong guy. 

Filmmaking-wise, what we have here is similar to most other late-period Eastwood films, and the pacing and storytelling aren’t the problem. The sequence right before the bombing, in particular, is especially harrowing and suspenseful.

While in the works for many years (Jonah Hill was at one point set to star as Jewell, and remains a producer), Richard Jewell itself was produced and completed uncommonly quickly, with production beginning in June, just six months before its release. Nevertheless, it creates a reasonable approximation of 1996 — The Macarena included! — and while seemingly the majority of studio movies these days are shot in Georgia, this one at least is actually set there.

The problem, however, is another decision the film makes. We see Hamm’s FBI agent leaking the existence of the investigation to media, specifically reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), after what’s essentially a seduction on her part. This is the film’s biggest misstep, which is in fact an act of pure character assassination against Scruggs, a real-life journalist (deceased) who is accused of horrible ethical breaches that she almost certainly never committed, including offering to sleep with sources in exchange for information. Beyond that, the character is played by Wilde as something resembling a cartoon witch. There are a lot of unique characters who exist in newsrooms, but this character isn’t one of them.

And despite what you may have read, the Richard Jewell makes the FBI look even worse than the media. It also shows Jewell, who spent his whole life wanting to be a cop, defending and making excuses for these unscrupulous agents who are falsely accusing him. The script also doesn’t really get the dynamic that takes place between media and the police/FBI quite right; in 95 percent of high-profile crime stories, the only major source is law enforcement, and media outlets just go with whatever the cops tell them. 

What the Atlanta Journal-Constitution did was report — accurately, at the time — that the FBI was looking at Jewell as a suspect. Yes, they should have done more due diligence, but they also didn’t make things up. Had Scruggs behaved the way she did in the film in real life, that would be worthy of condemnation. But she didn’t. 

Furthermore, yes, what happened to Richard Jewell was pretty terrible. But on the other hand, he was never arrested, he never did a day in jail or prison, and was cleared after about three months. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, but…other wrongfully accused people have gone away for years and decades. Multiple movies this year, including Brian Banks and Just Mercy, have told the stories of such cases. 

Hauser is very good, and getting to be expert at this sort of role, although the performance ends with him delivering a long, articulate speech in which Jewell turns into essentially a different person.  Sam Rockwell, on something of a roll with Jojo Rabbit and Fosse/Verdon, is just fine as his lawyer. There’s also a performance by Kathy Bates, as Jewell’s mother, that’s been getting inexplicable praise — it’s more a regional affectation than a great performance. 

While Eastwood — the Obama invisible chair speech notwithstanding — is far from a down-the-line right-winger, the timing of this particular release is somewhat cynical. It’s clearly pitched right now in a way to exploit discontent with media misconduct and “fake news,” while also directly in line with that weird cultural tic in which cops are seen as beyond reproach, while the FBI is evil. 

Richard Jewell isn’t bad as a character study, but its agenda is a whole other story. 

Continue Reading

Film

‘Apollo 11’ Leads the Best Documentaries of 2019

Published

on

Best Documentaries of 2019

2019 was a generally strong year for documentaries, with many of the best ones sharing one or more of several elements: a focus on music, a resonance with the current moment, and the word “Apollo” in the title.

The Year’s Best Documentaries

Best Documentaries 2019

1. Apollo 11. Directed by Todd Douglas Miller, this documentary made masterful use of archival footage — much of it on 70mm film long not available to the public — to tell the story of the Apollo 11 mission on its 50th anniversary. It’s one of those films that’s nerve-wracking, even as everyone watching knows exactly how it all happened. The film opened in theaters, then showed on CNN, and then returned to theaters this month. 

Best Documentaries 2019

2. The Kingmaker. The Queen of Versailles director Lauren Greenfield takes another look at the ridiculously wealthy, this time catching up with Imelda Marcos, the 90-year-old former first lady of The Philippines. For its first half hour, the film hints that it’s going to be a soft-focused look at a newsmaker of the past, before it takes a sudden turn into showing its subject as a monster who looted her own people of billions and was almost certainly complicit in horrific war crimes. The film played in theaters this fall and will debut on Showtime in early 2020. 

Best Documentaries 2019

3. Love, Antosha. The life of the beloved late actor Anton Yelchin, which ended in a freak accident in 2017, is celebrated with home movie footage, clips of his movies, and interviews with a star-studded array of his co-stars. It’s a sweet remembrance of a talent gone far too soon — while also telling the story, through both letters and interviews, of his relationship with the loving Russian immigrant parents he left behind. Now streaming from on-demand providers. 

Best Documentaries 2019

4. City of Joel. Director Jesse Sweet’s film is an astonishing work of anthropological filmmaking, as he looks at the tension and land disputes between a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews who arrived in an upstate New York town, and their secular neighbors. The film, which played the Jewish film festival circuit and is now available on demand, is uncommonly evenhanded, letting both sides of the dispute have their say. 

Best Documentaries 2019

5. David Crosby: Remember My Name. There were many very strong music documentaries this year, but this film, directed by A.J. Eaton and produced and narrated by Cameron Crowe, was the best of them all. Crosby, knowing he’s in poor health and unlikely to live many more years, is uncommonly candid about his regrets, especially his many feuds with his famous musical collaborators. Now available on demand, it’s also the best film Crowe has been associated with in almost two decades.

Best Documentaries 2019

6. Cold Case Hammarskjöld. Mads Brügger’s documentary starts off by looking at the mysterious 1961 plane crash death of U.N. Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld, and then goes off in all sorts of crazy directions, including a supposed plot by South Africa’s apartheid government in the 1980s to infect people with AIDS. Not everything asserted here is true (most likely), but it’s all wildly intriguing. Now available on demand. 

Best Documentaries 2019

7. The Apollo. The year’s “other” Apollo documentary takes a look back at the history of Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater, a mecca of African-American culture for nearly a century. The film looks at how the theater has waxed and waned in importance over the years, while using a staged reading of Ta’Nehesi Coates’ “Between the World and Me” as a framing device. This one played at festivals and then debuted on HBO; it’s currently available on HBO’s streaming platform. 

Best Documentaries 2019

8. Horror Noire. Director Xavier Burgin’s documentary takes a look at the history of black horror films, using 2017’s Get Out as an inflection point to look back on decades of African-American representation — as well as ugly tropes — in the horror genre. The film had some big-screen showings before streaming on Shudder. 

Best Documentaries 2019
Tell Me Who I Am CR: Netflix

9. Tell Me Who I Am. Director Ed Perkins’ documentary about a pair of twins, and the family secrets one must tell the other, is very creepy and unsettling, but still essential. It debuted on Netflix, where it’s a perfect fit, and is still streaming there now. 

Best documentaries 2019

10. Diego Maradona. This look at the 1980s soccer star, directed by Amy filmmaker Asif Kapadia, makes masterful use of archival footage to depict the rise of this one-of-a-kind athlete. The doc, which played on HBO this fall and is still streaming there now, is a must for the many Americans who have gotten into soccer for the first time in the last decade, and are unfamiliar with the stars and stories of the past. 

****

Honorable mention: Black Mother, The Human Factor, Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles, Carmine Street Guitars, Mike Wallace is Here, Varda by Agnes, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, Screwball, American Factory, Homecoming: A Film by Beyonce,

Continue Reading

Trending