WIDOWS (2018) – Stellar Cast, Contrived Plot, Mixed Results

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WIDOWS (2018) is writer/director Steve McQueen’s first movie since his Oscar-winning 12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013), and it’s a rather odd choice.

It’s an action thriller that has its moments, helped along by a stellar cast, but taken as a whole, it’s a bit too contrived to be all that believable.

In WIDOWS, three women discover that their husbands were criminals after the three men die in a police shoot-out and subsequent car explosion. Veronica (Viola Davis) learns this the hard way when she’s visited by Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a man running for alderman in her Chicago neighborhood who tells her that her husband stole three million dollars from him, and he wants the money back. He gives her three weeks to get he money, or else his henchmen will kill her.

In her search for answers, Veronica discovers her deceased husband’s private notebook which details his past jobs and his next job, a heist that is worth millions. So, Veronica assembles the two other wives, Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and tells them that if they pull off this job, they’ll have enough money to pay off Manning and thus save their lives, plus millions left over for themselves.  Linda and Alice agree, and the widows spring into action.

There’s a lot going on in WIDOWS, most of which I liked, but unfortunately, the weakest part of the story is the main one, the one with the widows.  And the reason for this is in large part because I never really believed that these women, who appear to be rather intelligent folks, would actually do this. I get it that they have nowhere else to turn and are desperate to save their lives, as it’s clear that the authorities in Chicago are of no help to them. At one point, Veronica says she’ll go to the police, but Manning tells her that the police don’t care and that they are glad her criminal husband is dead. So, I get this part. I just never believed it. It’s the most contrived part of the entire movie, unfortunately.

The surrounding storylines, especially the political ones, work much better.

The current alderman Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall) in public speaks of how much he has helped the downtrodden Chicago neighborhood he serves yet we see him in private as a racist bully. He’s not seeking re-election. Instead, that honor goes to his son Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) who says he disdains his father’s style of politics and wants to make a true difference, and yet his actions show that he’s not much better than his father.

Then there’s Jamal Mannning, the black man running against Jack Mulligan, who supposedly represents his neighborhood because he’s lived there his whole life and understands the needs of his people, but yet he runs a criminal organization that is just as bad and even more brutal than Mulligan.

There are layers here, and they make for the most intriguing parts of the story.

The widows storyline works best when showing these women with their backs against the wall. Indeed, one of the strengths of the screenplay by Steve McQueen and Gillian Flynn, who wrote GONE GIRL (2014),  based on a 1980s British TV series of the same name, is that it lays bare the pain and vulnerabilities of these women. In one telling scene, a disillusioned Veronica admits that with her husband gone she has nothing, not even her home, which has been lost. Likewise, Linda watches as the store she thought she owned is taken away from her because her husband lied to her about paying the mortgage on the building.

This part of the story works well. The trouble I had is when it makes the leap from despondent women to criminal women. I expected these women to react in a smarter way than this.

The cast in WIDOWS is exceedingly deep and talented.

Viola Davis turns in a strong performance as Veronica. She’s at her best when showing how much pain she feels having lost her husband Harry, played by Liam Neeson.

There’s also another subplot where it’s revealed via flashback that Veronica and Harry’s son had been shot and killed in a police shooting during a routine traffic stop. WIDOWS throws a lot at its audience, sometimes too much. Had Steve McQueen chosen to focus more on one aspect of this story, the widows perhaps, the movie would have been better for it.

But back to Viola Davis.  She shows both frightened vulnerability and steely resolve, but once more, had she resolved to do something else other than attempt a million dollar heist, the results would have been more convincing

Michelle Rodriguez is fine as Linda, although it’s nothing we haven’t seen Rodriguez do before.

Far more interesting than either Davis or Rodriguez is Elizabeth Debicki as Alice, who at first comes off like a clichéd ditzy blonde and as such faces harsh treatment from even Veronica, but she’s not stupid at all. In fact, she’s incredibly intelligent and resourceful. Her subplot in which she’s involved in a paid relationship with a man named David (Lukas Haas) is one of the more intriguing subplots in the film. The scene where she chides David for insinuating that he’s in control of her happiness, and she pushes back saying that no, it’s her life and she makes that determination, is one of the better moments in the movie.

I’ve seen Debicki in a bunch of other movies, films like THE GREAT GATSBY (2013) where she played Jordan Baker, THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E (2015) where she played the villain, and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, VOL. 2 (2017), but by far this is the best performance I’ve seen her deliver yet.

Brian Tyree Henry is very good as Jamal Manning, the cut-throat criminal who brands himself as the best hope for his people but whose interests are clearly more about attaining power than helping anyone.

Even better is Daniel Kaluuya as Jatemme Manning, Jamal’s brother. The star of GET OUT (2017) makes for one of the most brutal and sinister enforcer types I’ve seen in a while. His performance here was one of my favorite parts of WIDOWS.

Robert Duvall is excellent as always, here playing racist alderman Tom Mulligan who in spite of his political mob boss tactics seems to believe that he’s doing right for the people of his neighborhoods.

Colin Farrell is just as good as Mulligan’s son Jack, who’s running for alderman to keep his family’s name in politics. It’s a position Jack seems to hate, and Farrell does a nice job playing Jack as a conflicted yet not very admirable man. The scene where he tells his father he’s looking forward to the days when he’s dead and gone, is a pretty potent moment in the film, well acted by Duvall and Farrell.

Cynthia Erivo, who we just saw in BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE (2018) plays Belle, a young woman who among other jobs babysits Linda’s children, and who the widows hire to be their getaway driver. It’s a spunky determined performance.

Jon Michael Hill stands out in a small role as the Reverend Wheeler, the pastor of Chicago’s biggest congregation, a man who’s courted by both Manning and Mulligan, and he plays coy with both of them as to who he’ll support.

Jackie Weaver steals a couple of scenes as Alice’s overbearing mother Agnieska.  Weaver of course was so memorable playing Bradley Cooper’s mother in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012).

The cast here is so deep that major actors even play characters who are killed off in the opening moments of the movie, most notably Liam Neeson, who plays Veronica’s husband Harry. And as the story moves forward, Veronica learns some rather unsavory things about her late husband that calls into question the kind of man she thought he was.

Jon Bernthal also plays one of the thieves, who unlike Neeson, doesn’t get any flashback time, and so he’s on-screen for about two seconds before he’s done in.

There was a lot about WIDOWS that I liked. I enjoyed the full canvas that director Steve McQueen was working with here, and the story he was telling as a whole, but again, for me, the biggest disappointment was where the widows specific storyline ultimately went.

I expected these women to rebel against their deceased husbands, to attempt do something better, but that’s not what happens. Instead of trying to learn from their husbands’ mistakes and improve upon them, they simply become their husbands. They become thieves and thugs.

And unlike their husbands, whose fate seemed to be tied into their actions, the widows here suffer no repercussions. It’s all happily ever after, which in my book is one more strike against this one in terms of credibility.

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THE OLD MAN & THE GUN (2018) – Robert Redford’s Swan Song A Good One

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Robert Redford in THE OLD MAN & THE GUN (2018)

THE OLD MAN & THE GUN is being billed as Robert Redford’s final role. He has said he’s retiring from the movies after this. As such, this light amiable movie is a fitting swan song for the venerable movie star.

THE OLD MAN & THE GUN is loosely based on the true story of Forrest Tucker (Robert Redford) a bank robber and thief who escaped from prison multiple times and simply couldn’t break the habit of robbing banks. When asked if he couldn’t find a different way of making a living, he responded that he wasn’t making a living, but simply he was living.

The story takes place in 1981 and follows Tucker and his two cohorts Teddy (Danny Glover) and Waller (Tom Waits) as they quietly and politely rob one bank after another. One day, they choose a bank in which police officer John Hunt (Casey Affleck) is there with his kids. The heist goes off without a hitch, and Hunt is astonished and embarrassed to learn that he was inside a bank that was robbed and he didn’t see a thing. To save face, he decides to make it his mission to find and capture the folks responsible.

Tucker and his team become known to the public as “the over-the-hill gang” since they are described as men well into their 60s. The media reports their exploits as almost a human interest story, and in fact the public seems to like them. More so, because Tucker is so darn polite, even those in the bank who are robbed by him report that they seemed to like him. Not only is he polite, but he always seems to be smiling and happy.

After one particular heist, Tucker hides in plain sight by pulling over to the side of the road to help a stranded motorist, a woman named Jewel (Sissy Spacek). After she agrees to meet him for coffee, it becomes clear they like each other and a romance blooms.

Even when the heat is on, Tucker has no desire to quit his lifestyle, finding the increased police interest a challenge. In fact, once he learns that he is being pursued by Officer John Hunt, he even reaches out to him, much to Hunt’s astonishment. And Hunt finds himself liking the bank robber as well.

THE OLD MAN & THE GUN is blessed with a light and very enjoyable script by director David Lowery, based on a New Yorker article by David Grann, fine direction by Lowery, and excellent performances by the entire cast, led of course by Robert Redford.

Now, I’ve never been a big Redford fan.  It’s not that I haven’t liked him completely as an actor, but that his performances have rarely resonated with me.  That being said, there have certainly been films of his and roles he’s played that I’ve really enjoyed, but most of these came early in his career, in films like BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969), THE STING (1973), and ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976). Later films like THE NATURAL (1984), OUT OF AFRICA (1985), and INDECENT PROPOSAL (1992) didn’t do as much for me.

THE OLD MAN & THE GUN is easily Redford’s best performance that I’ve seen in a quite a while.  I had a lot of fun watching THE OLD MAN & THE GUN.

Redford makes Forrest Tucker— no relation to the famous late character actor, by the way— a guy who’s easy to like and root for. You really don’t want to see him get caught. The character is also a gifted storyteller, and he’s someone who, whether he’s talking to Sissy Spacek’s Jewel, or his partners, or to Casey Affleck’s Officer Hunt, you don’t want to stop listening to. Some of this is the script, but most of it is Redford. I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets a nod come Oscar time.

Sissy Spacek is equally as good as Jewel.  She and Redford work well together.  Their scene in the coffee shop is classic. He tells her point-blank that he’s a thief. She doesn’t believe him, and he asks her what she would do if he could prove it to her, and she says she’d leave. His response is that “in that case, I’m not going to do it. Not because I can’t. But because it’s not my style.”

Casey Affleck is also excellent as officer John Hunt. His career is going nowhere, and he’s terribly embarrassed by what happened in the bank, but his quest to capture Tucker doesn’t become an Ahab-like obsession, but rather an exercise in self-respect.

Danny Glover and Tom Waits also share fun scenes as Tucker’s fellow bank robbers.

Strangely, Keith Carradine gets fourth billing, but he’s only in the movie for a couple of seconds. Evidently, most of his role ended up being cut.

David Lowery’s script is humorous and upbeat, and has a lot to say about aging with dignity, about doing what you love and not worrying about how much time you have left. When Tucker tells Jewel he wants to ride horses, that it’s on his list of things to do in his life, she says he should hurry up and do it, to which he responds, “why?” Which got a nice laugh from the audience, but also makes the point that Tucker is extremely comfortable where he is in his life.

The best scene in the film is where Tucker follows Hunt into the men’s room to introduce himself to the police officer. It’s a great moment. Tucker’s pleasant personality is on full display, but so is Hunt’s, and the scene is a gem.

The film does tend to slow a bit towards the end, which says a lot since it only clocks in at 93 minutes. Admittedly, it felt longer.

There’s also a neat montage late in the film chronicling all of Tucker’s prison escapes which makes use of some Redford clips from yesteryear.

I really liked THE OLD MAN & THE GUN. Its charming story, although slow-paced, is a crowd-pleaser. It features strong performances throughout, especially by Robert Redford, Sissy Spacek, and Casey Affleck.

But this is Redford’s movie, to be sure.  It’s evident he had fun playing this role. If it’s true that this is indeed his final performance, it’s a worthy finale to a long and distinguished movie career.

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GOOD TIME (2017) – A Thrill Ride You Do Not Want to Miss

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GOOD TIME (2017) is a strange title for a movie about a bank robbery gone wrong and its aftermath, but don’t let that stop you from seeing this one because GOOD TIME is one of the more intense, energetic, and insane thrillers to come out this year.

It’s a movie you definitely do not want to miss.

GOOD TIME (2017) is the story of two brothers, Connie (Robert Pattinson) and Nick (Benny Safdie).  Nick is mentally challenged, and Connie is very protective of his brother, but that doesn’t stop him from involving Nick in an armed bank robbery. During their escape, Connie eludes the police, but Nick is arrested.

Connie approaches a bail bondsman to pay for his brother’s release from jail, but he is $10,000 short, so he turns to his friend Corey (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and asks her to put up the money for him.  Corey is somewhat unhinged and easily manipulated, and it doesn’t take Connie long to convince her to charge the $10,000 on her mother’s credit card, promising her that it’s a loan, and that she’ll get the money right back.  But Corey’s elderly mother quickly cancels the card, causing an emotional scene at the bail bondsman’s office.  Connie learns the money doesn’t matter because his brother has been transferred to a hospital and cannot be eligible for bail until his health his cleared.

Connie finds out which hospital his brother is being held in and plans to break him out. What follows is a roller coaster ride of a night as Connie faces one obstacle after another in his attempts to free his brother, and the film treats its audience to one twist after another.

GOOD TIME doesn’t stop.  It’s one of the more frenetic movies of the year, and certainly one of the most satisfying.  It’s a ride you definitely do not want to miss.

GOOD TIME was directed by brothers Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie.  Perhaps the fact that these two guys are brothers is why they captured so expertly the brotherly bond between Connie and Nick.  Or perhaps it’s just that they are two talented guys, and they are talented, very much so.

Benny not only co-directed this movie, but he also plays Nick, the mentally challenged brother, and it’s a phenomenal performance.  There’s nothing artificial about it.  He makes Nick seem like the real deal.

And Josh not only co-directed this one, but co-wrote it with Ronald Bronstein.  It’s an excellent script with realistic dialogue and vibrant, living characters.  Nearly every character who appears in this movie is interesting, a testament both to the acting and to the superior writing.

The best part of GOOD TIME though is just how creative it is.  It opens with a long dialogue-driven scene between Nick and his psychiatrist, and it has the feel of a documentary, and so you’re sitting there early on thinking, what is the deal here?  I thought this was supposed to be a thriller? And then Connie shows up, chews out the doctor for the way he’s treating his brother, and the film is off and running.  It takes off like a rocket and never looks back.

The camerawork is phenomenal and really brings you into Connie’s world and what it’s like to be him.  The camera gets in close, as there’s some nifty hand-held camerawork. And there are a lot of cool memorable scenes in this one.  The robbery early on and the chase afterwards is as intense a sequence as you’ll find, as are Connie’s efforts to break Nick out of the hospital.  There’s a sequence at an amusement park that is equally as good.

The ending is also suspenseful.

Now, the very ending is a different story.  After such a thrill ride, the movie is just begging for a high-octane conclusion , but that’s not what happens.  However, somehow, it still works, especially when you think back to the first scene in the movie.  The story comes full circle, and the ending, while not explosive, makes sense.

As I said, co-director Benny Safdie also stars as Nick, and he turns in a very strong performance.

But the performance of the movie belongs to Robert Pattinson as Connie.  Regardless of what you think about the TWILIGHT movies, it’s best to simply pocket them away and move on, because Pattinson is proving to be a very good actor.

This is his best performance yet, and he gives Connie a depth not often found in a character like this.  He definitely cares for his brother, and yet he still puts his brother in harm’s way. Connie is a man who thinks he’s better than everybody else and has the gumption to try to prove it, but as most people who think this way eventually find out, that’s not really the case.

Earlier this year, Pattinson had a supporting role as a reporter in THE LOST CITY OF Z, a film which I thought was just okay.  He delivered a very good performance, and he’s even better here in GOOD TIME.

Jennifer Jason Leigh knocks it out of the park in a brief bit as Connie’s friend Corey, an unstable woman who is driven to help Connie because he promised to take a vacation with her.  Likewise, Taliah Webster enjoys some remarkable moments as 16 year-old Crystal whose grandmother takes in Connie temporarily, setting up some situations between Connie and Crystal that are both refreshing and disturbing.

Barkhad Abdi, nominated for an Oscar for his role in CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (2013) has a memorable bit as a security guard.  And Hiphop artist Necro shows up as a drug selling heavy.

There’s also an absolutely frenzied and very effective music score by Daniel Lopatin that really adds a lot to the movie.  It reminded me of something John Carpenter would have written.

Without doubt, GOOD TIME is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.  Its relentless pace will have you on the edge of your seat throughout, the acting will have you caring about the characters, and the screenplay and creative direction will keep it all real and believable.

The title GOOD TIME has little to do with what actually happens on-screen.  It does, however, describe what the audience will have while watching it.

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