Sunday, March 10, 2019

Sheer Cliff

Movies: Free Solo

Free Solo is an undeniably excellent documentary in part because of how polarizing it can be to the audience.

The film follows Alex Honnold, a rock climber know for his incredibly difficult (and mind-blowingly dangerous) feats of free solo climbing, which is basically rock climbing but without ropes. Directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin--the latter of whom has spent ten years filming Honnold climb--follow Honnold as he prepares a free solo climb never accomplished before: climbing El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Though other climbers have scaled El Cap, no one has attempted to free solo it. Probably because it is a nearly impossible feat and, of course, one wrong move will have the climber plunging to their death.

This narrative crux is what makes Free Solo both exhilarating and upsetting. Free solo climbers die doing what they love often and the filmmakers don't know whether they'll capture a gambit so daring, so bananas, that it will go down in the annals of history...or just a really classy snuff film. They also don't know if by agreeing to film Honnold's climb they will inadvertently push him to take risks he would not normally take, thus taking on some responsibility if he were to die.


Honnold himself is an incredibly polarizing figure. He mentions that previous girlfriends have suggested that he has a personality disorder and, well, yeah, it kind of feels that way at times. The camera cuts away during a scene where he fills out a medical form that asks if he is depressed, but according to this article, Honnold answers that question in the affirmative during a podcast. Likewise, an MRI reveals that Honnold's amygdala, the fear center of the brain, has very low activity--meaning that it takes a lot to get his fear response to work.

Viewers are treated to cringe-inducing scenes of Honnold and his girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, who seem poorly matched by my (limited) view. Honnold tells her multiple times that he would never put her worries before his own desire to climb. When a fellow free solo climber Ueli Steck falls to his death during the period when Free Solo was being filmed, McCandless recounts bringing up Steck's wife to Honnold and Honnold saying "well, what did she expect?" And fair enough, it's McCandless's choice to remain in a relationship with Honnold, but putting aside the fact that he could basically die at any time--in fact, is likely to die given what his career is--Honnold comes off a a low-level sociopath. Or maybe that's too strong. He comes off as flat, single-minded, uncaring of other people generally, and unaffectionate. What a prize.

But the awkward scenes between Honnold and McCandless only add to the depth and nuance of Free Solo. It's interesting to see a man who basically doesn't care if he dies be held up as an athletic hero and it's hard to decide what you personally feel as a viewer of this film--should dare devils like Honnold be held up as heroes, exemplars, and examples of the power of (indescribably) hard work? Or should the be allowed to do what they do but not celebrated, considering how dangerous their passion is?

The film itself is absolutely thrilling--watching Honnold explain the intricacies of a particularly challenging section of El Cap that involves holding yourself to the rock using half your thumb and a toe while you karate kick to a slightly better foothold is dizzying. And then he fucking does it. Without rope. It goes from dizzying to vaguely nauseating.

The article I linked to above, which is from a climbing magazine, does a better job at explaining the mixed emotions one might feel about Free Solo--especially if one is a rock climber (I am not) and truly understands how insanely dangerous free soloing is. The author wonders if others will be inspired to take up free soloing after seeing the film--the implication being that the movie could directly lead people to, well, die. On the one hand, adults should feel free to pursue dangerous hobbies as long as no one else gets hurt. On the other hand, if Honnold were expounding the joys of auto-erotic asphyxiation, would we see him as a hero, or as someone in need of help and mental health services? How close to tempting death can a person get before they move from daring to suicidal?

Grade: A-

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Fatal Mom-traction

Movies: Greta

From Whatever Happened to Baby Jane to Single White Female to Fatal Attraction, audiences seem to be unable to get enough of women losing their shit. While I find depictions of bunny boiling and hysterical screaming to be distasteful at best and downright offensive at worst, I found myself in the theatre watching Greta and moderately enjoying acclaimed veteran actress Isabella Huppert lure ingenue Chloe Grace Moretz into a game of cat-and-mouse by using the younger woman's own helpful nature against her.

Moretz plays Frances, a recent college graduate who moves into a lovely Tribeca loft with her wealthy friend from college, Erica (Maika Monroe, too talented for this role). When Frances sees a handbag left on the subway, she uses the owner's ID to find where she lives and return the bag in person. The bag's owner, Greta Hideg (Huppert) is an elegant, lonely woman in her 50s who lives in a cozy little apartment by herself. Frances and Greta bond over their losses--Greta's husband has passed and Frances lost her mother only a year ago. Frances convinces Greta to adopt a dog and the two women develop a friendship despite their age gap.

But...

Spoilers Spoilers Spoilers




...


One evening Frances is making dinner with Greta and stumbles across a cabinet containing nearly a dozen handbags identical to the one she found on the subway, each with the name of the person who returned it along with their phone number. Confused and upset, Frances abruptly leaves...only to turn her phone on the next day and see dozens and dozens of missed calls, texts, and voicemails from Greta. The woman is officially off her rocker. Oh, also? The dog dies. Don't see this movie if you don't wanna see a dog die.



***

End spoilers (kinda)


While Greta is fun in a campy way, especially in its final third which is reminiscent of Takashi Miike's Audition in some very specific ways, it's still upsetting to see depictions of what is clearly mental illness be used to goose audiences into a fear response. Much is made of Greta's loneliness and she has legitimate reasons to be lonely. Her husband is dead, her daughter is mysteriously not in the picture, and she's an older woman living by herself who longs for company. But the film is not interested in exploring the nuances of loneliness and fucked up family dynamics--it just wants to show Chloe Grace Moretz tied to a bed with a gag in her mouth.

On the other hand, Greta shows the consequences of authority figures not taking stalking seriously, even when the stalker becomes more aggressive by the day. The film is realistic in showing how the burden is placed on the stalkee to keep themselves safe while the stalker can get away with any number of behaviors that cause mental distress to their victim.

But ultimately Greta, directed by Neil Jordon who has made his career in directing high art trash pics such as Interview with the Vampire and the notoriously transphobic film The Crying Game, isn't a film that cares about much more than getting the audience to scream in fear and glee. It's moderately entertaining, but otherwise an empty and jaded movie that reminds us that no good deed goes unpunished.

Grade: B-

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Love in a Communist Climate

Movies: Cold War

Cold War, from Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski, is an elegant, gorgeous, bleak love story that covers three decades (starting in 1949 and ending in 1964) and crosses half a dozen European countries in a slim 85 minutes.

In post-WWII Poland, Wiktor (Tomasz Kot, the embodiment of "tall, dark, and handsome"), a musician, travels with a small group of music producers across rural Poland to tape people singing folk music. Their goal is to gather a group of young, talented singers and dancers to put on shows as the "Mazurek Ensemble" so that "the music of the people" will not be forgotten (that Polish authorities eventually co-opt the group to produce Communist propaganda annoys Wiktor--who is not sympathetic to Communism--to no end).

In the formation of this group, Wiktor meets Zula (Joanna Kulig, who looks like Kate McKinnon with her blond hair and feline eyes), a young woman probably 15-20 years younger than he--beautiful, talented, mysterious, and heartlessly fickle in the way young, beautiful women can sometimes be. The two embark on what other movie critics call an "impossible" love affair that is heartbreaking in that it is, in fact, not impossible--it's simply that the two lovers can't mold their personalities to fit the others' needs.

Wiktor, despite his age and experience, is presented as the more lovestruck, more vulnerable half of the couple. He is a true artist who is willing to live in poverty for his art and perhaps follows his heart when he should be following his head. Zula is ambitious and opportunistic--she'll fuck, or even marry, whomever can boost her career or provide security. She is also jealous and, as I said, fickle, allowing her to drop Wiktor only to pick right back up where they left off years later.


Shot is gorgeous black and white at a 1:88 aspect ratio with a transcendent soundtrack filled with sad jazz, Cold War feels very European and very old school. If it weren't for the (relatively modest) sex scenes and uses of the term "fuck" and "cunt", one could easily believe this movie was filmed during the actual Cold War. It's retro in the most lovely way. Even its views of love are retro--hopelessly romantic and doomed, like Casablanca. It recalls a time when people loved with their entire hearts, as opposed to today where there is perhaps more freedom in love, but less devotion and intimacy.

Despite rave reviews from critics, I would say that Cold War left me wanting. It's a very good movie, don't get me wrong, but it was hard to believe in Wiktor and Zula's love since it seemed to come out of nowhere and appeared very one-sided. One definitely believes in their passion--there is no doubt that the lovers have an intense, undeniable attraction that pulls them back towards each other through time, across countries, and despite marriages and children. But is it *love*? Love worth years of suffering and worth abandoning everything for? It's hard to say. Wiktor and Zula recall perhaps the most infamous lovers of all time: Romeo and Juliet. They share a connection that makes both of them run headlong into foolish and dangerous choices without a second thought, simply for the chance to spend 10 minutes together.

Cold War is worth the watch--and worth watching on the big screen--especially if you're a fan of artsy, European movies. This one is far more art than entertainment, but as far as art goes, it is about 80% a masterpiece and 20% frustration.

Grade: B+

Saturday, January 19, 2019

2018: The Best and the Rest

Movies: Best of

Y'all, 2018 was an...underwhelming year for movies. Unlike 2017, where my top three of the year (Get Out, Ladybird, and Call Me by Your Name) were movies that I have and will watch over and over and made me feel all the feelings, most of the movies this year struck me as good, but not great. Ironically, I have a top 12 this year, whereas most years I have a top 10 or 11. I think that's because, as far as I'm concerned, numbers 2-12 feel pretty equally good (while my #1 of the year is truly unique and stands apart).

That's not to say that the movies on my list are "meh"--they're quite good and for very different reasons. But compared to 2012-2017, there are just fewer films that really blew me away (2011 was also a crappy year for movies, in my opinion). There are also a few movies that I haven't seen yet that may or may not have made the list if I had seen them in time. Specifically: Eighth Grade, Cold War, First Reformed, and Roma.

But without further ado, here are my personal favorites of 2018:

12. Isle of Dogs
I had to include Wes Anderson's beautiful (if perhaps culturally problematic) stop-motion film because not only is it lovely to look at, it gives the ol' heartstrings a great, big tug. With an excellent voice cast, led by Bryan Cranston (who was born to voice a mangy mutt with a heart of gold), Isle of Dogs takes a simple plot--a boy looks for his missing dog--and elevates it into hipster art in the way only Wes Anderson can.

11. A Star is Born
Speaking of heartstrings, holy shit! When I first saw the preview for the fourth (!) adaptation of the classic tale of a washed-up, alcoholic musician who mentors (and marries) a younger ingenue, I assumed the film would be hot garbage. But I, like anyone else with a heart, got sucked in during Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper's goosebump-inflicting performance of "Shallow", which was (rightly, in my opinion) named the "Best Scene of the Year" by the A/V Club. And, ok, I guess I like Bradley Cooper now? I tried to resist him for years, but he's really good in this movie! Look, A Star is Born isn't breaking any molds, but it made my cold, dead heart feel something and for that, it gets a place on this list.



10. Tully
Tully takes a common, but deeply misunderstood phenomenon--post-partum depression--a spins a fairy tale of sorts out of it. Charlize Theron, teaming up with director Jason Reitman for the second time, plays Marlo--a mother of three who is not just stressed, but burned out to the point of apathy. He rich brother pays a night nanny, Tully (Mackenzie Davis, an absolute delight), to help Marlo and the two bond is surprising ways. Tully's message that "it takes a village to raise a child" shouldn't be controversial, but in a culture where women are supposed to be able to "have it all" (with a shameful lack of paid time off from work and--if the woman has a male partner--an unequal division of labor at home) it still seems taboo to suggest that when it comes to parenting, sometimes the exhaustion outweighs the joy.

9.  Black Panther
With a talented director, a glorious cast, a Kendrick Lamar-heavy soundtrack, and the best villain of the year, Black Panther was destined to be great. And as the first Mavel movie to have a nearly entirely black cast, it couldn't afford to fail. And fail it did not. It currently sits as the 9th highest grossing movie of all time, and the highest grossing film by a black director of all time. Clearly, audiences wanted this movie and director Ryan Coogler did not disappoint. It helps that the central conflict of the film is one where you can understand both sides. Killmonger is not a two-dimensional bad guy--he's a bad guy who has a really fucking good point.

8. Won't You Be My Neighbor?
The only movie to make me actually cry this year, Won't You Be My Neighbor? proved that Fred Rogers was too good for this world. Rogers' approach to reaching children on their level and not condescending to them or acting authoritarian over them was both radical in its day, and still radical to this day. His emphasis that not only is it *ok* to feel feelings, but that it's good to feel feelings is a message that makes sense intellectually, but that so many children and adults struggle with because our culture has so many ways of squelching our humanity and encouraging us to buck up (and buy shit--capitalism is invested in no ever feeling whole). While Rogers would be the first to denounce being treated as a saint, he definitely came close in his important and eventful life.

7. Searching
Hey, remember that movie where John Cho's daughter goes missing and he has to navigate websites like Tumblr and Venmo to discover her whereabouts? Probably not, since the film slipped in and out of theaters in late summer, but I'm here to remind you that it was a damn good movie! In fact, it might be the most purely entertaining movie I saw this year. Filmed entirely through POV screens (and using FaceTime and Skype heavily), Searching could have been gimmicky and dumb, but it succeeded for two reasons: 1) Cho's lived in performance as a single dad desperate to find his missing daughter and 2) the power and mystery of THE INTERNET. As someone who loves to google stalk, this movie got me, and I was right there on the edge of my seat with Cho the whole time.

6. The Favourite
In 2016, director Yorgos Lanthimos directed my favorite film that year (The Lobster). In 2017, he directed my least favorite film that year (The Killing of a Sacred Deer). This year, he directs a solidly good film that puts scheming, witty, wicked, and ambitious women front and center (relegating the foppish men to the sidelines) in this story about Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and two women (Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone) fighting over her favor. The Favourite is dirty and edgy--not what you'd expect from a period film. It's similar to Whit Stillman's Love and Friendship, only sexier and meaner. A delight for people who love costume dramas...or DRAAAMA of any type.

5. If Beale Street Could Talk
In 2016, Barry Jenkins directed Moonlight, the film that famously ousted La La Land for Best Picture. That glorious paean to growing up black and gay in America turned out not to be a one-and-done for Jenkins. His follow up, based on the novel by James Baldwin, is just as lovely and just as gentle in the face of equally harsh--if not harsher--realities of the black experience in the United States. Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephen James) are *just* starting out in adulthood--they're in love and looking for a place to live--when Fonny is falsely accused of rape and jailed indefinitely. And then Tish finds out they're going to have a baby. Jenkins takes a devastating situation and infuses it with integrity, love, and beauty--not to fetishize suffering but to take back the narrative. Complete with the most beautiful cinematography and musical score of the year, If Beale Street Could Talk is a film worth celebrating.

4. Hereditary
Take all the feels you felt while watching Won't You Be My Neighbor? and go in the complete opposite direction and that's what you feel during Hereditary, which is the best horror movie of 2018. Emotions like pure, unadulterated terror; a gut-feeling of wrongness; devastation; shock...you might ask why the hell I would recommend such a film, and all I can say is that it's cathartic as fuck. Toni Collette plays Annie Graham, who is trying to hold her family together after a series of devastating events. The film is about how grief and resentment can murder relationships and how parents, as much as they try to avoid it, can pass down nasty legacies to their children. Hereditary has some issues, especially in the back half, but if you love horror you owe it to yourself to experience this rollercoaster of a nightmare.


3. Border
Despite 2018 being a so-so year for movies (in my humble opinion), there were a lot of films that made me say "wow, I've never seen anything like that before!" and Border is one of those films. A Swedish film, directed by Ali Abbasi, Border almost flew under my radar until I kept seeing reviews of it pop up on body positivity websites. The film follows Tina (Eva Melander), a Swedish border security agent with a keen sense of smell and a face only a mother could love. Tina believes she has a rare birth disorder that gives her a heavy brow, "ugly" features, and makes it unable for her to have children. But then she meets a man who has the same "disorder" as her...and her life and perception of herself radically change. That's all I'll say--other than, seek this unique film out! 

2. Can You Ever Forgive Me?
This criminally underseen film which features Melissa McCarthy in an excellent dramatic role as Lee Israel, a writer who forged letters to make some extra money, really snuck up on me. It's a film I would describe as "autumnal", which its laid-back feel and cinematographic palette of browns and grays. I love autumnal films--Good Will Hunting, Dead Poets Society, Wonder Boys. They're movies that feel cozy, lived in, and give you all the *feels* even if they aren't showy about it. Directed by Marielle Heller and co-starring the hilarious Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me? takes a couple deeply unlikeable characters and makes you empathize with them.

1. Sorry to Bother You
No other movie on this list surprised me as much as Boots Riley's Sorry to Bother You. The film, set in a slightly alternative universe version of Oakland, CA, is funny, shocking, political, and outrageous. With extremely good performances by Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Armie Hammer, Danny Glover, and Steven Yeun as well as voice acting by David Cross and Patton Oswalt, STBY satirizes the struggles of black people to get ahead in a white-dominated society and how capitalism is essentially evil and eats up everything and everyone in its sight. But STBY manages to do this critiquing with a deft hand and balls-out audacity at the same time. It avoids being heavy-handed while also punching you in the gut (and tickling your funny bone along the way). I don't think I've seen a movie about racism that's this funny. It takes inspiration from films such as Spike Lee's Bamboozled and Jordan Peele's Get Out but remains uniquely its own thing. If there is one film to capture the feeling of nightmarish dystopia and ironic humor that *is* 2018, it's Sorry to Bother You.



murder murder murder the white patriarchy










***

Honorable Mentions:

The Hate U Give, Thoroughbreds, Mandy, Suspiria, Disobedience, A Quiet Place, Beautiful Boy, BlacKkKlansman

***

Coulda Been Better:

Annihilation
Did director Danny Boyle bother reading Jeff VanderMeer's "Southern Reach" trilogy? Because over half the plot seems to be missing from his adaptation. This is definitely a situation where the book is waaaaayyy better than the movie.

Crazy Rich Asians
I wanted to like John M. Chu's film more than I actually did. But rom-com tropes and bad-boyfriend behavior made me roll my eyes one too many times.

***

Worst of the Year (that I saw, anyway):

Apostle (last movie reviewed in this entry)
Don't bother with this Netflix film about a man (Downton Abbey's Dan Stevens) who travels to a remote island to rescue his sister from a cult. Sounds really interesting, but a total mess and a snooze.


That's all folks! See you in 2019!

Monday, January 14, 2019

Holy Love

Movies: If Beale Street Could Talk

I recently read a review of Barry Jenkins' transcendent film If Beale Street Could Talk that said the film "carves a holy place in a hard, hard world". Indeed, just like Jenkins' deeply humane portrait of a gay, black man in 2016's Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk seems too good for this terrible world.

Set in 1970s Harlem, Beale Street follows 19 year old Tish (newcomer KiKi Layne) and 22 year old Fonny (Stephen James, who wowed in Sam Esmail's Homecoming earlier this year). Tish and Fonny are childhood friends who grew into lovers. "There was no cause for shame between us" Tish narrates. The two are planning to find an apartment and get married when Fonny is accused of rape, despite having a solid alibi. He is jailed and the trial date keeps getting pushed back when the woman who accused him leaves the country. Meanwhile, Tish finds out she's pregnant.

The plot weaves back and forth between the present (Fonny in prison) and the not too distant past (the lovers struggling to find a place to live in a city that won't rent to two black people). Much like Moonlight, Jenkins is able to infuse suffering and injustice with beauty--not because there is something inherently beautiful about suffering, but rather because love and family and beauty keep happening despite suffering. It's really remarkable what Jenkins has created in his portrayals of black life in the United States. Even I can't fully quantify it in words.


Beale Street is heartbreaking, though not devastating. It shows that life goes on despite hardships. People fight, adapt, and step up to help each other--in particular, the black community of families around Tish and Fonny do what they can to give help, or at least hope, to the two young people who are forcibly separated for no reason other than the authority of a racist cop (Ed Skrein) who claims he saw Fonny at the scene of the rape. The audience knows that Fonny is innocent and that the cop went out of his way to fuck Fonny over, but it doesn't stop the injustice from happening.

A group of white women sitting in front of me visibly bristled during a scene where Danny (Bryan Tyree Henry, in a brief but powerful role), a friend of Fonny's who was recently released from prison after serving two years on a false car theft charge, says that after being in prison he understands why Malcolm X called the white man "the devil". This scene, more than any other, is deeply upsetting due to Henry's acting--his haunted, sad eyes as he insinuates the violence he faced in prison without giving details. But the audience knows, or at least the smart ones do. Pair this film with Ava DuVernay's 13th and you'll be ready to step up for prison reform.

That's all there is to say about Beale Street. The acting is out of the world, particularly Byran Tyree Henry, but also Regina King as Tish's mother, Sharon, who goes on a heartbreaking journey of her own. The cinematography is sublime and dreamy. The soundtrack is gorgeous. The plot is simple, yet profound. Just go see it.

Grade: A

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Court Intrigue

Movies: The Favourite

Director Yorgos Lanthimos continues to intrigue me with the range in his filmmaking. Last year, his film The Killing of a Sacred Deer was my personal "worst of the year". I found it pretentious and annoying to the point where I was laughing at it (and not with it) in the theatre. But in 2016, his film The Lobster was my *favorite* film of the year! I found it both heartfelt and bizarre in a "if Wes Anderson directed a horror movie" kind of way.

Lanthimos is back with another winner, perhaps not to the caliber of The Lobster, but still very strong with The Favourite. Taking place in Queen Anne's court in 1708 during the War of Spanish Succession, The Favourite focuses on a war of a different kind: the war for the queen's (played with a beautiful lack of vanity by Olivia Colman) affections by cousins Sarah Churchill and Abigail Hill. Sarah (played by the captivating Rachel Weisz) is a Duchess who was also childhood friends with the queen. She is fiercely intelligent and capable and is all but running the country behind the throne. But when Abigail (Emma Stone, playing up her wide-eyed innocence), once a highborn lady but fallen into disgrace who also happens to be Sarah's cousin, arrives on the scene, Sarah's place as the queen's favorite is no longer secure.

Abigail proves to be an amoral schemer who slowly but surely usurps Sarah's place as Queen Anne's confidant...as well as Sarah's place in the queen's bed.

According to a Google search for "queen anne lesbian?", it was rumored that the queen had lesbian affairs, though never substantiated. The Favourite puts lesbian love center stage, for better or worse, and it works because it reveals the depth of love between Anne and Sarah, as well as the false flattery Abigail pays the queen for her own personal gain.

But the gender politics don't end there. The Favourite has been noted to be a unique film in that the women are front and center while the male characters are relegated to the sidelines. They still play a role, but it's what we would normally see as "the girlfriend" role or "the bitch from the office role". They also look like fops in their early 18th century wigs, makeup, and heels. Two male roles stand out: Nicholas Hoult as Robert Harley, a scheming member of Parliament who forges a "friendship" with Abigail in exchange for political information, and Joe Alwyn as Samuel Masham, a Baron who falls for Abigail. It's clear though that these men only serve to further the women's stories...and that is quite refreshing.

I didn't like The Favourite as much as I thought I would, but I liked it a lot. It's funny, it's dark, it's beautifully filmed and wonderfully acted. It's a period film with zero stuffiness that shows what disgustingly indulgent lives royals lived long ago. Hell, you can even read parallels to modern politics into the film with the way Queen Anne is portrayed: lazy, incompetent, and bought and sold with flattery (although apparently she was actually a much stronger leader than Lanthimos gives her credit for). But even when she is brought low by heartbreak, tragedy, and a stroke to boot, she's still 100 times better than--to use a word bandied about quite a bit in this film--the cunt currently in charge.

Grade: A-

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Ladies Heist

Movies: Widows

This review is wayyyy overdue (I saw Widows on Nov. 17th), and I think that's because, for better or worse, I found Widows to be an ok movie rather than a great one, so I didn't have a burning desire to share my opinion with the world as quickly as I did with, say, Border.

That said, Widows has its charms. It certainly has pedigree: directed by Steve McQueen, whose last film 12 Years a Slave rightfully won Best Picture in 2014; adapted for the screen by McQueen and Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl and Sharp Objects; starring a women-and-POC-led cast including Viola Davis, Brian Tyree Henry, Liam Neeson, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Colin Farrell, Cynthia Erivo, and Daniel Kaluuya.

The cast and crew elevates Widows above a mediocre genre flick, but not quite enough for my taste. I can't help but compare it to Gone Girl, which was just so acidic and sadistic and tense and rewatchable. Widows is...ok. Like, it was entertaining while I was watching it, but now I can barely remember it and very few moments stand out to me as thrilling or surprising or scary.

Davis plays Veronica Rawlings, the pampered--but smart and tough--wife of Liam Neeson's career criminal, Harry. After a heist turns deadly, Veronica finds herself widowed along with the wives of the men who worked under Harry. It turns out that Harry and his crew robbed another crime boss, Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry in an understated and terrifying performance), of 2 million dollars. Manning wants that money back, as he is running for the position of alderman in the South Side of Chicago against strong front-runner Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell).


What exactly is an "alderman" you ask? Good question. The movie never really explains it, but Wikipedia defines it as "a member of a municipal assembly or council..the title is derived from the Old English title of ealdorman, literally meaning 'elder man', and was used by the chief nobles presiding over shires." I find this definition intriguing since the gender and racial dynamics of the film are complex. Mulligan is a wealthy white man who is basically inheriting this job (that he sorta doesn't want) from his racist old bastard of a father (Robert Duvall). He's up against Manning, a black man from the South Side of Chicago who wields his own power--through threats and violence instead of inherited money and privilege. But both of these men are about to be challenged and taken down by a group of women--mostly nonwhite and mostly in dire financial straits. More than anything else, Widows is about power: forms that power can take (money, sexuality, violence, blood ties), who has it, who wields it, and how they wield it. By carrying out a heist their husbands planned before their deaths, the titular widows of the film take back power from men who did hurt them (in the case of Debicki's abusive husband) or will hurt them (as with Veronica, who faces an upsetting late-night visit from Manning where he aggressively picks up Veronica's little dog by the scruff of its neck in the movie's most tense scene).

Widows has twists and turns galore, as well as shocking violence, vans full of money, car chases, and more. Fans of heist films will likely enjoy this elegant take on a genre that is so often paint-by-numbers. For me personally, I don't care for heist films and though Widows is by far one of the best I've seen...well, it's still a heist film. But that's just me. Your mileage may vary!

Grade: B-