Category Archives: ★★★

Widows (2018, Steve McQueen)

Widows is very real. You know it’s very real and not Hollywood because it takes place in Chicago and it’s real Chicago and not Hollywood Chicago. Though Robert Duvall, who gives a fine performance, does make it feel a little like Hollywood Chicago. But it’s also real because Liam Neeson has nose hairs. And because even as horrific events, plot turns, plot twists, horrific revelations bombard lead (and ostensible protagonist) Viola Davis, she’s able to harness all of them and make it all seem reasonable and not contrived. Because she’s Viola Davis and she’s what makes Widows possible. Without her gravitas, director McQueen and co-screenwriter Gillian Flynn couldn’t get away with half of it.

McQueen and Flynn are adapting a six hour British series. Might explain the episodic plotting, might not. Widows has an expansive plot. Until it doesn’t. There’s a switch thrown somewhere in the middle when McQueen and Flynn stop with the expanding. Once Cynthia Erivo is on the team, everything changes. Including who gets character development. The film’s well-paced enough you don’t even realize a couple characters go on pause and Davis is in the picture less and less after her inital story arc ends. But it also means when the finale comes up short and awkwardly so… well, all of a sudden it’s time to cash in Widows’s chips and McQueen’s been bluffing.

Not to mix metaphors.

The film is about Widows Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, and Carrie Coon. Erivo is actually a babysitter; unfortunately the original British series is not called Four Widows and a Babysitter. The film opens with the women and their men. Then their men, career robbers, all die. Horribly. So now the widows have to figure out what to do, because none of their men left them in good shape financially.

Coon, for instance, has a newborn. She was married to Coburn Goss, who has no personality in his few scenes. Unlike some of the other dead husbands. Manuel Garcia-Rulfo is a deadbeat who steals all wife Rodriguez’s money. She has a thrift store. Debicki’s husband, Jon Bernthal, is mentally and physically abusive. But mostly physically. And then there’s crew leader Liam Neeson. Charming career robber, known and hated by cops, beloved by crooks, on and on. He’s married to Davis. Her scenes imagining Neeson still with her–nose hairs and all–should be some of Widows’s best moments for McQueen. Instead, he just showcases Davis’s acting and doesn’t do anything else with it. Because Widows is too real.

As such, all mastermind thief Neeson leaves beloved widow Davis is his Moleskine. It’s got the plans to his next job. He also leaves her Garret Dillahunt, driver and boy Friday. Dillahunt’s good. In hindsight, his part should’ve forecasted McQueen and Flynn’s later problems.

Well, turns out Neeson stole from crime brothers Brian Tyree Henry and Daniel Kaluuya. They have an ill-defined criminal empire. Henry is trying to take the family straight, Kaluuya isn’t so sure. Henry’s plan is to get elected alderman. He just needs to beat corrupt public official and Chicago political family guy Colin Farrell. Duvall is Farell’s dad, the outgoing alderman. He had a heart attack or something. Doesn’t matter.

Henry then goes to Davis and tells her he wants the money–for his campaign, which he doesn’t mention–and she’s got a month to get it. She recruits the other widows to pull Neeson’s last job.

Through their new, sometimes dangerous experiences, Rodriguez and Debicki get character development. Well, Debicki gets it. Rodriguez gets a hint of it, then gets shut down. She becomes more functional, bringing in Erivo later on. Erivo who’s actually part of a C plot about small businesses too. McQueen and Flynn is overloaded with texture. Widows has enough material to be twice as long, because either its supporting characters need to get developed or they need to go away. The first act has a bunch of throwaway characters around just to play with expectations.

The texture–very realistic and don’t you dare acknowledge the adorable puppy–works. When Widows is expansive, it’s because of all that texture. Well-written, well-acted, well-directed texture. Narratively pointless because not even Davis can bring enough gravitas to fix a somewhat craven epilogue. McQueen–intentionally–eschews so much of the heist genre for Widows. And when he finally does employ genre narrative tropes, they’re all the bad ones. He’s also trying not to direct the thriller sequences–Kaluuya takes it upon himself to stalk and terrorize Davis in another C plot–but McQueen does a bunch of thriller sequences. And rather well. His narrative instincts are strong and he can do a lot with his cast, but the script’s the script. The twists, the turns, the disappearing characters.

Davis is great, Debicki is great. Rodriguez is good. She doesn’t get enough to do. She doesn’t even get C plots, she just gets to bring in Erivo, who does get a C plot. But Rodriguez is probably in the movie more than Erivo. She’s at least more active in the first act.

Erivo’s good. Again, thin part. Erivo acts the hell out of it.

Farrell ought to be great but his election subplot gets more time in the middle than Davis and crew planning. The whole Farrell thing–which also gets into the Chicago corruption and related institutionalized racism–takes up too much time in the film, which loses track of Davis and skips over Rodriguez. Great acting, great direction of that acting, good part, not great part.

Duvall’s a cameo pretending to be bigger. Henry’s fine. Kaluuya’s good, but the part’s too functional. And has no character development. None of the men get character development. At best they get some revelations. And it’s fine. But it’s thin.

Technically, the film’s perfect. McQueen’s composition, Sean Bobbitt’s photography, Joe Walker’s editing, Adam Stockhausen’s production design. It’s all great. The Hans Zimmer score is good but very functional.

Widows is fine work, with some near exceptional elements. And some particular problems.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Steve McQueen; screenplay by Gillian Flynn and McQueen, based on the television series written by Lynda La Plante; director of photography, Sean Bobbitt; edited by Joe Walker; music by Hans Zimmer; production designer, Adam Stockhausen; produced by Iain Canning, McQueen, Arnon Milchan, and Emile Sherman; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Viola Davis (Veronica), Elizabeth Debicki (Alice), Michelle Rodriguez (Linda), Cynthia Erivo (Belle), Carrie Coon (Amanda), Colin Farrell (Jack Mulligan), Garret Dillahunt (Bash), Daniel Kaluuya (Jatemme Manning), Lukas Haas (David), Brian Tyree Henry (Jamal Manning), Liam Neeson (Harry Rawlings), Jon Bernthal (Florek), Manuel Garcia-Rulfo (Carlos), Coburn Goss (Jimmy Nunn), Molly Kunz (Siobhan), Jacki Weaver (Agnieska), Kevin J. O’Connor (Bobby Welsh), Jon Michael Hill (Reverend Wheeler), and Robert Duvall (Tom Mulligan).


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My Left Foot: The Story of Christy Brown (1989, Jim Sheridan)

My Left Foot is told in flashback. There’s the present–kind of glorified bookends–when Christy Brown (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a successful adult and flirts with his nurse (Ruth McCabe)–and then the past, which recounts Brown growing up poor, with cerebral palsy, in 1940s Dublin. Hugh O’Conor plays Brown until he’s seventeen or eighteen, then Day-Lewis takes over. Since Day-Lewis has a beard and a distinct manner in the present-day stuff, when he’s a teenager and before he’d ever gotten any rehabilitation or treatment, it’s a very different role. O’Conor plays a very different role too in his maybe twenty minutes–he’s got to play younger Day-Lewis from the first scene when he’s not even a tween. And he’s got the big material to get through.

Dad Ray McAnally thinks Day-Lewis is catastrophically cognitively impaired. Mom Brenda Fricker doesn’t think so, but McAnally’s a loud (sometimes scary) drunk and there are the six other kids to think about. But it also means the audience knows something the characters don’t. Yes, there’s something about the expectation, both for the narrative and O’Conor’s performance–but also presents the characters from a particular angle, which tends to work a lot better for Fricker than McAnally. Because there’s also the unseen scary bits regarding McAnally. Fricker–rightly so–gets sainted. McAnally gets gray, only My Left Foot isn’t really set up for gray.

My Left Foot is very precise in its attention and its intention. The focus is on O’Conor and Fricker–then Day-Lewis and Fricker–in the family’s house. My Left Foot’s production values are never bad, but director Sheridan and production designer Austen Spriggs focus their efforts on the scenes at the family’s house. Sheridan’s not a flashy director, but when he’s out in public–basically these occasional pub scenes for McAnally–and photographer Jack Controy is no help–the precision is gone. To wildly varying degrees. The verisimilitude orbits Fricker. Because Day-Lewis (and O’Conor) are too busy doing these layered performances, not to mention the impossible physicality layer. They don’t need a grounding or anything, they just can’t be concerned with tempering the mood.

It’s actually something brought up later on–as someone reads Brown’s actual writing aloud–regarding the constant feeling of isolation, even in a large family. Day-Lewis and O’Conor are always isolated. Much to Fricker’s frustration. Day-Lewis, Fricker, and O’Conor all have big character arcs in the film. No one else has them. Even if their characters do change a lot–like McAnally or Fiona Shaw, as Day-Lewis’s first doctor and champion–they don’t get to do it on screen. Once they’ve changed too much, they just disappear. Same thing happens to Fricker in the third act; worse, sometimes she’ll be in a scene and wasted. Shane Connaughton’s script sacrifices a lot of character for efficiency. Sheridan enables it, yes, but the script is ruthless.

But I’m getting a little ahead.

Once Day-Lewis takes over, the film nicely ambles about. There’s a subplot about McAnally and Fricker being able to buy him a wheelchair and one of the sisters getting in trouble, but they’re very mild subplots. They provide some narrative structure. Otherwise, it’s these micro-vingettes, all of them doing–often heartbreaking–character development for Day-Lewis. Fricker gets her character development in big moments. Day-Lewis’s builds. The film avoids getting too in-depth with anything. Just like McAnally’s faults are left unexplored, as are all of Brown’s medical problems over the years. Or physical realities. Or, actually, mental ones. Day-Lewis has a couple big rejection from women scenes and the film skips the hard stuff. My Left Foot isn’t rosy, but Sheridan and Connaughton make a real effort not to get too real with any of it.

And, given–while in the present and now apparently a writer (Brown’s work as an artist and writer are very murky in the background)–Day-Lewis tells McCabe (who’s reading his first book, My Left Foot) about how it’s too sentimental. The film is too sentimental. The acting is never too sentimental. The production never looks too sentimental–Jack Conroy’s photography is too flat for the emotion. But Sheridan and Connaughton are going for sentimental. Elmer Bernstein’s score is often so saccharine–while being technically competent if not better–it distracts from the acting.

Of course, with a better ending–the micro-vingettes have been becoming summarized micro-vingettes skipping forward in the narrative without any rhythm–the film maybe could’ve gotten anyway with the sentimentality. Day-Lewis is charming as hell by the present day stuff. He’s just not in it enough in the present day to get too sentimental about. Everyone’s material take a dive in the third act; the film has run out of time to tell its story so there’s a rush to the finish. The transition from flashback to present is really, really, really rough. It races and interrupts the actors.

The film’s exceptional moments come in the first and second acts, when all the elements sync up–the acting, the writing, the history–and Sheridan is able to get these fantastic scenes. Because the writing gets so loose with the history later on, there’s less opportunity for that sync.

And no real attempt at it in the present day stuff. Day-Lewis and McCabe are just cute together. Both actors do quite well with the material, but Sheridan is going for cute. And gets to pull it off thanks to Day-Lewis.

Sheridan and Connaughton are able to get away with a lot because of Day-Lewis and Fricker. Fricker not getting to finish any of her subplots is downright mean of the film, given how much of it she enables.

Fricker, Day-Lewis, and O’Conor give great performances. Exceptional. Singular. Performances deserving that sort of adjective. McAnally is excellent. His part isn’t good enough but he’s excellent. Fiona Shaw is fine. She’s sympathetic but not too sympathetic. McCabe’s cute. All the brothers and sisters are perfectly fine; they’re interchangeable in the narrative, so there’s not opportunity for much more.

My Left Foot has its problems. It also has exceptional pluses. The pluses win out.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Jim Sheridan; screenplay by Shane Connaughton and Jim Sheridan, based on the book by Christy Brown; director of photography, Jack Conroy; edited by J. Patrick Duffner; music by Elmer Bernstein; production designer, Austen Spriggs; produced by Noel Pearson; released by Palace Pictures.

Starring Daniel Day-Lewis (Christy Brown), Brenda Fricker (Mrs. Brown), Ray McAnally (Mr. Brown), Fiona Shaw (Dr. Eileen Cole), Hugh O’Conor (Young Christy Brown), Ruth McCabe (Mary), Alison Whelan (Sheila), Kirsten Sheridan (Sharon), Declan Croghan (Tom), Eanna MacLiam (Benny), and Cyril Cusack (Lord Castlewelland).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE 2ND DISABILITY IN FILM BLOGATHON HOSTED BY ROBIN OF POP CULTURE REVERIE AND CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


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Separate Tables (1958, Delbert Mann)

Despite taking place in a very English hotel with very English residents–all of them long-term residents, not temporary guests–Separate Tables hinges almost entirely on the Americans. Burt Lancaster is one such American. He’s a regular resident (even ostensibly engaged to manager Wendy Hiller; they’re definitely carrying on illicitly anyway). And Rita Hayworth is the other American. She’s one of the two inciting incidents. Though, arguably, Hiller and Lancaster’s engagement is the root inciter on that one.

The other inciting incident is retired British Army major David Niven getting into a bit of scandal. Niven is a blowhard, genially annoying to all his fellow residents–except Deborah Kerr. She’s there with her mother, Gladys Cooper. Cooper’s a nasty upper class widow, Kerr’s her terrorized, utterly controlled daughter. Cooper browbeats her, while Kerr resents her own day dreams. Only with Niven does she get a little bit of relief.

Cooper disapproves, of course, and is very glad to manipulate Niven’s scandal to hurt both him and Kerr. In a very British upper class sort of way. Cooper’s the film’s villain, but of course she’s a villain. Her behavior can’t be anything but reprehensible, given her character. Hard to feel malice towards her.

The Niven scandal–and Kerr’s reaction to it–is half the story. The other half is Hayworth and Lancaster. They used to be married. She’s a former fashion model, he’s an author of some renown. Their marriage ended with Lancaster in prison for assaulting her. But now she’s heard he’s fallen on hard times and was in London meeting her fiancé’s family and thought she’d look him up. To provide moral support. And, you know, seduce him. Because brute working class guys made good is the only thing ever to do it for her.

Except Lancaster still resents her for forcing him into the assault–she denied him his conjugal rights. Hearing Lancaster complain she didn’t let him treat her as property kind of undermines his sympathetic potential. Though, as it turns out, even though the Americans keep Separate Tables moving, they’re not really supposed to be the sympathetic ones.

They’re an extreme. Cooper (and Cooper’s way of thinking, which influences Kerr and even Niven) is another extreme. Tables is all about finding the balance.

The film takes place over a particularly eventful sixteen or so hours. Just before dinner to breakfast the next day. Tables runs a couple minutes under a hundred minutes, with the first act establishing a bunch of characters. The other residents include Cathleen Nesbitt as Cooper’s partner-in-crime, Felix Aylmer as a stuck-up retired public school teacher, May Hallatt as a horse better, and Rod Taylor and Audrey Dalton as two indiscreet lovers. Taylor’s studying for his surgical exams. Dalton’s ostensibly there to help, but she mostly just seduces him–literally–away from them. Initially, it’s through Taylor and Dalton the implied activity of sexual congress–which Cooper, Nesbitt, and Alymer–all find so distasteful, gets mentioned.

Cooper and Lancaster have just been doing it in secret for years before the engagement, which is still tentative and super-hush hush.

Separate Tables is a lot of talking, a lot of listening, a lot of silent, pained emoting. Once Niven breaks down in the first fifteen minutes–see, he knows the scandal is about to become known–it’s obvious the film’s tone is going to be somewhat peculiar. Director Mann relies entirely on the performances. He’s got a handful of showy moves, which all work beautifully, but it’s almost entirely shot to facilitate the performances. With Charles Lang’s gorgeous black and white photography. The film’s technically stunning–great music from David Raksin, great production design (it’s all on sound stages, including the exquisite exteriors) by Harry Horner. Except the editing. Every once in a while, Charles Ennis and Marjorie Fowler’s cuts will be jarringly bad. And even when they’re not jarringly bad, they’re never fully in sync with the performances. It never ruins a scene or really hurts one overall, but the editing causes some stumbles. It’s worst when it’s in a Hayworth and Lancaster scene, because they’re already a little rocky.

Hayworth’s cold, shallow, calculating former fashion model is kind of perfect counter for the cold, calculating, but repressed Brits around her. Hayworth’s best when she shows humanity, which rarely happens around Lancaster. Lancaster’s best when he’s opposite Hiller, just because his scenes with Hayworth are usually a combination of silent rage, silent lust, or noisy exposition dumps. While both Lancaster and Hayworth are good, they’re the weakest parts of the film. Especially when they’re together.

Meanwhile, the trouble brewing over Niven is positively enthralling, as Cooper musters her fellow residents in a revolt and each of them works through their personal feelings about the situation. Only Kerr gets to explode. And the movie–through Cooper–has been promising Kerr will explode since their first scene together (which is the second or third scene in the picture), so there’s a lot of anticipation.

Kerr doesn’t disappoint. Not once in the picture, even though much of her performance is just sitting looking upset. Niven never disappoints either. He’s got the biggest character arc and kind of two parts to play. One and a half at least.

Hiller’s great too, sort of better than the film deserves. It only makes it because of her. She’s able to support her costars enough to get them through their sometimes perfunctory or abbreviated character development.

Separate Tables is deliberate, careful, thoughtful. Mann and screenwriters Terence Rattigan (adapting his play) and John Gay pace it all perfectly. It never feels stagy, never feels confined, never feels perfunctory. At least not in the plotting or events. Sure, sometimes the character development is a little too slick, but it is only a hundred minutes and the present action is only sixteen or seventeen hours. The performances are sublime, the production (save the editing) is sublime. It’s a lovely, often impeccable film.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Delbert Mann; screenplay by Terence Rattigan and John Gay, based on the play by Rattigan; director of photography, Charles Lang; edited by Charles Ennis and Marjorie Fowler; music by David Raksin; production designer, Harry Horner; produced by Harold Hecht; released by United Artists.

Starring Burt Lancaster (John Malcolm), Rita Hayworth (Ann Shankland), Deborah Kerr (Sibyl Railton-Bell), David Niven (Major Angus Pollock), Wendy Hiller (Pat Cooper), Gladys Cooper (Mrs. Railton-Bell), Cathleen Nesbitt (Lady Matheson), Felix Aylmer (Mr. Fowler), Rod Taylor (Charles), Audrey Dalton (Jean), Priscilla Morgan (Doreen), and May Hallatt (Miss Meacham).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE DEBORAH KERR BLOGATHON HOSTED BY MADDY OF MADDY LOVES HER CLASSIC FILMS.


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Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995, John McTiernan)

Until the tacked on finish, Die Hard with a Vengeance can do little wrong. It doesn’t aim particularly high, just high enough–it’s a symphony of action movie action (and violence) set in New York City; the city’s geography (at least movie familiar geography) plays less and less of a part as the runtime progresses, but director McTiernan and his crew are doing a large scale action movie over a wide setting and a constrained time period. The film takes place, without the tack on, in maybe nine hours. With the tack on, a few more.

Most of the city in crisis action happens in the first forty minutes or so. New York wakes up to a bombing in a department store. The unidentified terrorist (Jeremy Irons) calls the cops to demand Bruce Willis perform various tasks to prevent further bombings. On his first assignment, Willis involves local shopkeeper Sam Jackson. Irons likes the idea of Willis having a sidekick, so Jackson stays on. Larry Bryggman is Willis’s disapproving boss, Graham Greene, Colleen Camp, and Anthony Peck are his disapproving coworkers. Willis, separated from his wife since the last Die Hard, is failing about to be fired. Much of the first half of the movie is Willis complaining about his hangover; whoever’s job it was to make his eyes blood shot did great work.

Once they’re teamed up, Irons changes from tasks to riddles, giving Willis and Jackson this amount of time to get to this New York location and solve this riddle. Along the way, Willis and Jackson bicker. Despite it being Willis’s franchise, Jackson is there to be the audience’s anchor. For a while, McTiernan wants Vengeance to seem reasonable… plausible… not entirely unrealistic. Soon after Irons finally shows up on screen–with mostly silent flunkies Nick Wyman and Sam Phillips (the third tier East German guys make more of an impression–Vengeance doesn’t care about its supporting villains)–Willis finally catches on to what’s going on and starts shooting people. Only, even though there were a bunch of cops around, he and Jackson are on their own now. It’s just their action movie. Albeit one with a very wide setting.

The first stunning action sequence is when Willis has to jump on a subway train. Vengeance has been pretty up until this point. Lovely photography from Peter Menzies Jr.–the film takes the passage of the sun through the day rather seriously–fine editing from John Wright, excellent production design from Jackson De Govia. But it’s not until half an hour in and Willis pulling up a subway grate and jumping down does Vengeance show off its technical expertise. Once it does, however, the floodgates are open. The scale of the subsequent action varies, but McTiernan and his crew are always executing these grandiose, complication sequences with utter success. It’s a breathtaking ride. And a lot of fun, because Willis and Jackson are a fun pair. Sure, Jonathan Hensleigh’s attempts at solving racial prejudice through male action movie bonding is exceptionally naive and occasionally way too pat, but Willis and Jackson do manage to sell it. Their performances, even when the material’s thin–like the tack on finale–are outstanding.

Ditto Irons. Irons gets to relish though. Neither Willis or Jackson have relish-worthy material. Irons just gets to run wild. He’s the action movie villain in the “realistic” action movie. Only since he’s got all these henchmen doing the action villainry (for the most part), Menzies and McTiernan just have to make sure he never looks out of place and he’s fine.

McTiernan and editor Wright do well no matter what kind of action is going on. Willis surviving a flooded tunnel has just the right amount of tension, a bomb detonating in a middle school has just the right amount of tension. McTiernan toggles between the small scale Willis in a Die Hard movie getting out a situation with the very real terror involved in the school evacuation and so on. Though, in some ways, by keeping Willis (and Jackson) separate from that impending tragedy, Vengeance is able to cop out of having Willis in a “realistic” thriller. The real stuff is juxtaposed against his adventure with missing gold and fake accented Germans and whatever else.

Besides Willis, Jackson, and Irons, the rest of the cast is similarly superb. Bryggman especially. But also Greene and Camp, who slow burn throughout the film before getting their own big sequence. Peck’s good. Kevin Chamberlin’s fun as the bomb guy. Robert Sedgwick’s one of Irons’s thugs who makes more impression than Wyman or Phillips. Heck so does Joe Zaloom as the contrived action movie flunky Willis gets late in the film. Vengeance isn’t about the supporting villains.

Most of the Willis vs. thugs action is just bridging stuff between him and Jackson moving on to their next set piece, which is fine. It distinguishes Vengeance, especially since McTiernan and his crew excel more during the set pieces. The execution of Vengeance is just as important as the content executed, which is another reason the finale is such a disappointment. It’s an exterior night sequence, which–given any thought–fails all credibility tests (even for Die Hard with a Vengeance, though especially given the work put into the film’s procedural constraints). It’s a shame the finish doesn’t live up to the rest of the film, both in terms of narrative (it’s thoughtless) and execution (the big foil is a spotlight distracting Willis).

Not a worthy finish to the previous, sublime two hours.

But Vengeance is still a success. It can’t not be, not with the heights McTiernan and Wright reach; you can’t fault an action movie too much for having a perfunctory action movie finish. To be fair, the first ending–before the tack on–is phenomenal even in its absurd grandiosity.

Good score from Michael Kamen. Great production values. Excellent performances.

In five-dollar words, Die Hard with a Vengeance is so elegantly executed, it transcends the very tropes it functions on (as well as the script’s faults). Just not through the very end.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John McTiernan; screenplay by Jonathan Hensleigh, based on characters created by Roderick Thorp; director of photography, Peter Menzies Jr.; edited by John Wright; music by Michael Kamen; production designer, Jackson De Govia; produced by McTiernan and Michael Tadross; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Bruce Willis (John McClane), Samuel L. Jackson (Zeus Carver), Jeremy Irons (Simon Gruber), Larry Bryggman (Insp. Walter Cobb), Graham Greene (Joe Lambert), Colleen Camp (Connie Kowalski), Anthony Peck (Ricky Walsh), Nick Wyman (Mathias Targo), Sam Phillips (Katya), Kevin Chamberlin (Charles Weiss), and Joe Zaloom (Jerry Parks).


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