Tag Archives: 20th Century Fox

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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Bigger Than Life (1956, Nicholas Ray)

Despite producing the film himself, top-billed James Mason doesn’t have the best part in Bigger Than Life. Instead, Barbara Rush–as his suffering wife–gets it. Mason’s a man with a life threatening chronic illness who has to take special medication. Slowly–though not too slowly–that medication starts making him psychotic. Rush is the faithful wife who ignores advice and sticks by Mason’s side, even before she finds out it’s an increasingly known side effect of the medication. After she does make that discovery, it’s basically a rush to the finish with the danger being how far is Mason going to go.

And, actually, he doesn’t go anywhere near as far as one might assume. There’s a bit of restraint, because the movie never wants to make Mason too much the villain. He can be psychologically abusive to son Christopher Olsen, but it takes Olsen a really long time to break down and tell mom Rush how he hates Msaon now. And even after family friend Walter Matthau counsels Rush to call Mason’s doctor–little does she know Mason’s actively deceiving doctor (Robert F. Simon) and has been since his first night home from the hospital. The screenplay–credited to Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum, but with some uncredited help–gives Rush a range of fantastic scenes as she copes with Mason’s awful behavior, without ever really giving her a great role. She’s just dutiful wife. Of course she’s going to stand by her man, why wouldn’t she?

Though I suppose Mason’s lack of actual dangerous outbursts, just psychological torture of his family, do play a part. Though it’s not like Rush gets to react to them after the fact. She doesn’t get much in the way of character development. No one does. Not even Matthau, who’s third-billed but an overblown cameo by the second half. In the first act, he’s Mason’s best pal–Mason’s a school teacher, Matthau’s the gym teacher–and essential support to the family. Once Mason’s out of the hospital, the film forgets about him until they need an exposition dump. He’s the one who tells Rush about the drug’s side effects, as well as informs on Mason after Mason loses it at a school open house.

The scene where Mason faces repercussions for the behavior at the open house is entirely missing, as principal Rusty Lane–another pal of Mason’s early on–fades away. The more the story focuses in on just Mason, Rush, and Olsen the more unreasonable the plotting becomes. Director Ray is able to get some real tension in the third act, but it’s almost out of nowhere. The family goes to church, which sets Mason off in unexpected ways. Not at church, however, once they’re home, which makes Mason’s earlier public out burst a little nonsensical. His behavior’s predictable to some degree–he’s abusive at home–but only because home is the only place where the action takes place. Presumably he’s still going to work, but there are no further scenes there after a point, which makes the film more and more Rush’s, which is fine. She’s great. But the narrative’s lacking.

Bigger Than Life does only run ninety-five minutes, however, so there’s only so much it can do. Kipp Hamilton, as one of Mason and Matthau’s coworkers (who Rush suspects is having an affair with Mason at one point), completely disappears after Mason’s first day out of the hospital. She’s there long enough to stir up some masculine pride in his wife’s figure (Hamilton is a snazzier dresser than Rush) so Mason decides to bankrupt the family to get Rush a fancy dress. See, the erratic behavior starts right away, when theoretically Mason is taking his prescribed dose… his abuse gets worse as the film goes along, increasing as his mental problems increase, but there’s no direct narrative connection between the two threads. They’re parallel, understood to be causal, but unexplored.

Instead Mason just gets on this kick where he’s going to save the world from the stupid kids of modernity through a return to classical teaching. It’s not explored much more than that description. The script avoids a lot.

But until the third act, the movie basically holds it all together. It’s not until Rush has a last minute monologue explaining herself, which doesn’t actually explain any of her behavior on screen–the dialogue doesn’t jibe with her performance to this point–it seems like no one really knows how to end the movie. Then the movie sets a goal for how it can succeed and… doesn’t. What should be a great acting opportunity for Mason turns into some schmaltz. Not even enthusiastic schmaltz, much lses sincere.

There’s great photography from Joseph MacDonald, good direction from Ray–who has that wide Cinemascope frame but still manages to confine his actors in it, particularly in the tense home scenes, which are the film’s main type of scene–and some fine production values. Ray doesn’t have quite the handle on the school scenes, particularly not as far as tension goes, but they’re pretty sparse once things get going. One of the best sequences, Mason and Olsen playing football and Mason getting progressively more abusive, seems like it’s out of another film entirely, Ray’s style is so different and MacDonald shooting exteriors is such a visual shift.

The film acknowledges quite a bit about toxic masculinity, though nowhere near all the toxic masculinity it ends up visualizing–and Rush’s eventual capitulation to it–which makes things interesting. It’s another of the film’s little disappointments. The hasty finish keeps everyone aware from any self-examination.

Besides the great performances from Rush and Mason, Olsen’s good as the kid, Matthau’s likable in his part, Simon’s good as the doctor. If Ray gave the entire film as much subtlety as the doctors standing around silently regarding Mason, well, it’d be a much different picture. Though, given the way the script works, maybe not a better one. It’s just a bunch of different style choices in a relatively short amount of time. Even the finale is a style choice. Ray’s great at implementing those styles, just not at making them matter.

Bigger Than Life is pretty good, but cast and crew deserve more.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Nicholas Ray; screenplay by Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum, based on an article by Burton Roueche; director of photography, Joseph MacDonald; edited by Louis R. Loeffler; music by David Raksin; produced by James Mason; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring James Mason (Ed Avery), Barbara Rush (Lou Avery), Christopher Olsen (Richie Avery), Walter Matthau (Wally Gibbs), Robert F. Simon (Dr. Norton), Kipp Hamilton (Pat Wade), Roland Winters (Dr. Ruric), and Rusty Lane (Bob LaPorte).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE JAMES MASON 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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The Lodger (1944, John Brahm)

The Lodger begins four murders into the Jack the Ripper killings (the film actually goes over the historical number but also makes some rather liberal changes to the history). Just after a murder occurs, which seems a rather unfortunate event since the victim passes a number of police officers and even a vigilante gang, a gentleman inquires about some lodgings nearby. Said gentleman is Laird Cregar, a pathologist; the lodgings are in Sara Allgood and Cedric Hardwicke’s house. Her sister has passed. Not only is there a sitting room and bedroom for Cregar, there’s also an attic with a kitchen. He’s very interested in the attic. Allgood and Hardwicke have fallen on somewhat hard times–he made a mistake and lost his position, they need lodging income. Cregar overpays. Perfect arrangement.

Hardwicke’s not particularly happy to have a tenant, but Cregar promises he’ll be a model tenant. Though he does go into conniptions about there being portraits of stage actresses on his sitting room wall. And he doesn’t seem thrilled at the prospect of sharing a roof with one–Allgood’s niece, Merle Oberon, is a music hall singer and dancer of growing renown. But all seems well.

Other than Cregar being exceptionally suspicious. Down to giving what seems like has to be a fake name.

As the murders continue, Allgood becomes more and more suspicious of Cregar’s odd behaviors. Hardwicke’s usually the one to dissuade her. And after his initial apprehension, Cregar is able to at least appear kindly towards Oberon, maybe just a little nervous. Cregar’s a big guy, but appears meek most of the time he’s opposite Oberon or the rest of the family.

While Oberon’s new show is opening, a former actress (Helena Pickard) is murdered. She’d just been visiting with Oberon, which leads Scotland Yard to the theater to ask some questions. George Sanders is the inspector. Oberon is what keeps Sanders coming back asking questions. All the victims, he reveals, have been former actresses. Seems Lodger’s Ripper has a definite type.

Soon Allgood’s suspicions finally lead to Oberon and Hardwicke getting more interested, but their initial investigations into Cregar don’t reveal anything suspicious. He’s just a giant, socially awkward, meek pathologist. Even if he did burn his bag at the mention of the Ripper having a bag. And will soon be burning a bloody coat with a flimsy excuse. Oberon’s busy with Sanders’s charming courtship, which starts at Scotland Yard’s murder museum.

When the film gets into the third act and Allgood and Hardwicke finally confide in Sanders–but not Oberon, who’s obviously in great danger but preparing for a bigger opening–everything starts coming together, despite a last minute (and unresolved) foil in the evidence against Cregar. The Lodger doesn’t even run ninety minutes, has two musical numbers, two murder sequences, and it’s still got some occasional padding. What’s unfortunate is how, despite Allgood and Hardwicke being present throughout, it feels like they disappear a bit too much in the second act when Cregar gets comfortable enough to talk to Oberon. And Sanders vanishes altogether for a bit; his subsequent courtship of Oberon, despite showing so much promise, is offscreen and unmentioned. Cregar’s the star, to be sure. Sanders’s second billing is inflated. Arguably so’s Oberon’s top billing but, well, she’s got the two musical numbers and is the unwitting object of Cregar’s obsession.

All the acting is great, particularly Cregar and Hardwicke. Allgood would be better if she had more to do as the film progresses. She’s still great, but the part shrinks. Oberon and Sanders are both good. But they don’t have anything near the “wow” moments Cregar gets. At the start of the film, Lucien Ballard casts a light on Cregar’s eyes to make him appear creepier than he already appears. It doesn’t last for long, just focuses the audience’s attention on Cregar’s odd behavior. Once the light stops, Cregar just gets better. It’s like director Brahm figures out how to showcase his disturbed behavior better, without literal lighted emphasis on him, instead on how to frame Cregar in shots. And Ballard’s there to make sure the shots are phenomenal.

Nice supporting turns from Pickard and Queenie Leonard (as the maid).

Outstanding score from Hugo Friedhofer. Friedhofer, the sets, Ballard’s photography, Brahm’s direction, and Cregar’s intensity make The Lodger something special. Ballard’s lighting success isn’t just on Cregar or in Brahm’s expressive shots, it’s in the functionality of the gaslight era. He’s constantly changing light in shots as a character will turn off the gas, light a candle, and so on. Or move throughout the house in the same shot. The house itself is never creepy, just dark (which might explain why no one is ever too weirded out by Cregar while they’re at home). There’s also all the exterior stuff–the foggy London streets and alleyways; they’re all beautifully done, but in detail and Brahm’s direction of the action on them.

Barré Lyndon’s script is a tad slight on the investigation stuff, slighter still on the romance between Oberon and Sanders (Sanders being a distinct character is superfluous by the third act, as he doesn’t interact with Oberon with any specificity), and then the postscript. After a fantastic chase finale, The Lodger’s got no resolution.

Still, it’s a rather effective thriller. Exquisitely produced and acted, especially by Cregar, who manages to not so much to humanize a monster but reveal human monstrosity.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by John Brahm; screenplay by Barré Lyndon, based on the novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes; director of photography, Lucien Ballard; edited by J. Watson Webb Jr.; music by Hugo Friedhofer; produced by Robert Bassler; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Laird Cregar (Slade), Merle Oberon (Kitty Langley), Sara Allgood (Ellen Bonting), Cedric Hardwicke (Robert Bonting), George Sanders (Inspector John Warwick), Queenie Leonard (Daisy), Doris Lloyd (Jennie), David Clyde (Bates), and Helena Pickard (Annie Rowley).


THIS POST IS PART OF BLOGATHON JACK THE RIPPER HOSTED BY ALESSANDRO OF REDJACK.


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