‘Vice’ Examines The Most Powerful Vice President of Them All

vice movie poster

“Is it better to be loved or feared?”

“I would rather be feared because fear lasts longer than love.”

-from “A Bronx Tale”

There is a key scene in Adam McKay’s “Vice” which serves as a reminder of how Dick Cheney was the most powerful Vice-President who ever lived. It takes place on September 11, 2001, and Cheney and the key members of George W. Bush’s administration are gathered together in room, but Bush himself is away from the White House. During a conversation with a military general, Cheney orders any suspicious aircraft to be shot down. Another person quickly raises an objection, but Cheney simply raises his hand ever so slightly to silence her. He doesn’t have to yell at or ask her to be quiet; just a simple movement was all that was needed to remind everyone in the room who was the one with all the power. Cheney instilled fear in everyone, even George W.

Christian Bale goes to great lengths in transforming his body into the characters he portrays, and his performance as Cheney will definitely go down as one of his memorable to say the least. There were times where I kept waiting for Bale to raise his voice a little higher as the monotone he was speaking at threatened to be more grating than the voice he gave Batman. But again, Cheney never has to speak up to get his point across. It reminded me of what Henry Hill said about Paulie Cicero in “Goodfellas:”

“Paulie may have moved slow, but it was only because Paulie didn’t have to move for anybody.”

Bale put on 45 pounds for to play Cheney, and he gets the former Vice-President’s mannerisms down perfectly to where you completely forget it is an English actor playing this American politician and one-time CEO of Haliburton. It is such a mesmerizing portrait as he makes us see how slowly but surely Cheney got seduced into the realm of power hungry politicians whether it was serving under his mentor Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) or being manipulated by his wife Lynne (Amy Adams). But even better is the way Bale, as Cheney, subtly worms his way into becoming George W. Bush’s (Sam Rockwell) VP to where he has more control over certain areas of government than Bush, as he is portrayed here, would care to have.

The fact we have any kind of biopic on Dick Cheney is astonishing as he and Lynne remain very secretive about their lives to where McKay employs a disclaimer at the film’s beginning which is as wickedly clever as the one Steven Soderbergh gave “The Informant.” This disclaimer ends with McKay saying he and his fellow collaborators “did our fucking best,” and I guess that’s all we can ask for.

It’s no surprise the director and co-writer of “The Big Short” has chosen an unorthodox approach to making this biopic as it shifts back and forth in time to Cheney’s college days where he spent more time getting drunk than studying or playing football. McKay also has Jesse Plemons playing Kurt, an everyman narrator who says he has a close connection to Cheney, a connection which will eventually be made clear. Throughout, we are shown images from real life which, if they haven’t already, should forever be burned into your conscious memory. Among them is former President Ronald Reagan at the Republican National Convention where he vows to “make America great again.” From here on out, this is a phrase which should forever live in infamy.

One of “Vice’s” most inspired moments comes when McKay begins the end credits midway through the film. What’s especially hilarious about this is how it reflects the conclusion many of us would have preferred Cheney’s to have had in American politics; the kind where he never would have become Vice President. But those familiar with American politics and the Bush Administration cannot and should not expect a happy ending here. Cheney left a lot of damage in his wake, and his political power still remains constant even though he no longer holds public office.

Indeed, Dick Cheney is a tough nut to crack as “Vice” can only get so far under his skin to where you wonder if this man has anything resembling a soul to explore. As the film goes on, he is shown increasingly to be a heartless individual, both figuratively and literally speaking (he did have a heart transplant), and he comes across as such a cold human being to where his muted reactions to the multiple heart attacks shouldn’t be seen as much of a surprise. The fact he even noticed he was having them is more surprising.

Where McKay really succeeds is in showing those closest in Cheney’s inner circle, among which is his wife Lynne. Amy Adams gets the opportunity to play a Lady Macbeth-like character much like the one she played in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master,” and she is fantastic from start to finish. Adams makes Lynne into the key motivator for Dick’s ascent into American politics to where she fearlessly campaigns for her husband while he is laid up in the hospital. Lynne recognized she lived in a time where she could not do all the things she wanted because of her gender, and she finds immense satisfaction through her husband’s rise to power. Adams is brilliant in portraying Lynne’s fascination with the political world and in showing her quick concerns when anything threatens Dick’s standing in Washington D.C.

Another great performance comes from Steve Carell as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Carell makes Rumsfeld into a gleefully cynical politician whose values have long since been corrupted by the quest for power. Just watch when Cheney asks him what they are supposed to be believe in. The gut-busting laugh Rumsfeld gives off speaks volumes as it illustrates exactly where his interests lie, and it is not with working class Americans.

As for Sam Rockwell, his portrayal of George W. Bush feels pitch perfect as he portrays a man whom even Cheney can see is more interested in pleasing his father when it comes to running for President. After watching Will Ferrell’s classic impersonation on “Saturday Night Live” and Josh Brolin’s portrayal of him in Oliver Stone’s “W,” it seemed all too difficult for any other actor to offer a unique interpretation of this unfortunate White House resident. Then again, Rockwell proves once again what a brilliant actor he is as he captures George W.’s mannerisms while humanizing this man in a way I did not expect or was ever in a hurry to see.

I was very much entertained by “Vice,” but I did come out of it feeling like it could have dug deeper into Dick Cheney’s life. Also, the nonlinear storytelling format is at times jarring as we are thrust from one moment in history to another with little warning. Then again, in retrospect, I wonder what more could have been said about Cheney as he seems to be this malignant vessel of a human being who is never has the look of someone who could ever be fully satisfied by anything. The only positive thing I saw of him was his acceptance of his daughter Mary’s (played by Alison Pill) sexuality when she comes out as a lesbian. If only Cheney had treated all Americans like they were Mary, things would have been much different than they ended up being. Of course, when his other daughter Liz runs for public office…

One of the last moments of “Vice” has Bale breaking the fourth wall as Cheney where he looks directly into the camera and tells all those listening he is apologizing for who he is or anything he has done. I’m fairly certain Cheney has not made any statement like this on camera in real life, but the speech Bale gives as him rings frighteningly true. Considering how complicit the former Vice-President was in war crimes which included torture and sending American troops into a war based on false evidence, he has a lot to apologize for, let alone answer to. But let’s face it, he’s never going to apologize. Ever. “Vice” has as many funny moments as it does haunting ones, and this speech is especially haunting because, let’s face it, he will die before he ever considers apologizing. Heck, he almost did.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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‘Cold War’ Beautifully Contemplates The Things We Do for Love

Cold War 2018 movie poster

It has now been over a week since I watched Paweł Pawlikowski’s “Cold War,” and it is rightly described in the production notes as being “an impossible love story in impossible times.” Indeed, there is something about love which forms a bond which cannot always be described in words. The two star-crossed lovers we see here share a love for music, but their differences come to the surface more often than not to where you wonder why they keep reuniting time and time again. Pawlikowski never tries to provide an absolute answer as to why these two individuals cannot end their deep affections for one another, but he doesn’t need to as some things cannot be put into words.

Thinking about “Cold War” somehow brought to mind one of my favorite songs by Howard Jones entitled “What is Love?”. This song was released back in the 1980’s which marked the start of America being seduced by infinite greed, but I was just a kid who had yet to have his innocence ripped away from him. The music really took me in as the synthesizer melodies were a big favorite of mine back then, but the lyrics have since taken on a deeper meaning for me:

“I love you whether or not you love me

I love you even if you think that I don’t

Sometimes I find you doubt my love for you, but I don’t mind

Why should I mind, why should I mind?

What is love anyway? Does anybody love anybody anyway?”

“Cold War” seeks to ask those same questions as it transports us back to post-war Poland in the 1950’s where we meet Wiktor Warski (Tomasz Kot), a musical director at Mazurek, a nascent folk arts ensemble which, as one of its instructors makes very clear, deals with the music of “pain and humiliation.” In the process of auditioning new singers, he comes across the young Zuzanna “Zula” Lichoń (Joanna Kulig) who is fearless in continuing her performance even after she is told to stop. It’s a thrilling scene as these two individuals from different parts of life are quick to lock eyes and create a connection not easily formed in the average Nicholas Sparks cinematic adaptation.

Wiktor comes from a more refined and educated world while Zula comes from, as some may say, the wrong side of town. Their attraction to one another is instant. Is it a fascination with a person’s past history? Wiktor is told Zula stabbed her father with a knife, and this of course makes him wonder why someone would do such a thing. When he asks her why, her answer is blunt and to the point, “He mistook me for my mother and a knife showed him the difference.” We never even learn which part of the body the knife pierced.

Their differences are strong, but there is an unmistakable bond between them which will not break. As “Cold War” moves on, their relationship stretches over a decade and several different locations including Poland, Warsaw, East Berlin and Paris. They become involved with others, but the love they have for one another will not die an easy death. You keep waiting for one of them to tell the other “I wish I knew how to quit you” because they cannot get themselves to leave the other be. Wiktor tells Zula to find “another normal guy” who can support you to which she replies, “Such man is not born yet.” This happens around the movie’s midpoint, and by then it is unlikely such a man will ever be born.

Is this real love, or is it just obsession? Such answers do not matter because all you need to know is how strong Wiktor’s and Zula’s bond is. You can question it all you want, but the love is there even if it exists in a state of emotional torture. John Lennon once sang of how love is real, but Nazareth made it clear that love hurts, and the love these two mismatched souls have for one another seems to exist in a space between those two thoughts.

Just like Mike Leigh did with “Mr. Turner,” Pawlikowski does a brilliant job of taking us back to a time and place to where I felt truly transported to another era. I never questioned the authenticity of what was being presented because it all felt so real to me, and Łukasz Żal’s black and white cinematography is simply gorgeous to take in. It makes me wonder why we don’t get more black and white movies these days. While the lack of colors may seem limiting to filmmakers in general, there is something about the monochrome look which gets everything just right.

What’s especially commendable about “Cold War” is how epic this love story is, and yet Pawlikowski fits everything into a running time which is just below 90 minutes. The movie felt so much longer than that, and yet I came out of it feeling like I saw something immense and wide-ranging.

Tomasz Kot is one those actors who has this smoldering intensity about him. I remember William Petersen having this same kind of intensity in “To Live and Die in L.A.” and “Manhunter,” and it’s as if he doesn’t have to do much to generate any kind of charisma. I am envious and, I have to admit, a bit resentful of actors who can pull this off, but he also lets you see what is going on in his mind as his character of Wiktor suffers through a maddening heartbreak and career setbacks which have him trading the music he loves out for something more politically friendly. You have to admire the subtle acting he does here as it is never easy for anyone to pull off.

Joanna Kulig is every bit Kot’s equal as Zula, and it is fascinating to watch her take this character from being a young student to an adult in an equally subtle way. Kulig also excels at spelling out what is going through Zula’s head to where she needs no dialogue to spell out her feelings, and she is fearless in portraying the character’s constant struggle to escape the confines of a life which keeps putting her into a corner.

“Cold War” is one of the most immersive cinematic experiences I got to witness in 2018, and I hope any phobias you have about movies with subtitles do not keep you from seeing it. The love story is harrowing, but the visuals are beautiful. It’s hard to find movies these days which suck you into their settings the way this one has, and it serves as a reminder of how powerful cinema can be.

Pawlikowski has said this movie is semi-autobiographical as it was inspired by his parents who kept splitting up and getting back together time and time again. Why do couples do this to themselves? It seems unhealthy, and yet some cannot tear themselves away from a mad love story. But once again, he is not out to answer what he believes love really is. I guess he just wanted to know their love was real in some unspoken way. With “Cold War,” I believe he has accomplished just that.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘The Favourite’ is Fantastic and a Sinful Delight

The Favourite movie poster

The Favourite” is the second period film (the other being “Mary Queen of Scots”) I have seen in a week which plays around with historical facts to present us with something which could be more interesting compared to what happened in reality. Thankfully, director Yorgos Lanthimos has not besmirched the advertisements with the terms “based on a true story” or “inspired by actual events” as neither are necessary and would be a severe detriment to the finished film. Instead, he uses history to explore the power dynamics of people who are eager to maintain their place in life, sometimes at the expense of others. When you lose your place in society and have to fight your way back up the social ladder, you will eventually discover you are more devious than you led yourself to believe.

“The Favourite” takes us back to 18th century Britain during the reign of Queen Anne when the British were at war with the French. Queen Anne is played by Olivia Colman, and she makes this historical figure into a wonderfully eccentric human being who finds great glee in racing geese with her friends or playing with her 17 rabbits, each one representing a child she had later lost. She is also beset by a terrible case of gout which has her moaning and wailing in extraordinary pain during the night, and it is only with the help of her many servants that she can get through the day. When it comes to governing, however, she is not really inclined to do so.

Anne’s closest confidant proves to be the Duchess of Marlborough, Sarah Churchill, played by Rachel Weisz. Sarah is more than comfortable with the knowledge that she is the one ruling over Britain as she passing on her confidences and advisements to the Queen. We also eventually learn the two are lovers who share in secret trysts together when the rest of the world isn’t watching. It makes one wonder if love is what’s keeping them together, or if the quest for power conquers everything else.

Into the picture comes Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), Sarah’s cousin whose good name was ruined by her father due to his gambling problems which had him selling her off to a German to settle debts. Poor and desperate for work, Abigail pleads with Sarah to give her a job, and she gets what amounts to an entry level position as a maid where she does the most menial of chores. While scrubbing the floors, she endures a chemical burn which proves to be almost as bad as the one Brad Pitt gave Edward Norton in “Fight Club.”

“The Favourite” gets off to a fantastic start as it introduces the main characters with relish, and this includes Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult is fantastic), the Earl of Oxford, who is infinitely eager to get the inside coup on the Queen’s plans before they are made public. But the movie really hits its stride when Abigail begins to ingratiate herself not just with Sarah, but also with Queen Anne. It starts with Abigail finding herbs to ease the inflammation in the Queen’s legs, and from there she insinuates herself into the Queen’s life and her bed.

The scenes between Stone and Weisz in which they shoot birds for sport is sinfully delightful as they subtly test one another to see where their vulnerabilities lie. When guns are aimed in directions which threaten their existence or get blood on their faces, its to let the other know they are to be taken seriously and not be trifled with. Not once do either of them have to tell the other “don’t mess with me” or “be careful where you tread” because their actions prove to be much louder than words. Still, it doesn’t stop either from trying to get the upper hand, and they do have their own unique ways of pulling this off.

Weisz has one of her best roles to date here as Sarah as she struggles to maintain her power in spite of Abigail’s deceitful intentions. Just watching her face makes one see how much she enjoyed portraying a character who reveled in a power very few people could ever hope to have without being of royalty. Of course, when the tables turn, her face tells a different story, and I admired how subtle she was in making these painful realizations so subtle and yet deeply felt at the same time. Not once does Weisz mug for the camera or go over the top as she does just enough to show how her world is crumbling slowly but surely.

Stone could have stood out like a sore thumb here, being the sole American actor here among so many Brits. But what surprised me about her performance is how English she appeared to where it almost took me a bit to recognize her. Not only does Stone fit perfectly into this ensemble of actors with what seems like relative ease, she pulls off a remarkably effective English accent. Like Weisz, she is also subtle in the ways of showing her power, and the way she infiltrates the Queen’s home and her life is great as she makes sleeping nude with Queen look like flipping the bird to her flabbergasted opponent.

But let’s face it, “The Favourite” truly belongs to Colman who gives a tour de force performance as Queen Anne. The English actress has appeared in such movies as “Hot Fuzz,” “The Iron Lady,” and Kenneth Branagh’s “Murder on the Orient Express,” and there is no forgetting her after watching her here. Coleman takes this character from ecstatic comedic heights to dramatic depths as she makes this Queen a basket case but also a leader who will rise to the occasion when her rule is threatened (or when Sarah or Abigail lead her to believe so). In her last scene, she makes clear who is in charge as the movie’s title is called into question.

This is the first Yorgos Lanthimos directed movie I have seen. I was hoping to watch “The Lobster” one night with my family, but no one could decide on what to watch other than the opening sequence of “Spectre.” Lanthimos has done a skillful job of making this far more than the average stuffy period movie to where his inclusion of an Elton John song over the end credits doesn’t feel out of place in the slightest. Being a comedy drama, the balance could have easily been uneven, but that’s not the case here as this movie feels perfectly realized. If there any flaws to be found, they probably won’t come up until long after you have walked out of the theater.

I saw “The Favourite” with my parents, and they found it to be a bit weird. True, it’s ending is abrupt as it dissolves into a collage of images to where you wonder what exactly is being said. But I loved watching the power plays between the characters who are rendered not as caricatures, but as human beings driven to extremes for one reason or another. It makes me wonder why certain people can become so selfish to the point where the needs and feelings of others do not matter in the slightest. However, I reminded of a lyric from the Peter Gabriel song “Family Snapshot:”

“If you don’t get given you learn to take, and I will take you.”

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Mary Queen of Scots’ Features Unforgettable Performances From its Female Leads

Mary Queen of Scots poster

Many people, particularly on the movie’s IMDB page, have been bashing “Mary Queen of Scots” for failing to be historically accurate. But like many motion pictures which say or imply they are “based on a true story” or “inspired by true events,” this is another one which is not obliged to be restricted in its storytelling by mere facts. Indeed, this movie has been listed by the filmmakers as historical fiction which I am perfectly fine with as deals with two queens from centuries ago who had a respect for each other, but were also frightened by the other’s ability to wield power, and both had a lot of power at their disposal.

Based on the biography “Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart” by John Guy, this movie starts off by showing Mary’s eventual fate, something we really didn’t need to see right away. Not that it spoils anything, but it is so brief to where its brief inclusion feels unnecessary.

From there, we see Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan), Queen of France, arriving in her native land of Scotland intent on reclaiming her throne there. But in this period of strife between Scotland and England, Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) holds powerful reign over both countries and is not in a hurry to surrender her power to anyone. Mary, however, sees herself more than a ruler by name, and she asserts herself in a way which threatens Elizabeth’s sovereignty and brings about a hot cauldron of rebellion and betrayal. Both women have a defiant appearance about them, but they will eventually find it difficult to keep their heads held high as treachery undoes their legacies in a way which will never be easy to repair.

“Mary Queen of Scots” gets off to a very slow start, and I found myself almost falling asleep. It is as though director Josie Rourke, the first woman ever appointed Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse, worked too hard to keep things from peaking at the story’s start. But once Ronan and Robbie make their presences known to us, this movie really hits its stride as both actresses inhabit their characters in ways both fearless and stunning as each proves they are more than ready to govern a country in a way Theresa May only thinks she can.

Ronan is exhilarating to watch throughout as she makes Mary Stuart into a bold ruler who will not suffer fools in the slightest, and seeing her stare down her most loyal servants, male and female, is truly a sight to behold. It’s like her eyes are spitting out daggers to where she has to say nothing in getting her point across. Just watch her scenes with Jack Lowden who plays Mary’s second husband, Lord Damley, who woos her in a way which would have earned this movie an NC-17 just a few years ago. But just as Lord Damley thinks he is the one in power, Mary emasculates him to where he is of little use other than impregnating her and giving an heir to the throne. Ronan stares Lowden down with what seems like little effort, and you have to give Lowden credit for playing a man who is so out of his depth in the monarchy.

Robbie came out of nowhere like a firebolt with her breakthrough performance in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” and she continues to wow us with one great performance after another in movies like “I, Tonya.” In this movie, she has an especially big challenge as Queen Elizabeth I is a historical character who has been played by many actresses over the years in various movies. We could spend our time comparing her performance to those given by Cate Blanchet and Dame Judi Dench among others, but n the end she more than makes this role her own. Even as she shows the power Elizabeth has all those around her, the actress is unafraid to show us this queen’s vulnerabilities which do not end with an almost deadly bout with smallpox. Seeing all those pox marks on her face succeeded in bringing back a lot of bad memories for me, and I have to give the makeup artists high praise as a result.

In real life, Mary and Elizabeth never met face to face, but the thought of them in a room together is highly intriguing. What would they talk about? Can’t they relate to one another in a way they cannot with others? The ideas abound, and what results here is a riveting scene between Ronan and Robbie as their characters strive to assert a power they see as being given to them without question. These two actresses do some of their best work yet here, and seeing them face off and hold their own results in one of the strongest pieces of acting I have seen in a 2018 movie.

Both Mary and Elizabeth respected and were frightened by one another. It’s tragic they could not become better friends as they were one and the same; female leaders who ruled in a time when the thought of a woman commanding such a power was something were too easily frightened by. The level of testosterone surrounding them did not stop them in their tracks, but it is clear how one queen fared better than the other.

“Mary Queen of Scots” thrives on the performances of Ronan and Robbie. The story is at times a bit hard to follow as the politics of the time are not always made clear, but things do improve as the movie goes on. Rourke does a strong job of bringing you right back to the year 1569, and there’s an excellent film score composed by Max Richter which heightens the visceral emotions on display. It’s also great to see actors like Guy Pearce and David Tennant sink so deep into their roles to where they almost completely unrecognizable. Of course, a lot of that is due to an abundance of hair they have on their bodies. What results is not quite a masterpiece, but a powerful motion picture which showcases the amazing talents of its two female leads even as takes liberties with history.

It’s sad to see things have not changed over time. Even now, female politicians still get done in by innuendos (a.k.a. fake news) about their records and accomplishments. But coming out of this movie, I’m fairly certain neither Mary or Elizabeth would have made the mistake of using a private email server in the same way Ivanka Trump did. Again, a lot of that is due to Ronan’s and Robbie’s powerful work.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ Takes the Webslinger to New Heights

Spiderman Into The Spiderverse poster

Alongside Superman and Batman, Spider-Man is one of my most favorite comic book characters. Peter Parker was an ordinary teenager before he got bit by a genetically modified spider, and from there he was gifted with super powers anyone would be envious to have. But in the process, he learns that with great power comes great responsibility, and this includes leaving the love of his life, be it Mary Jane or Gwen Stacy, at a distance in order to keep her safe from his devious enemies. While it must be very cool to be Spider-Man, it is also a very lonely existence as he needs to keep the people he is closest to in the dark as their safety will always be at risk once his identity is revealed to all.

One of the real joys of watching “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is realizing Peter Parker’s existence is not as lonely as we believed it to be. While attempting to thwart the efforts of Wilson Fisk/Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) who is using a particle accelerator to access parallel universes in an effort to bring back his deceased wife and son, we learn there are many different versions of Spider-Man here, there and everywhere, and there is something very reassuring about Peter realizing he is not the only one of his kind.

The main character here is Miles Morales (“Dope” star Shameik Moore), an African-American teenager who is at ease in his inner-city neighborhood, but struggles to fit in at the elite boarding school he was enrolled in following a well-received essay he wrote. Miles wants to fulfill the expectations of his police officer father Jefferson Davis (Brian Tyree Henry) and his nurse mother Rio Morales (Lauren Valez), but he looks to his beloved uncle Aaron Davis (Mahershala Ali) to encourage his creative side more than anyone else.

As you can expect, Miles also gets bitten by a radioactive spider and becomes the superhero he admires, Spider-Man, but he is of course not the least bit ready to take on such a part. Who would be anyway? But when the real Peter Parker is eliminated with extreme prejudice by Kingpin, Miles has no choice but to take his place even as he passes off the changes in his body as being a part of puberty. If such things were easily explainable, the realm of adolescence would be easier to live through.

Miles does however get help from Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), but being a Spider-Man from an alternate universe, he is not the equivalent of the one portrayed in previous movies by Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield and Tom Holland. This Peter has gained a lot of weight and is hopelessly alone after a painful divorce from Mary Jane, and he is not quick to help Miles on the superhero journey he himself has taken, but he slowly becomes enamored at Miles’ spirit and determination to where he ends up helping him put an end to Kingpin’s evil and selfish reign.

With the many parallel universes exposed, we get introduced to the different incarnations of the webslinger which include Gwen Stacy and her spunky alter-ego Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld), Peter Porker and the gleefully animated Spider-Ham (the hilarious John Mulaney), the young Japanese girl Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) who hails from an anime universe where she pilots a biochemical suit with a radioactive spider, and the dark and monochromatic Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage in a truly inspired voiceover). Seeing them all interact with one another here adds more heart and laughs to an already highly entertaining film.

The late Stan Lee, who does have an animated cameo here, once said Peter Parker should always be white, but that he wouldn’t have minded if the character were originally “black, a Latino, an Indian or anything else.” What this movie shows us is how anyone can be Spider-Man, and there’s something truly inspiring about that as superhero roles can at times feel ridiculously limited. It also helps that this animated movie comes on the heels of the brilliant “Black Panther” and “Wonder Woman” as the role of superhero is no longer, and never should have been, limited to one gender or ethnicity, and this was especially the case when it came to battling Thanos in “Avengers: Infinity War.”

I was not sure what to expect when walking into “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” as the thought of an animated “Spider-Man” seemed a little far-fetched and seemed like another attempt by Sony and Columbia Pictures to create a cinematic universe a la “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” and we all know how that one turned out. In a way it is satirical as it plays around with many comic book tropes and has fun dealing with the web-slinger at his best and worst. The filmmakers even take a hilarious dig at the character’s emo-dance from “Spider-Man 3” which Peter Parker is quick to distance himself from (can you blame him?).

But what makes this movie so good is how deeply it invests us in this particular Spider-Man’s life. Miles Morales is not just another Peter Parker clone as he still has his mom and dad, and he is forced to live in two different worlds the same way Amandla Stenberg’s character had to in “The Hate U Give.” While I have long since grown tired of origin movies which deal with a superhero’s beginning as we know they will eventually accept their anointed role, this one rings true emotionally as we watch Miles be understandably hesitant about becoming the next Spider-Man, but his transition from someone blaming his body changes on puberty to a young man eager to save his universe from the devious acts of Kingpin is never less than compelling.

It really feels great to see Spider-Man on a roll right now. Following the much-too-soon reboot known as “The Amazing Spider-Man,” the webslinger made a terrific rebound in “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and had one of the most achingly emotional moments in the “Empire Strikes Back” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, “Avengers: Infinity War.” In a time where the franchises of “Star Trek” and “Halloween” seek to alter the timelines of their iconic characters to take things in another direction, it’ll be interesting to see where Spider-Man will go from here. “Spider-Man: Far from Home” is arriving in theaters next year, and I imagine we will see him again in “Avengers: Endgame.” Whatever the case, it puts a smile on my face to see Peter Parker and his alter-ego continue to be infinitely popular in pop culture as this is a hero blessed with super powers as well as with the foresight of the importance of responsibilities. Regardless of whoever takes on the role of Spider-Man, we come out of this movie with the solid belief said person will take it seriously, and we have to be thankful for that.

And yes, there are post-credit scenes for you to enjoy and, like “Once Upon a Deadpool,” this one features a thoughtful tribute to Stan Lee. May his legacy never be forgotten.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Once Upon a Deadpool’ Has Subversive Delights But Feels Largely Uneven

Once Upon a Deadpool poster

Well, it turns out we didn’t have to wait too long for another “Deadpool” movie to make its way to theaters everywhere. But as I’m sure you know by now, this is actually “Deadpool 2” rechristened as a Christmas movie and diluted down to a PG-13 rating, and it comes with the amusing title of “Once Upon a Deadpool.” This version comes with the added bonus of Wade Wilson/Deadpool reading the story of this sequel to Fred Savage who finds himself trapped in a painstakingly recreated set of his character’s bedroom from “The Princess Bride.” Is it worth the price of admission? Well, yes and no.

What makes this modified version of “Deadpool 2” worth seeing is the interplay between Ryan Reynolds and Savage who still looks like he has only aged so much from his child actor days. As much as Savage tries to convince Wade of how he has long since become an adult and, in addition to acting, also works as a writer and director. It’s also doesn’t help things that Wade has kidnapped Savage and taped him to the bed. But as Wade sees it, this is just “unsolicited location advancement.”

One thing “Once Upon a Deadpool” will forever make you remember is a certain comic book trope known as “fridging.” This refers to a female character, a girlfriend or spouse, getting killed off as a plot device to forward the main character’s actions and evolution. Many criticized “Deadpool 2” for being quick to kill off Wade’s girlfriend, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), as she was one of the most memorable characters from the original. This was complicated by the sequel’s co-writers, Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, freely admitting they were never aware of this trope. Well, at least everyone credit here as Savage confronts Wade about this and describes it as “lazy writing.” Even now, he everyone involved in the “Deadpool” franchise is quick to have a sense of humor about the criticisms made about the movie. Whatever the writers’ intentions, it is good for a big laugh.

Even with a PG-13 rating, this revised version takes no prisoners as those in front of and behind the camera lay waste to Nickelback, the fact Deadpool is a Marvel character subsidized by 20th Century Fox and not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and of the number of F-bombs which can be included in a version, excluding of course the 4-letter words which are bleeped out. Then again, those bleeped out words may not be the ones you are thinking of.

As for Nickelback, I’m not sure if I have ever listened to any of their songs. All I know is everyone seems to think they suck. I wonder how they feel about all the derision they get for their music. Maybe the fact they are mentioned in this movie will raise their record sales a little. Remember, any publicity is good publicity.

In many ways, the whole of “Once Upon a Deadpool” is a send-up of the PG-13 rating in general. When you look at what is left of “Deadpool 2” after the removal of certain words and the copious amounts of blood, we are still left with a motion picture which is still pretty violent and features, among other things, characters getting run over by cars, Deadpool exploding into pieces, and T.J. Miller whom I figured would be removed from this version the same way Kevin Spacey was removed from “All the Money in the World.” Besides, we already know this actor will not be around for “Deadpool 3.”

This PG-13 rated version also serves as an amusing reminder of the hypocrisy of the MPAA as they are clearly more comfortable with violence than they are with sex. Imagine if there was a scene of Vanessa getting oral pleasure from Wade. The MPAA would flip over that more than any scene of ultra-violence this sequel has to offer and would be quick to give it an NC-17 for all the wrong reasons.

Having said all this, I have to say “Once Upon a Deadpool” is undone by this rating as scenes are excised and others added, and it throws off the whole rhythm of the film. The narrative feels severely uneven, and what was funny before now feels stilted and out of place this time around. “Deadpool 2” was one of the best times I had at the movies in 2018, but this version makes me wonder why I enjoyed it so much in the first place. If nothing else, it proves how the “Deadpool” movies work better in R-rated territory. When the first one came along, it was a cinematic grenade the realm of comic book/superhero movies needed as many of them were playing it safe. This made the first “Deadpool” all the more welcome as it shook things up and gave us something not all PC, but it was still filled with a lot of heart and taught everyone a great lesson about loving someone from the inside out and not the outside in.

So overall, “Once Upon a Deadpool” is a mixed bag. I loved the scenes between Savage and Reynolds as they add another subversive layer to the proceedings, but the rest of the movie feels off-balance. If you can handle that, then it is worth checking out, and a dollar from your ticket will be donated to the Fudge Cancer charity. It is actually known under another name, but again, we are in PG-13 territory and only so many F-bombs will be tolerated along with onscreen violence.

And yes, there are some enjoyable post-credit scenes to enjoy including an honorable tribute to the late Stan Lee. Yes, he was 95 years old, but he still left us way too soon.

* * ½ out of * * * *

 

‘The House That Jack Built: Director’s Cut’ is More Subversive Than Shocking

The House That Jack Built poster

“Wanting people to listen, you can’t just tap them on the shoulder anymore. You have to hit them with a sledgehammer, and then you’ll notice you’ve got their strict attention.”

-John Doe from “Seven”

Lars Von Trier loves getting our strict attention too, and he does this yet again with “The House That Jack Built” which stars Matt Dillon as a serial killer. On November 28, 2018, IFC Films presented his director’s cut for one night only, and the advertisements boasted of how over 100 people walked out of it at Cannes, and that those who stayed gave it a 10-minute standing ovation. Give IFC some credit as they have seized upon the film’s controversy to great effect. they are showing Von Trier’s cut before releasing an R-rated version in December, and the advertisements make it clear how this version may not be your cup of tea. As for us proud Von Trier veterans, we know exactly what we are in for. Or do we?

What surprised me most about this cut of “The House That Jack Built,” is that it is nowhere as shocking as I was led to believe. In fact, I found the violence at times rather tame especially compared to the scenes of mutilation in “Antichrist.” This is in many ways the result of many people writing about the movie’s most graphic scenes in scorching detail from one article to the next, but we are also living through a tumultuous time where few things can shock us the way they used to. Or perhaps the images our minds generate will always come across as more shocking than what any filmmaker can put on the silver screen.

The violence shown is extremely brutal and very bloody, and what Jack does with the bodies is just as disturbing. But Von Trier keeps us at a distance from the action to where we are fully in Jack’s mindset, treating his soon to be murdered victims as parts of major work of art. Many may cringe at the images Von Trier thrusts upon us with a twisted glee, but in the end, this is only a movie, not real life.

The movie is constructed of five episodes, each of which shows Jack murdering one or more people and it takes place over 12 years in Washington State. Each murder serves to illustrate Jack’s development as a serial killer, one with a serious case of OCD. And throughout we hear him having a conversation with a man named Verge (played by Bruno Ganz) about the murders he has gotten away with, and their talks take many twist and turns as it leads to a grand finale in one of the darkest places on earth.

The first chapter entitled “1st Incident” has Jack picking up a stranded motorist (played by Uma Thurman) who proceeds to taunt him by saying he might be a serial killer, and it serves to set up an ironic tone which will dominate much of the movie. It’s almost impossible to take things seriously as Von Trier is practically begging us to root for Jack to kill her as she cannot shut her mouth and even goes as far to say where he can bury her body.

Another surprising thing about Von Trier’s serial killer film is that it’s actually quite funny. This is clearly the case in the “2nd Incident” in which Jack attempts to con his way into the home of another woman (played by Siobhan Fallon Hogan, whose expressions are priceless) in a pathetic fashion. He first tries to pass himself off as a policeman, but his explanations for why he doesn’t have a badge on him are just hopeless, and yet he does not give up easily. And thanks to his OCD, he is convinced he has left evidence of her murder to where he keeps going in and out of the house several times.

The violence does become even more brutal and nihilistic as “The House That Jack Built” goes on, and men, women, children and animals are never spared from this wrath. I’m not going to bother going into specific descriptions as, again, the gory details have already been written about in various articles, but I will say this movie is not shock for shock’s sake. If you want that, check out the god-awful “Human Centipede 3.”

Von Trier has said in interviews how he was inspired by “the idea that life is evil and soulless” as well as the rise of Donald Trump. Indeed, many live in anxious uncertainty as the former reality television show host never ceases to give us one headache after another, and seeing him and his cronies (several of whom have since been indicted) threatens to make us apathetic to his inescapable crimes. Jack exists in a world too apathetic to realize the horrible things he is doing to others, and he keeps getting away with murder as a result.

A key scene for me was when Jack corners his girlfriend (played by Riley Keough) who slowly realizes who he really is. She screams for help, and Jack does the same in a mocking fashion. When he opens a window and cries to anyone who can hear how “nobody wants to help,” this helps illustrate just how apathetic the world is to the cries of someone in danger. If there are people willing to help someone, none of them are in a close enough vicinity to do so. If they are, they must have their own problems to deal with.

Another key subject involves art and what constitutes the greatest works of it. Neither Jack or Verge can come to a consensus of what makes great art as Verge believes you cannot have any without love as love, like intimacy, is an art unto itself. Jack, however, sees violence as playing a huge part in art and, he sees the murders he has committed as being more creatively stimulating for him than building a house.

David Bowie’s song “Fame” is played many times throughout, and I kept wondering why. Well, let’s look at the first set of lyrics:

“Fame makes a man take things over

Fame lets him loose, hard to swallow

Fame puts you there where things are hollow (fame)

Fame, it’s not your brain, it’s just the flame

That burns your change to keep you insane (fame).”

Is Von Trier attempting to say something about fame? Perhaps. Jack looks to gain infamy by sending photographs of his corpses to the local newspaper under the name of “Mr. Sophistication,” and they do not go unrecognized by the general public. But whether Jack is a serial killer or a singing star, his life is so cut off from others, and his existence will always be a hollow one. Regardless of how things end up for Jack, any fame he could hope to have will not succeed in making his life different.

There is also a moment where Von Trier features clips of his past movies like “Breaking the Waves,” “Dancer in the Dark,” “Antichrist” and “Melancholia” among others as Jack says the following:

“Some people claim that the atrocities we commit in our fiction are those inner desires which we cannot commit in our controlled civilization, so they’re expressed instead through our art. I don’t agree. I believe Heaven and Hell are one and the same. The soul belongs to Heaven and the body to Hell.”

Is Von Trier explaining how he works or apologizing for the crazy things he has brought to the silver screen? Indeed, the realm of art and fiction are places where we can exorcise our darkest thoughts and angriest emotions, and I for one will always be thankful for this. For the Danish filmmaker, it’s a must as he continues to deal with endless phobias and clinical depression, and he always looks to be exorcising some malady he could do without. But with Jack, he is dealing with a character who is a soulless vessel who can no longer see the line between right and wrong or fact and fiction, so maybe the filmmaker is wondering if he truly has gone too far.

How long have we been watching Matt Dillon onscreen? Have we seen him play a role like this before? If so, none quickly comes to mind. He is in just about every frame of this 155-minute movie, and he gives a frighteningly authentic portrayal of a serial killer at their most banal. Dillon makes Jack into the same kind of killer John Doe described himself as in “Seven” in that he is not special and has never been extraordinary, and it’s fascinating to see the actor refusing any opportunity to chew the scenery as many others would. He mines the role for all its pathos and morbid black humor, and it’s one of the best performances I have seen in a movie this year. Having said that, it is highly unlikely will receive an Oscar nomination. Need I say why?

“The House That Jack Built” will not go down as one of my most favorite Von Trier movies as it does drag on for far too long, but it is as fascinating as any he has previously made. There is much more to this cinematic experience than you will see at its gory surface, and you will ponder the many things Von Trier has dared you to explore on a deeper level.

I am glad Von Trier is still making movies as we need filmmakers willing to push the envelope and unsettle us in an effort to get us to see a bigger truth we too often turn away from. Say what you will of him as a person, but I always look forward to what his movies. As much as he may shock you, he also gets you to think. Right now, there are only so many filmmakers who can do that.

Still, I have a feeling the upcoming R-rated version will be far more shocking. The MPAA will most likely censor the movie’s most graphic moments to where our imaginations may have to spell out what we think we saw. In the process of trying to protect American audiences, this archaic body usually, and thoughtlessly, makes a movie more traumatic than anyone intended it to be. I guess I’ll have to wait and see.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Shoplifters’ is an Emotional Rollercoaster and One of the Best Movies of 2018

Shoplifters movie poster

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Shoplifters” is one of the most emotionally resonant movies I have seen in 2018, and it is a real gem in a cinematic year dominated by, big surprise, superhero blockbusters and endless sequels. The hope and warm emotions which emanate from it feel like the kind I have not been witness to on the silver screen in ages, and the movie dares you to ponder what the word family really means. While many see families being bound by blood, “Shoplifters” suggests there is more to it than that.

Things start off with Osamu Shibata (Lilly Franky) arriving at a supermarket in Tokyo, Japan, and we will eventually see how this movie got its name. With him is the young Shota (Jyo Kairi), and they use hand signals with each other to indicate when the coast is clear to take what they want and need. Put aside the fact no parent or adult figure should ever be teaching a child to steal; these two have an effective system which leads to them obtaining the goods they need without going through the checkout line or setting off an array of alarms. More importantly, it shows the strong connection between these two, and it is not one which is easily formed.

Upon arriving home, we see they with several other people in a cramped apartment which was made for two people at best. Among them are Osamu’s wife, Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), who works an unforgiving and low-paying job at a local laundromat, their daughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) who performs sex shows for anonymous customers, and grandmother Hatsue Shibata (the late Kirin Kiki who steals every scene she is in) whose residence they all reside in. Everyone here is suffering through an unsteady economy dominated by recession, so these characters are forced to steal items such as food and clothes in order to get by. Yes, Hatsue does have her late husband’s pension to fall back on, but it is never enough to fulfill their needs.

Then on one cold evening as Osamu and Shota are returning after another successful day of shoplifting, they come across Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), a 5-year-old homeless girl sitting all alone by herself. As the temperature decreases rapidly, and you could do a drinking game for every time a character says “it’s cold,” they decide to take her home for the night. With their apartment overcrowded, Nobuyo suggests they return Yuri home, but a visit to her residence reveals her parents are abusive to one another and to Yuri as well. As a result, Osamu and Nobuyo find themselves informally adopting her.

What struck me most about “Shoplifters” is how genuine its emotions feel. From a distance, the description of the plot might make it seem something along the lines of “Three Men and a Baby” or maybe even “Raising Arizona,” both of which featured characters who become parents in unorthodox ways. But Kore-eda is not out to manipulate our emotions for a single second as he lets life unfold before us in a way which feels real and unpredictable. No one appears to be acting here, and every single actor inhabits their roles to where you are seduced into the movie’s wonderful atmosphere with what seems like relative ease.

The affection everyone in the small apartment has for Yuri feels wonderful and hopeful to take in, and her presence has a profound effect on them all. The scene where Nobuyo and Yuri burn the 5-year-old’s clothes in an effort to start fresh in life speaks volumes. The two share scars of past abuse, and Nobuyo cuddles her and says how people show their love for one another through hugs, not violence. If there has been a more genuinely sweet scene in a 2018 movie, I missed it.

As for the others, Osamu and Nobuyo find an intimacy in their relationship which has eluded them for far too long, and Aki yearns to get closer to one of her customers as she can no longer keep him at a distance. Shota slowly begins to bond with Yuri to where he feels comfortable calling her sister, but this later leads him on a journey to find himself in a way which will have inevitable consequences for everyone that we don’t really see coming.

Revealing more of what happens in “Shoplifters” would be criminal, but I can tell you the last half is truly devastating as everything we thought we knew about these characters is turned upside down. One of Kore-eda’s masterstrokes as a writer and director is he never judges the characters, and as a result, neither did I. Even as the local news reports of Yuri’s disappearance, Osamu and Nobuyo justify their actions by saying they did not kidnap her since they never asked for a ransom. It’s a weak defense to be sure, but seeing the connection these characters have with one another deeply moved me to where I actually found myself giving them a pass which I never would have in real life.

With “Shoplifters,” Kore-eda aims to look at what makes a family. While we collectively believe it is blood which makes a family, he wonders if there is more to a family than that. At a key moment, one of the characters says if having a baby automatically makes you a parent. Well that goes without saying, but considering the love and affection these characters grace Yuri with, I had a hard time finding enough of a reason to separate her from them.

Kore-eda was also influenced by the Japanese recession, and he uses this to deal with the declining social statuses many are forced to deal with in the country. Then again, “Shoplifters” could be about any country where greed continues to wreak havoc due to corporations valuing the size of their profits over the rights of the workers who helped get them those profits. We Osamu trying to get whatever work he can, and the work he gets never pays enough. Nobuyo’s job offers her a pathetically low wage, and then later we get a scene where her boss forces her and her co-worker to decide amongst themselves who should get fired when it is determined there is only enough money to keep one of them on the payroll.

“Shoplifters” is a movie which will stay with you long after you have watched it. I was deeply moved by it from start to finish as its humanity really made me appreciate the value of family in a way no other movie has in a long time. We are at a point where there are far too many movies to keep up with, but this is one I highly recommend you check out above others. This one took me for quite the emotional ride and left me fully wringed out by its end, and the experience was one of the most rewarding.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Widows’ is a Fiery Thriller and Not Just Another Heist Movie

Widows movie poster

It’s always cool when a filmmaker sneaks something up on you when you least expect it. On the surface, “Widows” looks like an average heist movie to where I went in thinking it would be another “Ocean’s Eleven,” but I can assure you this is not the case (and we did already have “Ocean’s 8” earlier this year). While this film provides audiences with the requisite action and violence, it cannot be boiled down into one sentence as it deals with themes of class divisions, political corruption and of the lengths many will go to just to make ends meet. What results is a hell of a thriller, and it’s a timely one as the struggles these characters face is all too real in this day and age.

“Widows” starts off with an introduction to the wives before they lose their spouses. Veronica (Viola Davis) shares an especially passionate kiss with her husband Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson), Linda Perelli (Michelle Rodriguez) haggles with Carlos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) over money she needs for her clothing store, Alice Gunner (Elizabeth Debicki) cannot hide the black eye her abusive husband Florek (Jon Bernthal) gave her, and Amanda Nunn (Carrie Coon) is busy with her newborn baby as her significant other Jimmy (Coburn Goss) darts out the door. These scenes are interspersed with these men pulling off a robbery which goes horribly awry and results in their fiery deaths. The editing by Joe Walker is one of the best I have seen in any 2018 movie as he interweaves the different vignettes in a way which feels especially powerful.

From there, the four women attempt to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives as reality comes down hard on them in ways they are not prepared for. Things are especially precarious for Veronica when she is visited by crime boss and aspiring politician Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) who informs her Harry robbed $2 million dollars from him, and this money was lost in the fire. Jamal demands Veronica pay back this debt sooner rather than later, and the way he holds her dog during this scene will have pet owners gripping their armrests. Following this, Veronica gets together with the other widows to carry out a robbery which will net them the money they need to pay off said debt, and we watch as they take matters into their own hands in a way they never have previously.

I have a confession to make; this is the first movie by filmmaker Steve McQueen I have watched. McQueen has previously given us “Hunger,” “Shame” and “12 Years a Slave” which won the Oscar for Best Picture a couple of years ago. I certainly need to catch up on his work as his flair for filmmaking is clearly on display in “Widows.” Some of the long shots he pulls off here are amazing as the actors are forced to maintain an intensity which is not always easy to do in front of a camera, and it results in highly suspenseful and shocking moments which had the audience I saw it with gasping audibly.

At the center of “Widows” is Viola Davis who has long since proven to be a force of nature. Ever since I first saw her in “Doubt,” she has proven to be a no-nonsense actress and her performances are never less than stunning. As Veronica, she provides the story’s center of gravity as she forces the other women to join with her in a mission no one can easily prepare for, and she does this even as her heart is shattered by a grief she cannot keep inside forever. Even in moments where she doesn’t say a word, Davis makes us see what is going on in her mind without having to spell it out for us. Watching her here, I was reminded of the lethal presence she gave off in the disastrous “Suicide Squad” and of how she would have made a better Joker than Jared Leto.

One actress who really needs to be singled out, however, is Elizabeth Debicki. As Alice, she takes her character from being an abusive pawn for her husband and her equally nasty mother Agnieska (a wickedly good Jacki Weaver) to becoming a person who finds the strength and self-confidence which has eluded her for far too long. She makes Alice’s transition both natural and subtle to where she inhabits the character to where you can never take your eyes off of her.

McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn of “Gone Girl” fame adapted this movie from the British miniseries of the same name, one which I’m fairly certain my parents have seen. In this movie’s 129-minute running time, they manage to fit in so many different layers to where “Widows” feels much longer than it already is, but I never lost interest in what unfolded. We get a strong sense of the desperate lives each character leads as they live in a world where no superhero can save them. The two have also moved the story from England to Chicago and, as David Mamet once said, “In Chicago, we love our crooks!”

An interesting subplot which emerges in “Widows” involves a political campaign between Jamal Manning and Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), for alderman of a South Side precinct. We already got a glimpse of Jamal’s criminal activities, but Jack is not free of corruption himself. Even worse, his father Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall, great as always) does nothing to hide his racist attitudes and believes this office is theirs by blood regardless of what the voters end up saying. Farrell is terrific as Jack in showing the shadowy corners he is forced to navigate through in politics. It’s a position he doesn’t want to be in, but he is stuck in the shadow of his incumbent father who is not about to see his son lose the election, and he proves to be as morally compromised, if not more so, as his political adversary.

This also leads to a brilliant scene as McQueen follows Jack as he gets into a car with his associate, and the camera stays outside as we watch them travel from the poor neighborhood he is campaigning in over to the affluent neighborhood where he lives. Is there another scene in a 2018 movie which shows the disparity between the haves and have nots without the use of words? If there is, I haven’t seen it.

Michelle Rodriguez remains as badass as ever, and its great fun watching her hold her own opposite Davis. Cynthia Erivo, who showed us what a great voice she has in “Bad Times as the El Royale,” is furiously good as Belle, a babysitter and beautician constantly running off to the next paying gig as her desperation to keep her head above water keeps her apart from her daughter. And Daniel Kaluuya, who had scored one hell of a breakthrough with “Get Out,” is a devilish delight as Jatemme Manning, a cold as ice psychopath who doesn’t think twice about ending someone’s life, and his presence is enough to frighten the most jaded of filmgoers.

Does “Widows” have plot holes? Perhaps, but I was too caught in the story and performances to really give them any notice. Any questions this movie proved to be refrigerator questions. As for the meaning of that, look to Alfred Hitchcock. This is a thriller which digs deep into the lives of those undone by history and inequity, and it’s hard not to root for them as they take matters into their own hands in a desperate attempt to reach for the life they dreamed of but which is cruelly denied to them. It is full of surprises, many of which I did not seem coming, and McQueen holds us in his cinematic grip from start to finish.

Another thing to take into account about “Widows” is how it deals with the five stages of grief. Getting through them is never easy, but you knew this already. Seeing these characters struggle with their individual grief is not something which draws attention to itself right away, but the ending, which features a character breaking out into a smile she worked hard to get to, shows how one can get to the other side and move on. You could say this only happens in the movies, but this one does not take place in the land of superheroes and comic books. Reality can be harsh, and “Widows” never lets you forget that.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

David Gordon Green’s ‘Halloween’ is the Sequel We Have Been Waiting For

Halloween 2018 theatrical poster

Why do filmmakers constantly insist on doing a retcon of the “Halloween” franchise? Every once in a while, the continuity of the series is tossed to the wayside, usually for profit and greed, but perhaps deep down there are those out there who remain infinitely eager for a true final showdown between Laurie Strode and Michael Myers. We thought we got it in 1981’s “Halloween II,” but even Michael couldn’t stay down after being burned beyond recognition. Then there was “Halloween H2O: 20 Years Later,” but that was really a “Scream” movie disguised as a “Halloween” movie, and what resulted did not feel particularly compelling.

But just when you thought it was time to lay this long-running franchise to rest, along comes the simply titled “Halloween” which wipes the slate clean to give us the true sequel fans of the series have been waiting 40 years for. Once again, Michael Myers breaks free and heads back to Haddonfield, Illinois for a bloody homecoming. But this time, Laurie Strode is ready and waiting, and she is not about to take any prisoners. As this “Halloween” unfolds, you will see what Sylvester Stallone meant when he said, in his pursuit of Wesley Snipes in “Demotion Man:”

“Send a maniac to catch a maniac.”

In this alternate timeline, Michael did not escape at the end of John Carpenter’s “Halloween,” but was instead captured and sent back to Smith’s Grove Sanitarium and has remained there for the last 40 years. His latest psychiatrist, Dr. Ranbir Sartain (Haluk Bilginer), insists Michael can talk but chooses not to, but this doesn’t stop a pair of true-crime podcasters, Aaron Korey (Jefferson Hall) and Dana Haines (Rhian Rees), from trying to make him speak. But once Aaron pulls Michael’s old mask out of his bag, we know it won’t be long before they are reminded of what curiosity did to the cat.

This particular “Halloween” was directed by David Gordon Green and co-written by him, Jeff Fradley and actor Danny McBride, and the respect they have for Carpenter’s 1978 horror classic is on display throughout. They even bring back the serif font from the original’s credits as they are determined to make us accept this is a direct sequel to the original. I admired how the credits started off with a pumpkin which looks to have been stomped on many times and which reforms slowly but surely. It’s almost like a metaphor for this franchise as many continue to resurrect Michael, or “The Shape” as he is often referred to, to diminishing results.

Green is one of those filmmakers who goes from making independent films like “All the Real Girls” and “Joe” to more mainstream movies such as “Pineapple Express” and “Stronger” with relative ease. With his “Halloween,” he gives a slow-burn thriller which thankfully doesn’t peak too soon. Many horror movies give us their best moments far too early these days, so it’s nice to see Green not making this same mistake here as he gives us a deeply suspenseful thriller which builds up and up to its much-anticipated climax.

I also have to given Green and his collaborators credit for giving us characters we care about here. It is impossible not to relate to them in one way or another as we remember having their same needs and desires when we were their age. Many of the “Friday the 13th” sequels kept giving us characters we couldn’t wait to see killed off as we were made to hate them, but when the residents of Haddonfield are killed off, you cannot help but feel for them, and not just because some never got the chance to lose their virginity.

The real big news, however, about this “Halloween” is that Carpenter is back. It marks his return to the franchise he created for the first time since “Halloween III: Season of the Witch.” I imagine money was a big motivating factor, but I do believe Carpenter when he said how enthusiastic he was to Green and McBride’s pitch for this movie. In addition to acting as executive producer, Carpenter also scored the movie along with his son Cody Carpenter and Daniel Davies, and they give the brutal proceedings here an extra hard kick in the ass (click here to check out my review of the soundtrack).

But let’s face facts, the real star of this “Halloween” movie is not Michael Myers, but Laurie Strode. Jamie Lee Curtis returns to her iconic role with a real vengeance, and she plays Laurie to the hilt in this installment. When Curtis first played Laurie, she was a kind, shy and innocent young woman. 40 years later, Laurie is a shell of her former self as her life has been severely undone by PTSD, alcoholism and agoraphobia. She has spent the past few decades training to be a survivalist as her life is now dedicated to removing Michael from the face of the earth, and it has all come at the expense of her own family.

Curtis has always put in a great performance in each movie she appears in, be it a good or a bad one, but she really hits it out of the park here. She succeeds in turning Laurie Strode into a bad ass warrior who is never determined to suffer as she did before, and at times she threatens to be more frightening than Michael herself. Just check out the scene when Laurie breaks into her daughter Karen’s (Judy Greer) house and reminds her bluntly of how unprepared she is for the oncoming slaughter.

Moreover, Curtis really makes us sympathize with Laurie Strode throughout. We know all what she has been through, and to see the effect it has on those closest to her is heartbreaking. We learn she has been divorced twice, and her daughter Karen wants little to do with her and constantly begs her to get help. Even when Laurie absent-mindedly takes a drink from a glass of wine like as it it were was an automatic impulse, we feel for her as no one can see Michael Myers as being the embodiment of pure evil the way she can.

Watching Curtis as Laurie here quickly reminded me of a line the late Natasha Richardson said in the movie “Patty Hearst:”

“I finally realized what my crime was, I lived. Big mistake. Very messy.”

The cast overall does really good work, and they are made of very likable and dependable actors including Judy Greer and Will Patton who make their characters seem very down to earth in a way you want them to be. One real standout here is Andi Matichak who plays Allyson, Laurie’s granddaughter and the only one capable of having a meaningful relationship with her. Matichak proves to be a very appealing presence here, and she makes Allyson into a strong and defiant young woman who is not about to suffer fools at all.

As “Halloween” builds up to its inevitable climax, Green keeps increasing the tension throughout. He smartly leaves Michael in the shadows, and you can’t help but wondering when he is going to jump out. Green also leaves you wondering if we might actually see Michael’s face or even hear him speak. Does he? Wouldn’t you like to know?

This “Halloween” is not at all groundbreaking, but then again neither was Carpenter’s film. The 1978 “Halloween” owed a lot to the works of Alfred Hitchcock among others, but it also managed to give a freshness to its genre in the same way “Psycho” did years before. With any “Halloween” follow-up, we can only hope for it to be as good, if not better, than the original. There’s no way you can top what Carpenter pulled off 40 years ago as none of us saw Michael Myers coming. But with this “Halloween,” we get the true sequel the original never quite received, and it proves to be well worth the wait.

There is also something very cathartic about watching this one in the midst of the #MeToo movement. Essentially, we are watching a woman take revenge on a man who thoughtlessly ruined her life years before, and seeing her do battle with him makes this “Halloween” especially thrilling. Lord knows women have been forced to be silent for far too long, so seeing one get her revenge feels much, much overdue.

By the way, I think I’m going to start calling this one “Halloween: 40 is the New 20.” It seems appropriate, don’t you think?

* * * ½ out of * * * *

WRITER’S NOTE: A lot of people have been getting made at Jamie Lee Curtis recently. We see her wielding many different weapons and firearms in this movie as Laurie Strode, but some have been quick to call her a hypocrite for doing so as her stance on gun control and the need for it has been well-documented. Why she appearing in this movie infinitely armed and complaining about gun violence in real life? Ladies and gentlemen, what Curtis is doing in this movie is called ACTING. SHE IS PLAYING A CHARACTER. Whatever happened to make believe anyway? Not all actors are out to put their political issues into each movie they do. Do yourself and everyone else a favor and stop blurring the line between fiction and non-fiction. That is all.