‘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 * * * *

‘Doubt’ Examines The Crippling Power of Uncertainty

Doubt movie poster

Doubt” follows the goings on at the St. Nicholas Catholic school in the Bronx of New York back in 1964. Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) becomes concerned Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) may have developed an unhealthy relationship with the school’s sole black student, Donald Muller (Joseph Foster). This is brought to her attention when Sister James (Amy Adams) notices Donald acting strangely after he has been in the private company of Father Flynn, and Sister James also mentions she smelled alcohol on Donald’s breath. Sister Aloysius becomes convinced of Father Flynn’s guilt even though she has no real proof, but he denies any wrongdoing on his part. From there, it becomes a battle between Aloysius and Flynn which involves not just the accusations, but the state of the school and its students as well.

The fascinating thing about “Doubt” is how its story is simple in its construction, but the characters and the situations they get caught up in prove to be very complex. As the fight goes on between Aloysius and Flynn, you begin to wonder if the conflict doesn’t involve any specific student as it does the direction things are going as the threat of change often frightens people into defending what they believe to be their domain. Sister Aloysius represents the old guard and of the way things have always been. Father Flynn, on the other hand, represents the change many are quick to resist. When he suggests to Aloysius that they need to be nicer to the students, she takes it as an insult.

To watch Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman face off with each other is to watch a master class in acting. God only knows how hard these parts were for them to play. But the fact these two were among the best actors working back in 2008, you come into this movie knowing they are more than up to the challenge. It’s not just the delivery of Shanley’s dialogue they have to work at; it’s also what they show the audience through their eyes. The eyes are the window to the soul, and I’m sure that these two actors have thought their roles out through and through to where they never have to spell anything out to the audience, and it makes their journey all the more enthralling as we can never be absolutely certain of the thing they have and have not done.

Streep has given us an endless number of great performances in which she created characters so memorable which can never be easily erased from our conscious minds once we have seen her onscreen. Sister Aloysius Beauvier is another character she can rack up with her most memorable work, and the character’s introduction is brilliant as we see know from the back of her head who she is as she gets the young children to pay full attention to Father Flynn’s sermon. Without even seeing her face right away, Streep quickly makes an impact as a strong and frightening authority figure to the students and the nuns under her tutelage. Her performance will quickly bring back memories of the awful teachers you were forced to learn under to where you realize the psychological scars are still very raw. She’s the kind of teacher where everything she says is right, and the students are wrong. I hated teachers like that! Hated them!

Hoffman, as always, is brilliant here and matches Streep from one scene to the next. We keep waiting to see if there will be a slip where all will be revealed, but Hoffman keeps his cards close to his chest. Flynn’s explanations for the private meeting between him and Donald are not implausible, but Aloysius remains unconvinced. Hoffman is great at showing how the simple feeling of doubt can easily destroy a person to where guilt and innocence doesn’t matter. Flynn’s fight to prove his innocence threatens to bring out the worst in him, and he continues to sink deeper into a hole he is desperately trying to climb out of.

Along for this morally complex ride is Amy Adams who plays Sister James, and her character is essentially stuck in the middle between these Aloysius and Flynn. Watching Adams here made me wonder if there was another actress who could the same empathy and kindness which she gives off here, and no one quickly comes to mind. Adams shows the love Sister James has for her job as a history teacher ever so perfectly, and she also shows the desperation her character exudes in her search of absolutely certainty. Sister James is the first to suspect Father Flynn is up to no good when she sees him put an undershirt worn by Donald in his locker, but she knows this proves nothing. At times, Sister James seems rather naïve when it comes to how people act around each other, but she proves to be the most morally grounded of the three main characters as she never loses her sense of right and wrong.

There is also a fantastic performance from Viola Davis who plays Mrs. Miller, Donald’s mother. She shares a tense scene with Streep as they discuss their individual suspicions which proves to be one of “Doubt’s” most unforgettable moments. Mrs. Miller likes how Father Flynn has been so nice to her son because she admits her husband beats him severely when he misbehaves. When Sister Aloysius confides her suspicions to Mrs. Miller, it doesn’t change the level of worry for her son’s welfare as it is already extremely high. Instead, she fears more about what Donald’s father will do to him if the allegations against Father Flynn prove to be true. With only ten to twenty minutes of screen time, Viola does a brilliant job of making you feel her character’s heartbreaking dilemma, and of how she has been with left little choice over how to resolve this potentially unhealthy situation she is just now being made aware of. It’s one thing for an actor to show what their character is going through, but it is quite another for them to make you feel what they are experiencing.

With “Doubt,” Shanley brilliantly shows how the state of doubt affects everyone equally. No character comes out of this story the same, and we are left with a deep uncertainty which cannot be easily dismissed while walking out of the theater. Everyone is harmed deeply here, and it binds them as strongly as it tears them apart. You have to feel for those caught in its ugly wake because they end up having to live with something they did not necessarily bring on themselves. It’s a brilliant play which has been made into a great movie filled with outstanding performances, and of this I have no doubt.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Prisoners’ is Not Your Average Child Abduction Thriller

Prisoners movie poster

From the trailers, “Prisoners” looked like just another average child abduction movie with a strong cast which would hopefully make it seem slightly above average. I have seen so many movies like this to where they now seem like the same one no matter who is starring or directing. Boy, was I wrong about this one! “Prisoners” is a heavy-duty character driven drama which generates an agonizing amount of tension and never loses any of it throughout its two and a half hour running time. In a time when many movies are in serious need of an editing job, this one manages to make every single minute count.

It’s a snowy day when Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) takes his family over to his friend Franklin Birch’s (Terrence Howard) house to celebrate Thanksgiving with a big feast. Both men have loving wives, two teenaged children who are unsurprisingly not all that interested in hanging out with their parents, and they have two beautiful six-year old daughters named Anna and Joy who can never seem to sit still for a single moment. But when Anna goes back to her home with Joy to fetch her safety whistle, both of them disappear without a trace and their families begin a desperate search to find them before it is too late.

The only suspect in the case is Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a man with the IQ of a 10-year old, whose RV Anna and Joy were playing around earlier in the day. When the police and Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) are not able to get any answers from Alex as to where the girls are, they are forced to let him go for lack of evidence. Keller, however, becomes convinced Alex does know where they are at, and he becomes infinitely, and frighteningly, determined to make Alex give him the answer he wants. Suffice to say, some moral boundaries are definitely crossed.

It should be no surprise Hugh Jackman gives a seriously intense performance here as a father obsessed with finding his child as we have gotten used to him playing the Wolverine in all those “X-Men” movies. But as furious as he got in “Logan” this past year, Jackman seems even more frightening here as he loses his moral perspective while desperately searching for answers. Just watch him as he bashes a bathroom sink with a hammer.

Jake Gyllenhaal also gives one of his best performances ever as Detective Loki, a man equally obsessed with getting the girls back even as he struggles with an uneasiness which will not let him be. What I especially like about Gyllenhaal here is how he implies certain things about this character without ever having to spell it out for the audience. Loki is a man with a troubled past who has his own demons to fight, and while we don’t always know what those demons are, this allows Gyllenhaal to add another layer to his character which only increases Loki’s complexity.

Terrence Howard, who gave a terrific performance in “Dead Man Down,” gives another one here as the other desperate father. It’s interesting to see him go from playing an intimidating crime lord to a helpless dad who finds himself in a morally dubious position when he is presented with a way of getting the answers, but he becomes increasingly unnerved at the way Keller is trying to obtain them. Howard is great at showing how helplessly conflicted his character is, and he makes you feel his inescapable pain and confusion as he is forced to go down a path he becomes convinced is the wrong one to go down.

Kudos also goes out to Maria Bello and Viola Davis who play the wives to Jackman and Howard. Bello portrays Grace Dover, and she has an especially difficult to watch scene in which she completely falls apart emotionally as she faces the worst nightmare no parent ever wants to face. As for Davis, she once again proves how powerful she can be in the smallest of roles. It should also be noted how each of these actors is a parent in real life, and I cannot even begin to think of what emotional depths they went to give such authentic portrayals.

Paul Dano continues to astonish in each film he appears in, and his performance as Alex Jones is one of his most enigmatic to date. Dano could have just fallen into the trap of making an Alex a caricature or the clichéd mentally disabled character we have seen too many times, but he is much too good an actor to do that. We can never figure out if Alex is truly helpless or cleverly manipulative, and Dano keeps us guessing as to what the answer is for the majority of the movie.

“Prisoners” was directed by Denis Villeneuve, a Canadian writer and director who won the Genie Award (Canada’s equivalent of the Oscars) for Best Director three times for his films “Maelström,” “Polytechnique” and “Incendies,” the latter which earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film. In recent years, he has given us the brilliant “Sicario” and “Arrival,” and it makes sense he is at the helm of the eagerly anticipated “Blade Runner 2049.” Like I said, I have seen many movies involving child abduction, but he succeeds in making this one of the most intense and agonizing ever made. The fact he is able to main such a strong level of suspense and tension for over two hours is very impressive, and “Prisoners” would make for a great, albeit an emotionally exhausting, double feature with Ben Affleck’s “Gone Baby Gone.”

The screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski seems well thought out and has characters who don’t seem like anything the least bit stereotypical. Looking back, this could have been one of those scripts where the writer would come out saying, “Look how clever I am! I kept you guessing, didn’t I?” Guzikowski, however, is not out to make us feel like an idiot and instead gives us a fairly realistic scenario of just how harrowing a kidnapping situation can get.

The filmmakers have also employed the brilliant cinematographer Roger Deakins, who should have gotten the Oscar for “Skyfall,” and he makes the snowy climate these characters inhabit all the more vividly freezing. Even as the setting gets bleaker, Deakins still manages to find a haunting beauty in everything going on.

Child abduction movies can be very difficult to pull off because it is easy to fall into the realm of exploitation. It’s a credit to the filmmakers and actors that “Prisoners” never falls into this trap as it instead focuses on how frayed and unraveled emotions can get when parents have no idea where their children are. This is definitely not a film for new parents or those with small children to watch as I’m sure it will make them seriously uncomfortable. But for those who like their movie going experiences to be infinitely intense, “Prisoners” is definitely worth checking out. It was not at all what I expected it to be, and that’s a good thing.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Suicide Squad

Suicide Squad poster

Oh lord, what happened here? This was supposed to be the movie of the summer where, for a change, we got to root for the bad guys. “Suicide Squad” was a movie I couldn’t help but have high expectations for as I was expecting something along the lines of John Carpenter’s “Escape From New York” which had us rooting for a sociopath more interested in his own survival than saving the world. Instead, we got a mess of a motion picture which is not the least bit exciting. While the previous DC comic book movie, “Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice,” proved to be a dour experience, “Suicide Squad” is just flat out boring.

I’m not going to bother going over the plot of “Suicide Squad” as there wasn’t much about it worth remembering. All you need to know is the worst of the worst have been recruited against their will to fight an antagonist bent on (what else?) world domination. We do, however, get a laborious introduction to the squad of the movie’s title which includes characters who are so seductively evil. There’s Floyd Walton/Deadshot (Will Smith) who never misses a target, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) who has gone from being a psychiatrist to an insane supervillain thanks to the Joker (Jared Leto), the assassin Digger Harkness/Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), former Los Angeles gang member Chato Santana/ El Diablo (Jay Hernandez) who puts all pyromaniacs to shame, Waylon Jones/Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) who looks more like a reptile than a human being, and Dr. June Moone/Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) who is an archaeologist possessed by an evil spirit (is there any other kind?).

These characters represent a path to the dark side which moviegoers like ourselves are eager to eat up onscreen. It’s no secret we revel in their exploits which go against all the laws we grew up believing in as the movies are a great way to explore humanity’s dark side. Instead, their adventures are unforgivably watered down to where we wonder what he was thinking or if Warner Brothers meddled with his vision too much. The PG-13 rating should have been a warning as this kind of material demands an R like “Deadpool” did.

“Suicide Squad” was written and directed by David Ayer who has given us some strong motion pictures like “End of Watch,” “Harsh Times,” “Street Kings” and “Sabotage.” His movies never sugarcoat reality which makes them all the more viscerally entertaining, but here exits his comfort zone and has made a movie which is not the least bit visceral. It would have been cool to see Ayer combine his real world aesthetic with the DC comic book universe, but what we get instead is something which is astonishingly banal. Not even the appearance of Batman (Ben Affleck, once again proving he was a terrific choice to play the Caped Crusader) does much to make the proceedings the least bit interesting.

Furthermore, the movie is poorly photographed to where everything feels so drab and lifeless. From the posters it looked like this would be an infinitely colorful motion picture as the villains leave their mark on a society which has long since abandoned them. Instead, every scene looks like it was illustrated from the same pastiche which makes it all the more depressing to sit through.

This is also not to mention the choppy editing which robs the action scenes of any excitement they hoped to have. Not even the clever music selections of songs by Eminem, Kanye West or Queen does much to raise our adrenaline levels as the characters show off their devilish talents. Ayer also introduces certain character driven scenes at the most inopportune moments in “Suicide Squad.” While they are meant to give more depth to the characters, they instead slow down an already tedious movie that pretty much lost me from the start.

In terms of the acting, some performances here are better than others. Will Smith and Margot Robbie pull off strong turns as Deadshot and fan-favorite Harley Quinn, but they are saddled with an endless stream of pathetic one-liners which fail to amuse in the slightest. Other are not as lucky such as Jai Courtney who looks more like Tom Hardy to where I thought Hardy was cast as Captain Boomerang. As for Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, he suffers the same indignity Oscar Isaac and Idris Elba endured in “X-Men: Apocalypse” and “Star Trek Beyond;” getting covered up with way too much makeup which robs him of his natural charisma.

One of the best performances in “Suicide Squad” comes from Jay Hernandez who makes El Diablo into much more than just a one-dimensional schmuck. While the other actors have little room to move around, he manages to humanize his character to where we see much beyond the various tattoos covering his body to where his plight is ultimately heartbreaking. Hernandez manages to generate some genuine emotion here, and it’s in a movie which could have used more of it.

But the big surprise is Jared Leto’s turn as Joker in that Cesar Romero’s was far more threatening and memorable on the campy “Batman” television show. Leto does make the role uniquely his own and has a chilling laugh, but there’s nothing particularly special or invigorating about his portrayal. He doesn’t have the ghost of Heath Ledger haunting his every move, but he never comes across as much of a villain. Instead, Leto’s portrayal is nothing more than a cartoon, and his performance here is more of a cameo than a starring role.

Looking back, the most threatening character to come out of “Suicide Squad” is not a superhero or a supervillain, but instead a government official named Amanda Waller. From start to finish she is ruthless and single-minded in her approach to forming this squad and infinitely devious in keeping the team of supervillains under her complete control. It also helps that Amanda is played by the always fantastic Viola Davis who makes this character into a fascinating psychological case study as she proves to be an even bigger sociopath than those she has employed to save the world.

I came out of “Suicide Squad” depressed and wondered how so many talented people came together to make a comic book movie so lifeless and boring. Even if you come into it with low expectations as many are doing now, there’s not much of anything to like here. I was hoping to see an exhilarating motion picture with a devilish sense of humor, but instead we got what is so far the most disappointing movie of 2016. Warner Brothers may have started their own cinematic universe with some success, but now they need to start making better movies because they are way behind Marvel Studios.

To all the DC Comics fans out there who enjoyed “Suicide Squad,” please believe me when I say I’m happy for you. It’s good to know somebody got something out of this movie because I sure as hell didn’t. Here’s hoping and praying that “Wonder Woman” and “Justice League” are infinitely better.

* out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.