Malignant

Release: Friday, September 10, 2021

👀 Theater

Written by: Ingrid Bisu; Akela Cooper; James Wan

Directed by: James Wan

Starring: Annabelle Wallis; Maddie Hasson; George Young; Michole Briana White; Jake Abel

 

 

 

 

***/*****

Horror maestro James Wan returns to his stomping grounds with Malignant, an unabashedly strange film with a concept stretched like Playdoh to imaginatively icky extremes. Though featuring the gritty detective subplot of Saw, the creaky house tropes of The Conjuring and the mental trauma aspects of Insidious, the Australian has put together a delirious reel that feels different from the rest of his filmography (and more than a little David Cronenberg) with its spectacle of body horror.

The original story, a collaboration between Wan, his wife Ingrid Bisu and one-time American Horror Story writer Akela Cooper, opens with a creepy, adrenaline-pumping prologue at a Seattle medical facility before seemingly ditching it for the present day. Madison (Annabelle Wallis — Annabelle; Silent Night) lives in the suburbs with husband Derek (Jake Abel). They’re trying to have a child but Madison is struggling with the pregnancy. It takes no time to learn Derek is not a good support system. Returning home early from work after not feeling well, her concerns are met with resentment and eventually violence, leading to Madison experiencing a series of troubling dreams that turn out to be anything but dreams; they’re visions of murders happening in real time, one even involving her husband.

After surviving an attack from what she believes killed Derek she awakens in a hospital to even worse news. Wallis does not miss the opportunity to sell a mother’s anguish. Yet Wan and company have much more suffering on their minds as they put their fully committed lead through the wringer, scaling up her torment and ratcheting up the tension in steady increments. Braving a return to the same lonely house despite the gestures of her sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson) and insisting it’s “the one thing that won’t be taken” from her, she continues to experience harrowing scenes of people — those in the medical field, it seems — being hacked to death in their own homes. And rather than sweaty sheets she’s constantly “waking up” in a dried pool of blood on her pillow.

Meanwhile the authorities are rubbing their eyes red trying to make sense of the attack, which has been labeled a home invasion. The problem is the lack of evidence of breaking and entering, and weirder things like fingerprints with impossible orientations. Detectives Shaw (George Young) and Moss (Michole Briana White) may not quite appreciate what they have signed up for as digging into Madison’s apparently troubled family history brings about more questions than closure.

As they search for links between the victims and Madison circumstances only become more bizarre, each twist of the directorial knife getting more personal and . . . well, more twisted. That applies on an aesthetic level as well, the filmmakers deploying a number of creative camera stunts to pull us not so much into a world but a head space that’s never less than uncomfortable. Joseph Bishara’s shrieking score amplifies the mood. Transformative VFX early on not only communicate this uniquely cinematic sensation of being “there” with Madison, the motif helps prepare us for the full-on assault of insanity Wan commits to in the final stretches.

Marking a return to horror for Wan who has spent the last several years making big budget, commercial movies, Malignant proves he is not afraid of a little experimentation. It is also proof of the amount of goodwill he has built up in Hollywood. Original stories aren’t sexy anymore. Studios and ticket buyers have an increasing lack of adventurousness in common. It is difficult to part with your hard-earned cash on an unknown entity, even one helmed by an established director, when Marvel hardly needs the word-of-mouth to convince you Loki will be fun. Warner Bros. have gambled on Wan’s concept, itself a gamble on a modern audience’s willingness to go with the flow and to become absorbed in a singular experience.

Malignant is certainly an experience, one with a knack for tattooing its bizarre imagery into the back of your brain. Though the denouement leaves something to be desired, Wan unable to tame the beast as effectively as he builds it up, the majority of the film offers a unique challenge to viewers. This is a movie that you don’t watch so much as let happen to you. Like a freakish corporeal spasm the whole thing feels a little bit out of (your) control in the way a good horror should, twisting and reconfiguring into a pretty unpredictable beast. Those looking for something that feels grounded in reality, the door is right over there. 

“Who’s this joker?”

Moral of the Story: The most divisive horror movie I can recall in some time, Malignant goes for broke and very nearly breaks. Or for some viewers, it might be broken fairly early on. Either way, and despite my three-star rating (which I feel is strong, but not quite a rave) I would describe James Wan’s “new vision of terror” as a must-see. It’s in theaters and on HBO Max. For something so visually intense I’d highly recommend the theater setting. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 111 mins. 

Quoted: “It’s time to cut out the cancer.”

Get a taste of the absurdity in the Official Trailer #2 here! 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; www.hauntedmtl.com 

Together Together

Release: Friday, April 23, 2021 

👀 Theater

Written by: Nikole Beckwith

Directed by: Nikole Beckwith

Starring: Ed Helms; Patti Harrison

 

 

 

 

****/*****

More than an acting showcase for its two leads, Nikole Beckwith’s romantic comedy Together Together is a wonderfully subversive effort that reconfigures the way we look at intimate relationships and how they can be formed.

If not wholesale reinvention — structurally this is still beholden to a formula — her sophomore feature film, following 2015’s psychological drama Stockholm, Pennsylvania, proves there are still nooks and crannies to explore within an overcrowded genre rife with trite titles. Written and directed by Beckwith, the story tells of a pair of strangers brought closer together through the shared experience of a surrogate pregnancy and how they reconcile the ephemeral nature of their connection. So the movie builds from an already intriguing and specific place. When you add in the sensational performances from Ed Helms and transgender actor Patti Harrison, you have something pretty special.

The film’s penchant for surprising you begins with the characters. In a career-best performance Helms plays Matt, a 40-year-old app developer who wants to start a family but the pieces just haven’t come together. What reads on paper or might come across in another rom-com as a potential sad-sack is brought to life by Helms as an average Joe with an unyielding optimism that makes you gravitate to him quickly, warts and all. Matt is undeniably an awkward dude, but his bouts of overbearingness and invasiveness come from genuine caring and excitement. His confidence and sense of purpose separate the character somewhat from the archetypal drifter or forever bitter man-child. It’s the fact his search for fulfillment involves having offspring rather than hooking up that makes him a rare breed of male rom-com lead.

Similarly, the pregnancy does not define the woman. Matching the established funnyman stride-for-stride, and in many instances besting him, is Patti Harrison in her début lead role. As Anna, the relative newcomer brings an authenticity that seems effortless. She, a 26-year-old single woman working as a barista, is of an obviously different social sphere and, less obviously but more significantly, a different background than Matt. Her own past is marked by controversial decisions that have led to strained familial relationships. In contrast to Matt’s to-a-fault enthusiasm Anna is more enigmatic and downbeat, not morose or depressive but rather more emotionally conservative despite the chaos under the surface. She also has aspirations beyond helping Matt fulfill a dream, using the money she will make from the transaction to fund her college tuition.

While Beckwith’s story is most interested in the awkward tension between her two principles, she also has an eye on external factors, such as the social norms that compel outsiders to speculate, judge, assume and/or in some way push back against something they view as weird or even amoral. In supporting roles (not all of which are necessarily supportiveTogether Together features the likes of Fred Melamed (In A World. . .; A Serious Man) and Nora Dunn (Pineapple Express; Bruce Almighty) as Matt’s parents, the latter the most overt representation of disapproval. Tellingly, Anna’s parents never appear on screen.

Conspicuous meta commentary on infamous Hollywood perverts notwithstanding, this is a charitable movie that considers a lot of different perspectives, and those who aren’t necessarily supporting the team aren’t made out to be villainous. Others, if not fully-realized characters, are at least enjoyable to be around: Tig Notaro warmly plays a therapist who monitors the not-couple’s psychological and emotional progression across the weeks, while Sufe Bradshaw (Murder Mystery; VEEP) as an irritable technician and Julio Torres, in his first feature film appearance as Anna’s self-destructive coworker Jules, are here to kick the comedy factor up a few notches.

What’s impressive is the way Beckwith keeps the parameters of a more traditional romantic plot in place (the awkward dinner, the moving in together, the “break-up” and reconciliation) while never losing sight of the unique stakes. Rather than feeling like lazy checkpoints the tropes feel entirely plausible and, with the exception of a couple of overly quirky scenes, natural.

Delivered in three distinct acts turned appropriately into trimesters, Together Together opens with an interview as Matt vets Anna as a potential surrogate. These candid minutes are the first uncertain moves in what ends up becoming a complex, difficult and ultimately rewarding dance that the two characters engage in on a journey from strangers to something more than friends but less than lovers. The tricky part is not getting too emotionally attached. As it turns out, that might be even harder for us as viewers than it is for the participants.

We love Lamp.

Moral of the Story: Short, sweet, and as poignant as it can be funny, Together Together doesn’t set a new standard but it comes with a level of humanity that feels really rare in the genre. Even better, there is such great balance from a writing standpoint, neither character or their concerns overshadowing the other. Nikole Beckwith’s compassionate, sensitive direction is not to be taken for granted. Now streaming on Hulu. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 85 mins. 

Quoted: “It’s weird to be perceived as hopeless in this moment when I’m feeling incredibly hopeful.”

Get a taste of the meet-awkward in the Official Trailer from Bleecker Street here! 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; www.nytimes.com 

Wrath of Man

Release: Friday, May 14, 2021

👀 Theater

Written by: Guy Ritchie; Marn Davies; Ivan Atkinson

Directed by: Guy Ritchie

Starring: Jason Statham; Holt McCallany; Josh Hartnett; Jeffrey Donovan; Scott Eastwood; Andy Garcia

 

***/*****

Jason Statham is really not messing around in this dead-serious action thriller that reunites the British badass with director Guy Ritchie for the fourth time and in what feels like the knock-out round.

If you thought Fast and the Furious sported a grim-faced Stath, get a load of him in Wrath of Man, an action/heist thriller that feels pretty familiar save for its leading man’s solemnity. In this L.A.-set bullet-fest he plays an enigmatic man nicknamed H, full name neither important nor as cool. What really matters is what he is willing to do to find the fools responsible for murdering his son in broad daylight. Your basic revenge plot is given a shot in the arm from Ritchie’s custom-made narrative construction and stylish approach to shooting action, but it’s Statham playing it straight that warrants your full attention.

H has just been hired by Fortico Security, responsible for the transportation of large sums of cash for its big boy clients. In a delicious bit of foreshadowing, Terry (Eddie Marsan — The Gentlemen; Filth) makes the dangers of this job abundantly clear to his silent and brooding new hire, revealing that only a matter of a few days ago two guards and a civilian were gunned down during a violent robbery of one of the armored trucks. He continues, oblivious to H’s personal interest in said incident, by explaining this is why Fortico pays “the premium rate” to its employees. Threats lurk around seemingly every street corner, behind every bridge and in every metropolitan tunnel. And the man Terry has just brought on board is beginning to suspect they may well be lurking even closer to home than that.

At its core Wrath is a tale about the lengths a father will go to get revenge. But because it’s Guy Ritchie there are of course a couple of avenues branching off the main street. The screenplay [by Ritchie, Marn Davies and Ivan Atkinson, and evidently a loose adaptation of the 2004 French film Le Convoyeur (Cash Truck)] once again creates an ecosystem wherein nasty people and their nasty deeds collide with one another, often in nasty ways. In a Ritchie movie there is really no such thing as coincidence. Like in a Christopher Nolan blockbuster, it’s just a matter of time.   

In this case a subplot involving a group of highly trained military vets is interspersed with our hero’s (or is that anti-hero’s?) increasingly desperate search, which encroaches upon Quentin Tarantino territory in terms of violence. Led by Jackson (Jeffrey Donovan — Villains; Sicario) and featuring its own X-factor in Jan, played by Scott Eastwood who clearly relishes being the loose cannon, these equally desperate men are seeking a more handsome retirement fund by jumping armored trucks all over the city, eventually culminating in the grandaddy heist in which they plan to relieve the Fortico depot of some $150 million on Black Friday — a pulse-pounding display of force and tactics realized through one of the most brilliantly calculated set-pieces the 52-year-old writer/director has ever engineered.

Sustained, muscular action sequences like these remind you why Ritchie is paid the premium rate by his employers. The patently predictable beats of Wrath are absolutely the beneficiary of his violently poetic style. From the opening title sequence which comes on thick and heavy with an atmosphere of foreboding and a vague scent of man-sweat, through to the appropriately grim title cards fronting the major movements of the piece, Ritchie’s panache permeates every scene and helps elevate otherwise stock-standard developments. Sadly the ending is where the film is weakest and though dripping with ominousness no amount of style can cover up the creative deficiencies here.

Where it’s at its best though is everywhere where Ritchie normally excels, in the highly adrenalized action, in the way he Rubik’s cubes a straightforward plot into something more interesting. In the dialogue, which here is weighted down with dramatic heft instead of sent up for comedic relief. The acting from Josh Hartnett (Pearl Harbor; Black Hawk Down) isn’t exceptional, but for the most part the supporting players, when not unconvincingly shitting their knickers in moments where they should be steeling themselves, are serviceable in their own capacities and several of them come with their own fun little handles (the winner just has to be Hartnett as Boy Sweat Dave). The hulking Holt McCallany (Sully; The Losers) leaves a dent as the talkative Bullet, who takes H under his wing and shows him the ropes.

Through it all Statham remains morose and monolithic, never even entertaining the notion of bringing back Handsome Bob. He resembles more myth than man in this movie, and if you’re willing to accept a certain heightened reality you’re primed to enjoy the way the movie builds the mystique of the character, and the way Ritchie’s signature nonlinear story structure eventually brings his humanity, or what’s left of it, into the full light of day. H may not make for the most dynamic leading man but the core emotive force that propels him forward is obvious and ultimately just enough to make us feel invested in his blood-soaked journey.

Moral of the Story: The appropriately-titled Wrath of Man lives up to its promises of there being a lot of wrath and, well, a lot of man. Come for the Stath, stay for a surprisingly cold performance, one that carries the weight of several Statham-led projects all at once and which continues to prove his status as an A-list action star. 

Rated: a well-earned R

Running Time: 119 mins. 

Quoted: “We ain’t the predators. We’re the prey.” 

Here’s another trailer that likes to give most of the movie away. I “love” trailers these days.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: impawards.com; uncrate.com

 

Extraction

Release: Friday, April 24, 2020 (Netflix)

→Netflix

Written by: Joe Russo 

Directed by: Sam Hargrave 

The more cynical takeaway here is that Extraction exists for no other purpose than to prove that the three — er, make it four — Marvel Cinematic Universe alums who have made it possible are capable of more hard-hitting, violent movies. The marketing seemed pretty simple: Here’s another Avenger unleashed in an R-rated movie. Chris Evans got The Red Sea Diving Resort; Chris Hemsworth gets Extraction. (On that note, who the heck is Robert Downey Jr.’s agent?)

As if to one-up his own brooding performances in Thor: The Dark World and the opening stanza of Avengers: Endgame, the hulking Australian goes from being superheroic to super-sullen in this straightforward and straight-up bloody action thriller directed by stunt coordinator extraordinaire Sam Hargrave. In his directorial début he is joined by his buddies Joe and Anthony Russo — the fraternal duo behind some of Marvel’s biggest chapters. The former writes the script and serves as a producer alongside his brother. That pedigree of talent in front of and behind the camera ensured Extraction won the popularity contest with housebound audiences earlier this year, becoming the most-streamed title in Netflix’s catalogue of originals.*

To be more charitable — and more honest — Extraction is a throwback to gritty, ultra-masculine action cinema of the past, a one-note drama that knows its boundaries and doesn’t try to cross them. It isn’t gunning for any awards, but if you’re looking for a way to get your adrenaline pumping, this fast-paced adventure of bone-crunching action should do the trick. Based on the graphic novel Ciudad, the movie pits Hemsworth’s black ops mercenary Tyler Rake against multiple waves of bad guys crawling the cramped streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh. His mission is to rescue Ovi (Rudhraksh Jaiswal), the teenaged son of a drug lord, from a rivaling kingpin. He’s reluctantly sent in by fellow merc Nik Khan (Golshifteh Farahani), along with a support team who are here mostly to help fill the movie’s dead body quota.

What should have been a simple in-and-out turns into basically a suicide mission as the sadistic and well-connected Amir Asif (Priyanshu Painyuli) gets wind of the rescue attempt and puts the city on lockdown, sending reinforcements to all possible exit points. Meanwhile, Ovi’s guardian Saju Rav (Randeep Hooda) is highly motivated to retrieve the boy himself, with his family being threatened by an incarcerated Ovi Sr. Prison walls don’t make this man any less dangerous when there is this much pride at stake. Saju puts his years as a special forces op to good use, muscling through any and all objects standing in his path and leading us to the expected confrontation with Mr. Rake himself.

The cat-and-mouse game that ensues is more technically impressive than it is emotionally involving. While we get some insight into what drives this brooding badass into such dangerous situations, it’s really just window dressing to the carnage that unfolds in the present tense. If you squint you can see a bond beginning to form between Rake and the blank canvas of a schoolboy in his ward (in fairness to the young actor, he just isn’t given enough to do other than look scared). Joe Russo squeezes the orange hard, until some droplets of juicy redemption emerge finally for Rake, a man clearly being consumed inside by pain from a traumatic past.

The editing team paces the story pretty breathlessly, leaving you with as little time to think as its characters, which can only be a good thing when you have a protagonist this immune to dying. The marquee scene, a protracted mid-movie battle between Hemsworth and Hooda that incorporates car chases, falls from rooftops and hand-to-hand combat, proves why Hargrave is one of the best in the business when it comes to building up an action sequence that remains not just white-knuckle but also coherent. The final showdown on a bridge is also quite memorable, with bullets flying everywhere and vehicles set ablaze as all characters converge on the targets.

Unfortunately it is the epilogue that proves to be the movie’s biggest misstep. For the most part Hargrave assembles a lean, mean and self-contained story but when it comes to finishing things off, he becomes weirdly non-committal. As it turns out, he isn’t nearly as ruthless as his leading man. Still though, lack of character development and emotional depth notwithstanding, Extraction gets the job done in brutal and stylish fashion.

* the game has changed. Netflix’s metric now considers two minutes sufficient time for a person to have ‘viewed’ something. it used to be you had to watch something like 75% of a movie or a single episode for that to be counted as a view. 

Drowning in despair

Recommendation: I haven’t mentioned anything in my review about Extraction‘s reliance upon the white savior trope, and that’s because I’m not entirely sure it’s problematic. This movie has some undeniably ugly moments (child soldiers, for example) and yes, it is clearly a vehicle for star Chris Hemsworth, but in my view it is Randeep Hooda’s complicated family man who is the movie’s most interesting character. Story-wise and thematically this is pretty basic stuff but it certainly succeeds in its capacity as an ultra-masculine action thriller.  

Rated: R

Running Time: 103 mins.

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Photo credits: Netflix

Terminator: Dark Fate

Release: Friday, November 1, 2019

→On Demand 

Written by: David Goyer; Justin Rhodes; Billy Ray

Directed by: Tim Miller

Terminator: Dark Fate is the best installment in the series since Judgment Day and it’s not even close. That said, having never been a die-hard I have gotten along pretty well with most* of the sequels, even the mind-bendingly-complex-and-not-in-a-good-way Terminator Genisys, so what do I know?

One thing I know is that this movie was fated to be poorly received. Faith in this once glorious franchise has been steadily eroding ever since we entered the 2000s. In 2019, oh how the mighty have fallen: In America Dark Fate basically flat-lined, barely recouping a quarter of its $185 million budget. Losses for the studios involved topped $130 million. That’s even more damning considering it is directed by the guy who made Deadpool. It seems this female-led retcon of one of the most convoluted storylines in franchise filmmaking history** was destined to become the next Terminator film to disappoint. The question was whether it would disappoint in the same way or if it would mix things up by being disappointing in other areas.

Dark Fate, in fact, does neither. Director Tim Miller and his writing team create a solid action movie underpinned by relevant themes and bolstered by the welcomed return of original characters plus a few memorable new ones. James Cameron also resurfaces as producer, ensuring fidelity to not just the general formula that brought tremendous fame to the doorstep of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton, but specifically to  style and tonality. Bitter and violent but with a streak of humor persisting through all the hardscrabble survival shit (mostly at the expense of Arnie, but hey it’s welcomed), the story is stripped down and actually coherent. The action is visceral and the acting frequently intense.

Twenty-five years after Sarah Connor thwarted Judgment Day, and the future is repeating itself anyway. The details are almost a matter of semantics; instead of Skynet, there is now Legion. Somewhere along the line, someone screwed up. Artificial intelligence gained the upper hand. The machines have once again sent back in time a representative to crush a human uprising before it can even begin. This upgraded model of terminator called the Rev-9, besides sounding like a new line of Mazda sport car, makes the T-1000 obsolete. He is played coolly (and cold-bloodedly) by Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s Ghost Rider Gabriel Luna. His mission is to track down and eliminate the de facto new John Connor — a teenage girl named Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) who lives an unassuming life as a factory worker in Mexico City.

This is of course the part where you’re expecting Arnie’s T-800 to drop out of thin air to protect the girl, kick some robot ass and maybe disappear from whence he came (or into a vat of liquid metal). But like with the androids we carry around in our pockets some updates are more significant than others. Arnie is indeed back, not with a vengeance but rather a conscience. Filling in his old shoes is a hybrid of human and terminator not-so-subtly named Grace (Mackenzie Davis). She has also been sent back to convince Dani of her role in the human resistance while also contending with unexpected roadblocks, such as Sarah Connor and her own beliefs in fate.

No, this movie does not throw heavy punches of originality. Signature one-liners, even when delivered by the legendary Linda Hamilton, feel like hand-me-downs rather than organic reactions. It’s not like this latest chapter doesn’t do anything to set itself apart. Dark Fate carries some heavy emotional baggage and the script occasionally hits some poignant notes as its leading trio of women confront loss and grief. That weight is mostly shouldered by the older and wiser Sarah Connor and her complicated relationship with the T-800 but it’s also a pain shared by all involved, whether that’s Dani receiving a brutal crash course in terminator-human relationships or Grace recounting her experiences of surviving the apocalypse through flashback.

Retreading old footsteps does not make a movie bad however. It’s when directors and producers forsake the spirit of the original in an attempt to chart a new course that often leads to trouble. Dark Fate is made with an obvious reverence for Cameron’s seminal sequel. I consider its familiarity a strength. And if indeed it is the last hurrah (and it sure looks that way) I would also consider it an homage to greatness. If given a choice between a safe and familiar package and a narrative so convoluted you don’t even care where or when you are on the timeline, I will always choose the former.

* all except salvation. nope, can’t do it. it’s bad when a movie’s best scene is that artfully edited together clip of Christian Bale going berserk on set 
** DARK FATE, in acting AS A DIRECT SEQUEL TO JUDGMENT DAY, BOLDLY — AND WISELY — ERASES EVERYTHING THAT HAS HAPPENED SINCE 1991, EXcepT THE AFOREMENTIONED and iconic meltdown 

Two headaches for the price of a not-even-wanted one

Recommendation: I think the mileage you get out of this one really depends on whether you think the homage is unwarranted or if it is kinda cool. Or, indeed, if you even view it as an homage. Genisys was, by comparison, a regrettable reboot of the series with a young Sarah Connor and it technically introduced the dad-joke-making Terminator, so you can’t go around blaming Dark Fate for that. This movie undoes all of that stuff, all the way back to Rise of the Machines. I think it is a big shame there will be no future installments as I really enjoyed this cast and seeing Hamilton back in action was really satisfying. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 128 mins.

Quoted: “Do you believe in fate, Sarah? Or do you believe we can all change the future every second by every choice that we make? You chose to change the future. You chose to destroy Skynet. You set me free. Now, I’m going to help you protect the girl, because I chose to.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: IMP Awards; IMDb 

Uncut Gems

Release: Christmas Day 2019 

→Theater

Written by: Ronald Bronstein; Josh and Benny Safdie 

Directed by: Josh and Benny Safdie

If they have proven anything in their last two movies it’s that few filmmakers stress you out quite like the New York born-and-bred Safdie brothers. Uncut Gems is, in a word, intense. This is a very aggressive mood piece that puts you in the headspace of a man losing control — of his wares, his sanity, his life. Relentlessly paced and cacophonous at almost every turn, the provocative presentation tests your nerves from the opening frame to the very last.

Starring Adam Sandler in a rare dramatic turn, Uncut Gems is the sibling’s follow-up to their attention-getting Good Time (2017). Indeed, if you watched that movie and noted the irony of the title as you watched things go from bad to worse for Robert Pattinson, you’re better prepared for the gauntlet that comes next. Uncut Gems throws us into New York City’s Diamond District and up against walls as Howard Ratner, a high-end jeweler and compulsive gambler, frantically runs around trying to pay off old debts by incurring newer, bigger ones. He’s in deep with the mob, but he also must contend with a wife who hates him, a girlfriend on the side, a basketball player’s superstitions and a doctor with news about a certain body part. It’s probably never been great being Howard but he’s certainly seen better days.

As for the guy playing him? You’d have to go back to the start of the new millennium to find a time when there was this much love for “the Sandman.” He became a critical darling for his work in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love (2002) and the praise is arguably even more deserved 17 years later; the 53-year-old is a hurricane force in Uncut Gems. He’s playing a version of characters that have made him a household name in silly comedies galore, but this is one perpetual screw-up whose failures are decidedly unfunny. Not even Barry Egan’s life was this messy. And Sandler really seems to be having fun looking ridiculous, blinged out head-to-toe and sporting extra-curly, extra-greasy hair and a set of fake pearly whites that really pulls the sleazy image together nicely. The wardrobe department helps him look the part, but it’s up to Sandler to walk the walk and talk the talk — and oh boy, does he “talk.”

The theft of a big chunk of stone from the Welo mine in Ethiopia sets the wheels in motion for one wild, turbulent ride. This stone contains pockets of rare opal and is what they call in the trade an uncut gem. Its very existence seems to inspire chaos as we watch crowds swarm around a miner who has just broken his leg in an attempt to extract it. Given the way the movie opens on a different continent, I feel like there’s meant to be some quasi-Blood Diamond commentary here on the real human cost of the gem trade, how first-world materialism is inextricably linked to the suffering and exploitation of the third world, but there’s not quite enough content here to support that wild theory. Ultimately the opening sequence is more effective at establishing aesthetics rather than ethics. There is a hyperactive quality that extends to the rest of the film, particularly in the way people interact, that never allows us to get comfortable. Characters yelling over each other will become an anxiety-inducing motif.

We shift from Africa circa 2010 to America two years later via a crafty (and kinda gross) opening title sequence married to the curious synths of Daniel Lopatin (a.k.a. Oneohtrix Point Never)’s explorative electronica. The New York captured in Uncut Gems is shaped by the Safdie brothers’ experiences growing up with a father who worked in the Diamond District and has a very specific energy that cinematographer Darius Khondji helps convey through his frenetic camerawork. As it is set in a part of town largely characterized by family-run business, the filmmakers restrict the cityscape to a claustrophobic network of small, private rooms where access is a privilege and often a source of frustration.

Howard’s gem store, a cozy little nook where the world’s creepiest Furby dolls reside, is one such hallowed space. Though we pass through the malfunctioning security vestibule without complication, we are immediately bombarded with Howard’s problems. It’s a particularly bad day today because his debt collectors have come calling. He owes a six-figure sum to a nasty loanshark named Arno (Eric Bogosian), who also happens to be his brother-in-law. He’s bad news enough, but his enforcer Phil (Keith Williams Richards) is the kind of guy whose phone calls and texts you avoid to the detriment of your face. Together these two make for some of the most memorable thugs in recent movie memory — arguably since Daniel Kaluuya went all bad-boy in Steve McQueen’sWidows.

Howard just may be able to save himself when he procures that precious infinity gem stone. He’s confident it will sell in the millions at auction. As we quickly learn his clients have deep pockets — he caters mostly to rappers and athletes, no small thanks to the hustle of his assistant Demany (Lakeith Stanfield) — so he just can’t help but show off the product to Boston Celtics star Kevin Garnett, who expresses interest in purchasing it. After listening to Howard wax poetic about its mystical properties KG becomes convinced being in possession of the opal will elevate his game in the NBA Playoffs. To placate the seven-footer (who is actually very good playing himself), Howard agrees to loan him the rock for a night, taking his 2008 championship ring as collateral. He then deviates from his original plan by pawning the ring to place a large bet on the upcoming game. If there’s one thing Howard is more aware of than the danger he’s in it’s the opportunity to make a little profit.

The Safdies actually wrote this screenplay ten years ago, along with frequent collaborator Ronald Bronstein. They’ve created a deliberately circuitous narrative to reflect the sloppy manner in which Howard conducts his business, at the office and elsewhere. Nothing goes smoothly. There are so many intersecting dynamics and diversions and dead ends along the way it’s amazing we even have the time to see what his family life is like (spoiler: it ain’t pretty). His long-suffering wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) knows all about the affair he’s having with his assistant Julia (newcomer Julia Fox). She has agreed to wait until after Passover to divorce him but the way work keeps following Howard home — the little incident with the car trunk, for example — just may expedite that process. Meanwhile his kids don’t really fit into his busy schedule. Of course the neglected family dynamic is a familiar trope, but the Safdies — and particularly Menzel who is really fun to watch — creatively thread it through the narrative to give us a better understanding of how much Howard is truly losing here.

In the end, Uncut Gems offers a unique but pretty uncomfortable viewing experience. The truly nerve-wracking climax simulates the thrill of a gambler’s high. This confronting drama is a curiosity you admire more than you purely enjoy, though I personally did get a kick out of seeing sports radio personality Mike Francesa pop up in a cameo as one of Howard’s restaurateur friends, Gary — just one of several non-professional actors involved. Uncut Gems is a perfect reminder that being entertained can sometimes mean feeling like you’re on the verge of a nervous breakdown for two straight hours.

“I’m not smiling inside.”

Recommendation: Like its protagonist, Uncut Gems is by and large caustic and unpleasant. Sandler acquits himself very well, playing a character you really can’t take your eyes off of even when you want to. Yet for a movie whose style is very in-your-face, it’s the abrasive dialogue that you may have a harder time getting out of your head. To put it magnanimously, the colorful language comes across as authentic New Yorkese. To be more honest: it is the single most compelling reason for me not to sit through this ordeal twice. Please understand this Recommendation section is not written on behalf of Common Sense Media — I’m not one to complain about swear words or someone who evaluates all movies for their Family Values appeal, but in Uncut Gems the f-bombs are excessive to the point of becoming a distraction. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 135 mins.

Quoted: “Come on KG! This is no different than that. This is me. Alright? I’m not an athlete, this is my way. This is how I win.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: IMP Awards; IMDb

Dolemite is My Name

Release: Friday, October 4, 2019 (limited)

→Netflix

Written by: Scott Alexander; Larry Karaszewski

Directed by: Craig Brewer

The way Craig Brewer captures the response to Dolemite, the movie-within-his-movie and at least part of its raison d’être, is so warm and uplifting. Yet it’s also quaint if considering today’s cinematic landscape. Cynics like me are tempted to dismiss the ending as too pat and Hollywood but the movie was indeed met with a serenading of sorts from audiences. Dolemitea pulpy, outrageous story about a pimp who breaks out of prison to take revenge on those who set him up, made $12 million on a budget of $100k. It’s gone on to become a cult classic of blaxploitation.

Yet if this heartfelt tribute to pioneering showman Rudy Ray Moore (or Dolemite, if you like) were to be rolled out in a wide theatrical release you wouldn’t struggle to find a good seat today. You can thank superhero movies for your extra leg room and more than the usual choice of good seats. Superheroes (and villains) rule and everything else drools at the numbers they are putting up at the box office. There isn’t a damn thing Eddie Murphy can do about this, even if he is as good as he’s been in years — maybe ever — in Dolemite is My Name, a ridiculous(ly) entertaining ensemble comedy available almost exclusively through Netflix.

Ironically, and despite actually earning a limited run on the big screen (the likes of which won’t draw crowds like you see here, sadly), Dolemite is My Name has perhaps found its ideal stage on your TV screen. Streaming is the ultimate in consumer catering because it gives you a more intimate, “customizable” experience. Imagine sitting in a 200-seat auditorium where everyone has a remote control to rewind their favorite moments in a Peter Jackson epic. Or to back up to try and understand what in blue Hades Sylvester Stallone just mumbled.

I say all of this because this is the kind of movie you’re going to rewind and pause just to bask a little longer in the triumphant return to Delirious-era Murphy. I must have inflated the runtime to something close to two and a half hours as I rewatched his Rudy Ray Moore enthusiastically chop the air around him as he envisions himself not just a star, but a kung fu master in his own movie. The energy Murphy brings and the riffing he does as he becomes his character, a pioneering, wig-donning, cane-wielding motormouth and eventual big-screen star whose name bore the fruit of not one but four Dolemite-centric adventures, is something to behold. And behold again.

Set in 1970s Los Angeles Dolemite is My Name examines the rise of a self-made man as he goes from lowly record store assistant manager by day/MC by night, to the maker of three crass but hugely popular comedy albums, to, yes, “f-ing up motherf–ers” on the big screen. The film divides neatly into two equally intriguing halves. The first hour or so is devoted to the birth of his stand-up persona and his intelligent if profanity-laced sketches that would earn him a substantial fanbase. And credit where credit is due: the writers don’t turn a blind eye to “toastmaster” Rico, a vagrant played by Ron Cephas Jones, who periodically drifts in and out of the Dolphins of Hollywood record store, spitting rapid-fire rhymes about an urban legend named ‘Dolemite,’ an identity Moore assumes as his own alter ego.

The second half focuses on our increasingly spectacularly besuited hero’s ambitions growing beyond touring the Deep South along what was called the “Chitlin’ Circuit.” The narrative blends business and production reality with Moore’s insatiable appetite for nationwide recognition. He gains an entourage, establishes a production facility in the famous Dunbar Hotel and even convinces a big name to direct and co-star in his project-in-making in egotistical yet accomplished actor D’Urville Martin (a scene-stealing Wesley Snipes). Yet it’s not exactly smooth sailing as he attempts to get his ultimate dream realized. Walter Crane (Tip “T.I.” Harris), a film executive, denies Moore’s creative ambition (in appealing to the masses, black actors don’t do camp comedy; they do heart-warming dramas about overcoming their ghetto roots) while the business-savvy Bihari brothers warn him of the grave financial risks of failure.

The major developments unfold in a breezy if occasionally lackadaisical way. It’s a pretty familiar underdog story where obstacles are by and large steamrolled over. That’s in part by design, as an homage to the force of sheer will that was Rudy Ray Moore, but it’s also due to the script by Ed Wood writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, one that prioritizes entertainment over profundity. Their story tends to glide over the surface rather than dive into the depths of Moore’s unhappy and impoverished childhood, providing a line or two about his burning desire to be better than his father. Yet (and I’m just guessing here) this is a more fundamentally sound production about the making of a legend — the so-called “Godfather of Rap” — than its namesake movie was. And unlike its namesake, the performances, not big boobs and kung fu, define this one.

While Murphy is going to get much of the attention (and deservedly so) I have to single out Da’Vine Joy Randolph as well. She plays Lady Reed, a former backup singer who rediscovers her mojo when Moore drops into a night club in Mississippi. Her relationship with the former is integral to the story’s focus not just on confidence but identity in a time when Hollywood was not only overwhelmingly white but upheld that only one body type was “beautiful.” Randolph is never less than convincing and inspiring as she becomes not just a confidante to Moore in his lower moments, but entirely comfortable in her own skin — breaking past her fear of having her figure captured forever in celluloid and simply owning her identity in ways she previously thought impossible.

As stylish as it is raunchy, this 70s-throwback is mostly a testament to the indefatigable spirit that erected a movie star out of a stand-up comic. It’s also an amusing, even insightful look into the moviemaking process, compacting several scenes from the Dolemite franchise into a collage that goes to show what can be done with limited funds, some good friends and an abundance of self-confidence.

Pimp daddy deluxe

Recommendation: Safe in terms of its narrative structure but bold in dialogue (families take note: Dr. Dolittle isn’t catering to your kiddies here) Dolemite is My Name is never less than a pure joy ride to the top, especially alongside an endlessly entertaining Murphy, who comes flanked by a number of highly recognizable names, including but absolutely not limited to Craig Robinson, Mike Epps, Keegan-Michael Key, Titus Burgess and Kodi Smit-McPhee. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “Dolemite is my name; f-ing up motherf-ers is my game.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Velvet Buzzsaw

Release: Friday, February 1, 2019 (Netflix) 

→Netflix

Written by: Dan Gilroy

Directed by: Dan Gilroy

Beauty is in the eye of the soon-to-be-murdered in Velvet Buzzsaw, the new film from writer/director Dan Gilroy, who made his mark back in 2014 with the sensationally gripping Nightcrawler. His third directorial feature following 2017’s collaboration with Denzel Washington on Roman J. Israel, Esq., Velvet Buzzsaw is an apt title for a movie that leans fully into creative madness.

Gilroy’s latest is advertised as a mashup of horror and dark comedy, something that makes it immediately stand out from his previous genre-specific efforts — Nightcrawler a distinctive thriller and Roman J. Israel, Esq. firmly a legal drama. What also makes it stand out is its unapologetic strangeness. As you are no doubt aware by now, Velvet Buzzsaw is the movie where people get killed by artwork. But these are no ordinary schmucks who can’t tell a Renoir from a damn Monet. These are art profiteers who slowly get seduced and then offed by the very works they try to profit from — paintings whose fictional, beyond-tortured artist Vetril Dease seemingly imbued them with a strange and haunting power. As the story progresses, events only become more outlandish — so much so you’re all but compelled to disregard the horror part of the label and embrace the comedy inherent in all the (occasionally bloody) wackiness.

The art of the satire stems from a real-world experience Gilroy had back in the 1990s when he devoted significant time developing a screenplay for a Warner Bros. project called Superman Lives. It was set to star Nicolas Cage as Clark Kent. Try to digest that for a minute. Burp it back up if you need to. Unfortunately for anyone drawn to the image of Nic “Crazy Face” Cage donning the cape and tights they will never get the satisfaction as the studio shut down the project over budgetary concerns. That frustration informs the thematic core of Velvet Buzzsaw, a scathing criticism of the modern L.A. art scene and those who are only in the game because of the money.

The film is set in an alien environment of esoteric taste, haughty opinion and generally unpleasant personality and follows multiple perspectives through a tangled web of relationships, from rivaling art gallery owners — Rene Russo’s icy Rhodora Haze and Tom Sturridge’s creepy, conniving Jon Dondon — to influential outsiders like art critic Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal, reuniting with Russo from Nightcrawler) who has the power to not only sway pricing but as well make or break careers. At the ground floor you get contrast in artistic philosophies in Piers (an unfamiliarly sympathetic John Malkovich), an old-schooler struggling to find inspiration versus Damrish (Daveed Diggs), a hot new street artist reticent to display his work in a gallery. Keep an eye out for rogue players like Gretchen (Toni Collette), an art curator and close friend of Morf’s, who is also itching to make a big career move, as well as the highfalutin Josephina (Zawe Ashton), Rhodora’s frequently under-appreciated assistant, and an art installer named Bryson (Billy Magnussen) with an agenda of his own.

Granted, that is a long list of characters to keep track of. The good news is that we aren’t meant to form an emotional attachment to these creatures. Natalia Dyer’s character, a meek and mild-mannered Haze Gallery intern named Coco, is an exception. As someone rather out of place in this world — she hails from the East Coast and doesn’t seem to have much of an artistic inclination other than balancing multiple Starbucks cups on her daily coffee run — she is best positioned as an audience surrogate. By virtue of how frequently she stumbles upon the gruesome aftermath of paintings come to life, Coco gives us the key to enjoyment here. Go with the flow, absorb the imagery but don’t get too close.

Almost everyone else is disposable, many of them in a literal sense. These are near parodies of people who pontificate over artistic merit for a living. With a couple of exceptions these characters are either completely self-absorbed or cutthroat opportunists, finalists for the old “I can’t wait to see who goes down first” competition. The way they go down certainly makes Velvet Buzzsaw visually pop and feel edgy, while Gilroy’s screenplay, dripping with foreshadowing and cliché-riddled dialogue, tend to align the production with something decidedly more mainstream and predictable.

It’s a frustrating experience because as the film careens towards the absurd it delivers on its promise of comeuppance and in so doing entertains in a strange, almost perverse way. At the same time Gilroy gets so loosey-goosey with his direction the critique itself threatens to lose all meaning. The domino effect of bodies dropping ends up feeling like a gimmick after so many instances, yet undeniably the art of the kill is something to behold. And if this nobody blogger is taking note of some sloppiness, I can only imagine what Morf would do.

“Who are you to judge me?”

Recommendation: How you respond to Velvet Buzzsaw I think really depends on how you interpret the tone. I found it far more funny, albeit darkly satirical, than it was horrifying. Though I did find a few elements that were horrific, like the aftermath of The Sphere sequence and Toni Colette’s hairpiece. Either way you look at it, the premise is pretty out there — but that’s something I’d rather have than a formulaic/half-cooked Netflix Original. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 113 mins.

Quoted: “These are heinous.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.deviantart.com; http://www.imdb.com

The Mule

Release: Friday, December 14, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Sam Dolnick; Nick Schenk

Directed by: Clint Eastwood

The Mule marks the 37th time Clint Eastwood has directed a movie. Remember that the next time you go out for Trivia Night. From The Eiger Sanction (1975) to his Best Picture-winning western Unforgiven (1992); Mystic River (2003) to Gran Torino (2008), the man has cemented himself as a national treasure who has done a little bit of everything — oh yes, I nearly forgot The Bridges of Madison County. How dare I? His latest effort won’t ever be mentioned in the same breath as the likes of The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) and contemporary successes like Million Dollar Baby (2004), yet The Mule seems destined to always have a place in my heart. It’s a quietly profound drama about aging, regret and misplaced priorities that finds an ever-more introspective Eastwood returning to acting for the first time in six years.

The Mule is inspired by a true story about an 80-something-year-old horticulturalist fallen on hard times who unwittingly becomes a prolific coke smuggler for a dangerous Mexican cartel in an attempt to reclaim his home and way of life. Names and locations have been changed. His character, Earl Stone, a Korean War vet whose age, race and spotless criminal history help him maintain a low profile while doing multiple drives from the border city of El Paso, Texas to Chicago, Illinois, is based upon the real Leo Sharp, a World War II veteran who became a courier for the infamous Sinaloa Cartel and eluded capture for more than a decade.

Eastwood sets up a deliberately paced journey into the soul of a lonely man who has always put work before everything else and now finds himself having to come to terms with certain realities. The character is a perfect fit for the big screen veteran whose larger-than-life persona grafts well with Earl’s social butterfly. There is an interesting dichotomy within this man, someone who’s well-recognized around town for his gregariousness and those beautiful, award-winning (and world-renowned) hybridized lilies, all while being a complete stranger to his own family. That dynamic becomes even more pronounced as he begins making serious dough doing dirtier work and turns into this Robin Hood-esque character who funnels his ill-begotten cash into worthy causes, like renovating the facilities of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars Post.

The stakes really couldn’t be higher despite The Mule‘s lack of physicality and bloody conflict. The passing of time plays a major role in building tension. Time is Earl’s most precious resource and despite the unsavory characters he ends up getting in deep with, time is also his greatest enemy. He hasn’t spent it well and his future is as uncertain as ever, with the proliferation of internet-based floral shops making small businesses like his relics of the past. You might argue that The Mule isn’t really about the things he is doing to survive but rather the things he isn’t doing or not doing nearly well enough.

The Mule really becomes an elegy for time wasted when it comes to exploring Earl’s personal failings. His absenteeism hasn’t just affected his immediate family; it ripples across generations. His granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga) is a prime example, her naivety towards Earl and his propensity for disappointing the people who matter most setting her on a collision course with a rude awakening. Meanwhile his long-ignored wife Mary (Dianne Wiest, heartbreaking) and estranged daughter Iris (real-life daughter Alison Eastwood) have learned to adapt. Sort of.

There is a disturbing real-world parallel that is all but impossible to ignore when you consider the revelation of this past December, when Eastwood was spotted at a promotional event for the film alongside someone who had rarely been caught in photos before. This younger woman was none other than Laurie Eastwood, reportedly the daughter he had given up for adoption in 1954 and whom he had never acknowledged until now. A 1999 biography — Clint: The Life and Legend — attempted to shed light on the matter, but the book’s publishing was met with serious opposition and no other media outlet ever attempted to confirm.

Despite Earl’s initial reluctance to commit to more than one run, his stock quickly rises and his loads increase exponentially — at one point he is carting around in his truck bed something like $3 million in product. His reliability, not to mention his remarkably calm composure around his new employers, earn him the respect of low-level street dealers and big-time suppliers alike. “El Tata” eventually ingratiates himself with el jefe, Andy García’s El Chapo-like Laton and his many curvaceous mamasitas. His status amongst the cartel is challenged with the sudden and violent coup staged by the power-hungry Gustavo (Eastwood’s ex-son-in-law Clifton Collins Jr.), who seeks to put the clamps on El Tata’s liberal interpretation of the rules governing his employment (no delays, no unplanned pitstops, etc).

Tension is further amplified by the circling vultures of Chicago’s DEA agents Bates (Bradley Cooper) and Trevino (a disappointingly under-used Michael Peña). They’re seeking a number of significant busts to satiate their higher-ups, represented by Laurence Fishburne‘s Special Agent and Pete Burris’s DEA Regional Manager. Time isn’t on Earl’s side, but it isn’t exactly in favor of Bates and his partner either. Their bosses want the results Bates’ hard work simply isn’t yielding. Kilos upon kilos of white powder are flooding the city. The two narratives become increasingly interlinked, with Cooper and Eastwood getting a few interesting (if perhaps far too coincidental) moments of shared screen time as they exchange pleasantries under the canopy of well-crafted dramatic irony.

The culmination of events certainly won’t be to everyone’s satisfaction. The Mule goes out quietly but not without a sense of closure. No big shoot-outs, no grand-standing, no soap-box taking. No glorifying. No pretense of making drug running a sexy, enticing lifestyle. In short, no (or very little) Hollywood gloss. I appreciated that level of restraint. The story is familiar and riddled with cliché but I still find it hard to resist Clint Eastwood in this mode, seemingly repenting for aspects of his own life he is none too proud of.

Recommendation: As it turns out, the promotional material has been selling quite a different experience, the trailers suggesting a harder-hitting, more action-driven adventure than what you end up getting. Where there might have been action or at least more snarling intensity in an Eastwood picture some twenty years ago now there is more solemn reflection. This isn’t a bad thing, but maybe set expectations accordingly.

Rated: R

Running Time: 116 mins.

Quoted: “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry for everything.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Widows

Release: Friday, November 16, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Gillian Flynn; Steve McQueen

Directed by: Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen, master of the discomforting drama, is back at it again with Widows, an uncommonly menacing heist thriller that makes room for trenchant social commentary in between fits of short-lived but significant action. Given his past films, I guess I understand the sentiment but I still think it’s disingenuous to describe his brand of crime drama as purely popcorn-spilling entertainment. That’s what The Italian Job and Ocean’s Whatever Number We’re On Now are good at. Realized through some of the year’s most intense performances, Widows is SERIOUS (and seriously good).

The fun begins when a multi-million-dollar robbery goes awry leading to the deaths of professional criminals Harry (Liam Neeson), Florek (Jon Bernthal), Carlos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and Jimmy (Coburn Goss). As it usually goes, the amount stolen isn’t really the story, it’s from whom they’ve stolen and how badly the aggrieved party wants it back. That isn’t so much a problem for the men anymore, but it is for the wives they’ve abruptly left behind. It’s especially problematic for Veronica (Oscar winner Viola Davis), whose beloved Harry was the one who decided it would be a good idea to thieve $2 million in campaign funds from Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a crime boss gunning, quite literally, for county alderman in Chicago’s South Side — a seat seemingly forever occupied by the notoriously racist Mulligan clan. Oscar winner Robert Duvall plays the incumbent Tom Mulligan.

With a disgruntled Manning breathing down her neck (also quite literally), Veronica finds herself with no choice but to attempt to carry on the work of her late husband, whose scent still clings to the pillows and bedsheets. When she comes across Harry’s notebook, in which lay detailed plans and building schemata for a future job worth $5 million, she rounds up two of the other four widows, Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), with the fourth, Amanda (Carrie Coon), keeping her distance. In two hectic weeks this crew, bound only by circumstance, will have to bring themselves to not only face the realities of what their husbands did to provide, but they must also make their tricks their own. They’ll also need a getaway driver (Cynthia Erivo).

On paper, that seems like the groundwork for your traditional heist plot. But McQueen’s films have always been complex works, the material rooted in the concept of freedom, whether that’s political (as in Hunger, wherein IRA member Bobby Sands led his fellow inmates on a hunger strike in an effort to be recognized as British POWs), sexual (such as we witnessed in Brandon Sullivan’s self-destruction in Shame), or civil (see Solomon Northup trying to untangle himself from the antebellum south in 12 Years a Slave). They’ve consistently been challenging viewing experiences as we’ve seen the things the suppressed and oppressed have had to sacrifice in order to gain said freedoms.

The kind of freedom Widows is concerned with is maybe less obvious. This is about what having money — a lot of it! — can provide (a new life maybe, but also political influence, the tools needed to change a current and possibly loathsome paradigm — precisely what the Mannings are aiming for here, albeit via morally bankrupt methods), and, conversely, the desperation that arises in its absence. By extension, having money means having the freedom of choice and McQueen (who wrote the screenplay with best-selling author Gillian Flynn, of Gone Girl fame) seamlessly dovetails the economic with the societal, making the crux of the action — indeed, the execution of the heist itself — about more than a matter of financial necessity. This is an emotional gauntlet that sees the quartet evolve from prized possessions to steely-nerved agents of their own liberation. They’ll use this robbery to simultaneously pay back a debt, make a little profit and break free from a past where not everything is as sunny as it once seemed.

Some trajectories are more compelling than others. Debicki’s Alice is a truly heartbreaking character, a pretty girl held hostage to abusive relationships and whose own mother (Jacki Weaver) compounds her low self-esteem by encouraging her to sell her skin as a way to support herself. See also the extraordinarily confident Veronica, whose arc is responsible for some of Widows‘ biggest moments. Davis is a dominant force, but what else is new? Sadly we don’t get quite as close to Rodriguez’s clothing store owner, which is a shame because this is a more mature role for an actress I will forever link (ironically) to the heist-driven Fast & Furious franchise.

Beyond its thematic textures, what makes Widows a cut above your standard procedural — get-in, get-out and get-away-for-good — is how large the threat of physical violence looms; how grave the situation is. The men in the film are almost universally antagonistic, imposing figures, whether that’s Brian Tyree Henry’s physical size or the omnipresence of his character’s younger, psychotic brother Jatemme (a nightmarish Daniel Kaluuya), or Robert Duvall leaning upon decades of dramatic clout to justify his slightly more histrionic outbursts. The complex political landscape of inner-city Chicago is brought to life by these excellent performances, a number of which are destined for awards consideration.

Ultimately Widows is grittily entertaining, but more importantly it sends a powerful message of what it can look like and how it can feel to be female and empowered in an era where the leader of the free world is boasting about grabbing his fellow Americans by the crotch.

Recommendation: Elegant in style, bleak in tone and often uncomfortable to watch, Widows is absolutely a product of British director Steve McQueen. That might be all the endorsement I need to give. This movie kicked my ass, and sometimes that’s just what the doctor ordered.

Rated: R

Running Time: 129 mins.

Quoted: “No one thinks we have the balls to pull this off.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com