Widows (2018)

I’m not sure what aspect of Widows’s marketing led me to expect a stylish heist thriller about vengeful women transforming into reluctant criminals in the wake of their husbands’ deaths. That version of Widows is certainly lurking somewhere in the 128-minute Prestige Picture that’s delivered instead, but it’s mostly drowned out by what I should have known to expect: an ensemble-cast melodrama packed with talented women in beautiful clothes & a world of political intrigue. Everything about 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen’s involvement, his collaboration with Gone Girl writer Gillian Flynn, and the film’s Oscar-Season release date should have tipped me off that the promise of a heist genre action picture was merely a cover-up for a thoughtful, handsomely staged drama about women’s internal turmoil in the face of gendered, financial, and political oppression. Widows might still be a slight deviation from McQueen’s usual Prestige Drama fare in its isolated nods to heist genre convention, but surprise twists are becoming Gillian Flynn’s clear specialty; this entry in her modest canon includes a twist in the basic tone & genre of what you’d expect from an ensemble-cast heist picture.

Viola Davis stars as the ringleader widow, who attempts to rope three other widows (Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, and a barely- present Carrie Coon) into a heist job to help heal the financial wounds left by their dead criminal husbands. Following the detailed instructions left behind by her respective husband (Liam Neeson) in a Book of Henry-style notebook, she transforms from grieving teacher’s union organizer to criminal mastermind in the blink of a teary eye. The nature of her planned caper lands her in the middle of a hard-fought Chicago City Council’s race between brutish local politicians (Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, and Robert Duvall), which is dangerous territory for her small crew of grieving non-professional women who just want to put their lives back together. Oh yeah, and Bad Times at the El Royale’s Cynthia Erivo joins the crew as a getaway driver/muscle, just in case the cast wasn’t already overstuffed. And the dog from Game Night is also along for the ride; and Matt Walsh too. And Lukas Haas. And Jacki Weaver. If the enormity of that cast and the themes of that premise sounds like it might be overwhelming, it’s because it very much is. Widows plays a lot like an entire season of Prestige Television packed into a two-hour span – complete with the execution of the central heist acting as a self-contained episode. The economic & political backdrop of a stubbornly changing modern Chicago sets the stage for a wide range of actors (mostly playing dirtbag men and the women who love them) to patiently wait for their spotlight character moment to arrive in due time. Meanwhile, Flynn adds a new wrinkle to the plot every few beats to leave the audience salivating with anticipation for what’s going to happen next. It’s overwhelming (and a little thinly spread), but it’s also exhilarating.

Widows feels like a movie custom built for people whose all-time favorite TV show is still The Wire (and who could blame ‘em?). Its tangled web of debts, power plays, and barely-concealed vulnerabilities make for sumptuous melodrama, where lines like “We have a lot of work to do. Crying isn’t on the list,” don’t feel at all out of place or unnatural. The POV may be spread out too thin for any one character’s emotional journey to stand out as especially effective, but the performers are all so strong they manage to make an impression anyway: Davis as a once-confident woman at her wit’s end, Kaluuya as an inhuman terror, Erivo as an athletic machine, Debicki as the world’ tallest (and most tragic) punching bag, etc. I was way off-base for looking to Widows as a highly stylized heist thriller, as if it were the 2010s equivalent of Belly. Instead, it’s more of an overachieving melodrama and an actor’s showcase, the exact kind of smartly considered, midbudget adult fare Hollywood supposedly doesn’t make anymore. The action-heist element of the plot is just some deal-sweetening lagniappe for a stylish, well-performed story that would have been just as entertaining without it.

-Brandon Ledet

Advertisements

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)

Does a bad ending, or even merely an unsatisfying conclusion, ruin a movie? I go back and forth on this a lot, sometimes within works with the same creators and producers. I considered last year’s 10 Cloverfield Lane to be one of the best movies of the year, and I really love 98% of Super 8, both of which suffer the same issue of a tonally inappropriate ending for a movie that was thematically about something other than, you know, stupid Cloverfield monsters (in the case of the former, at least it was justified by the retitle). Both of them are movies that I recommend to others with the caveats that they are nearly perfect but fail in a major way that, depending upon your consideration of the subject, may ruin your overall filmic experience.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is one of these contentious films. I sat in the theater in a completely enraptured state watching the film’s first two hours, but in the film’s final moments, those joyous feelings turned to ashes in my mouth. My roommate walked out of the theater exultant, but I was underwhelmed. But before we get there, a quick synopsis.

Surgeon Stephen Murphy (Colin Farrell) has a well-ordered and successful life, as demonstrated by the sumptuous home he shares with his loving wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and their two children, fifteen-year-old Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and elementary-aged Bob (Sunny Suljic). He also has a secret and unusual relationship with teenaged Martin (Barry Keoghan), which he keeps from his family and lies about to his anesthesiologist partner Matthew (Bill Camp). He meets with the boy clandestinely at a diner and buys him gifts, ranging from simple ice cream cones to expensive watches. Stephen eventually reveals this relationship to his family, although he lies that he met Martin when the boy’s father died suddenly; in fact, Martin’s father was a longtime patient of Stephen’s, who died under mysterious circumstances. Stephen’s family falls under the influence of Martin’s charms, especially Kim, but each member of the family begins to fall victim of an inexplicable paralysis that seems to be of Martin’s devising.

There’s a lot going on in this film, and there’s so, so much to love, especially in its small moments of subtlety and intricacy. When I told him that I had seen it, Brandon asked if the film was as Kubrickian and giallo-inspired as he had heard; although the fingerprints that underline Kubrick’s influence are all over the film, there’s no real giallo influence that I can discern. I didn’t happen to catch The Lobster, but I am told that the emotional distance evident in dialogue and the lack of inflection that the actors use in Killing is a commonality with director Yorgos Lanthimos’s previous work. I’m not sure how that stylistic choice fit with his earlier film, but it’s a resounding success here, as the cold world of surgeons and diagnoses, children getting slapped (and worse), long walks with ice cream, and even awkward sexual advances are all treated with the same clinical dispassion, instilling the film with a feeling of extreme detachment that resonates in every scene. This only increases the mood of growing tension that is intentionally invoked, as the audience feels their anxiety rising like a tide while the characters observe the changes in their world and worldview with infuriatingly cold tempers.

Beyond the overt characterizations, there’s a lot of subtlety that will no doubt provoke discussion and inspection. Kim’s recent first menstruation is mentioned on two separate occasions, including once as a point of pride for Stephen when talking to his work colleagues following a formal speech; what’s to be made of that? Early in the film, Stephen and Anna engage in some slightly kinky hanky-panky (all edited and filmed with the same dispassionate camera work as every scene) in which Anna lies down inverted on the bed (with her head at the foot of the bed and vice versa) and pretends to be a patient under anesthesia; when Kim later attempts to seduce Martin, she assumes this same position, implying that she possesses a knowledge of her parents’ sex lives that is both incomplete and inappropriate. Every relationship possesses an animalistic charge but lacks intimacy, except for Stephen’s mentorship (for lack of a better word) of Martin, which is initially framed as potentially sexual and abusive but ultimately proves to be something equally primal but much, much worse. It’s not absent from the film, however: after foiling an unsuccessful seduction attempt on the part of Martin’s mother (one scene wonder Alicia Silverstone), Stephen later returns to their home in a rage when Martin’s true intentions are revealed, and he threatens/promises to “fuck [Martin] and [his] mother, like [Martin] want[s],” so he is at the very least aware of this tension and how it could appear, but his understanding of the motives are all wrong.

It’s the small moments in which this film proves its great worth, but paradoxically that same sparsity and minimalism in its ending left me unsatisfied as the credits started to roll. Even if you don’t make the immediate connection to the myth of Iphigenia, which is mentioned overtly in a scene wherein Stephen meets his children’s principal to investigate possible causes of their bizarre malady, the phrase “sacred deer” is bound to ping some mental connections for anyone with a familiarity to Greek mythology. Even with that knowledge, there is still an expectation for some kind of explanation for Martin’s apparently supernatural abilities, which never comes. This absence is less disappointing than one would expect, but the film still feels somehow incomplete in its final moments. Perhaps that was intentional; perhaps the evocation of feelings of incompleteness (not necessarily dissatisfaction) was the point of the film as a whole. I’d have to give it another viewing before I could say for sure, but for now, I’m left as cold as the icy blues of the film’s color aesthetic and Kidman’s eyes, although the buoyancy of the film’s choices before its final frames lifts my overall estimation.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Beguiled (2017)

Sofia Coppola’s remake of the 1971 Clint Eastwood-starring thriller The Beguiled rings oddly like a synthesis of the defining aspects of my two favorite films from the director: the dangerously gloomy boredom of The Virgin Suicides & the playfully modernized costume drama of Marie Antoinette. The delicate visual beauty & intensely feminine modes of violence in Coppola’s The Beguiled plays directly into her most readily apparent strengths as a filmmaker. Even though she could have assembled this picture in her sleep, however, there’s a potency to its in-the-moment effect that makes it feel like a personal obsession instead of a more-of-the-same exercise. The question of the film’s overall effect isn’t whether it’s a great work or if it’s an indulgence in craft, but rather how it never existed before this year, why it’s arriving now. The Beguiled feels as if it’s already lingered in the ether forever, or at least as long as Coppola’s been making movies.

A Virginian school for girls struggles with the vulnerability & boredom of isolation during the American Civil War. Distant drums & cannons build tension in an otherwise serene soundscape of bugs, birds, and branches swaying in the wind. In this secluded pocket of peace, one of the younger girls discovers a wounded Union soldier in the woods. Despite being a firmly Southern, Confederate household, the women of the school take the soldier in and allow him to heal in their care. They purport this kindness to be an extension of their Christian charity, but their motivations are clearly more purient than that claim. As the women openly lust for the new, exciting, masculine sore thumb that invades their once quiet home, unspoken rivalries form and the atmosphere turns palpably violent. Suddenly, the distant sounds of war are dwarfed by the violent outbursts within their home, as the intimate presence of the enemy distorts their Southern belle reverie, giving rise to something much more menacing.

Before its violence becomes openly visible, the devilish fun at the core of The Beguiled is its barely-contained displays of lust. Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, and Elle Fanning (a staggeringly powerful trio of talents) stare down the soldier’s gradually healing body with held breath & blatant thirst. Colin Farrell is objectified without apology under this scrutiny. An unconscious sponge bath scene in particular is gleefully overwhelmed with close-ups of the actor’s hips, thighs, and chest hairs. Farrell also holds his own as the de facto prisoner of his seven female wardens, manipulating rivalries among them as a cowardly power play to establish a permanent place at the school instead of returning to the war. He’s the sole male presence in the house, though, a soldier deep in enemy territory. Any brief battles for power he can manage to stage only lead to temporary gains, sparks immediately snuffed by overtly feminine means. After a while, those lustful stares look a lot less like an opportunity and a lot more like a threat.

There honestly isn’t much to The Beguiled in terms of narrative complexity or immediate cultural significance, so Coppola must carry its weight on the back of her visual craft. The film’s natural lighting & period setting fall somewhere between The Witch & Daughters of the Dust in terms of both costuming & cinematographic tone. The sights & sounds of Nature permeate every moment, so that when they’re disrupted by the echoes of war (whether inside or out of the house) the effect is consistently jarring. The fog rising from the forest floor mirrors the steamy tension between Farrell’s soldier & his wanting captors. The heat of them being trapped in an old Southern home together is apparent long before the tension explodes. I can’t pinpoint any qualities of Coppola’s The Beguiled that suggest an immediacy or a necessity for its modern presence, but Coppola’s sense of visual craft & the tension she stirs between her actors make it feel at least somewhat timeless. It’s not one of Coppola’s very best works as a filmmaker, but it does share enough of those films’ DNA to re-conjure their potency & solidify what makes her one of the most consistently rewarding directors around.
-Brandon Ledet

The Lobster (2016)

EPSON MFP image

threehalfstar

Fail to fall in love with The Lobster within the first 45 minutes & you’ll be transformed into the miffed geezer complaining that he had just seen “the stupidest movie of [his] life” while standing next to me at the world’s most telling critical forum: the post-screening urinal. Personally, I enjoyed the film, but it took a lot of willingness to give into its off-putting deadpan style to get there. Here’s a list of things you have to be okay with seeing depicted to enjoy The Lobster: high-concept absurdism, twee preciousness, animal cruelty, romanceless intercourse, abrupt & ambiguous conclusions, heartless violence, purposefully awkward & stilted acting, a muddled mix of sci-fi & fantasy, the world’s strangest rape joke, and Colin Farrell. You still with me? A lot of the elderly folk I shared a theater with last Saturday morning weren’t, making this one of the most disharmonious screening I’ve been to since listening to the genre-minded horror hungry grumble at The Witch. Just like the film’s central premise promises/threatens, there’s a lot of pressure to fall in love with The Lobster against the near-insurmountable odds or else your personal experience could turn quite ugly, even beastly.

As is true with a lot of high-concept sci-fi & fantasy, I mostly enjoyed The Lobster as an exercise in world-building. In the film’s dystopian reality, being romantically unattached is punishable by law. Only couples are allowed to live in The City. Single people are forcibly enrolled in a program at a resort hotel that attempts to pair them off in life-long romantic bonds. Failure to fall in love within 45 days results in being turned into an animal of their choice through surgical procedure. More time can be added to their stay at the resort by hunting down defecting loners who chose to live in isolation in the wilderness. Seemingly, no one is truly happy. There’s a fierce, biting allegory to this premise that combines the most effective aspects of sci-fi short stories & absurdist stage play black humor to skewer the surreal, predatory nature of the modern romance landscape. It takes a certain sensibility to give into The Lobster‘s many outlandish conceits, but it’s easy to see how the film could top many best of the year lists for those able to lock onto its very peculiar, particular mode of operation, despite the sour word of mouth at the post-screening urinal. It’s basically 2016’s Anomalisa, with all the positives & negatives that comparison implies.

Just like Anomalisa, The Lobster is difficult to connect with on a personal, emotive level due to the distancing nature of its befuddled protagonist & its high-concept conceit. (Both films also boast the two of the awkwardest sex scenes I’ve endured in years, but that’s another matter.) I would say that the central problem with high-concept allegory is that it cuts into the audience’s ability to empathize with a film’s romance & humanity, but that’s not always true. Just look to Spike Jonze’s Her for a work that has its cake & eats it too in that regard. The Lobster is purposefully distancing & impersonal. It intentionally takes the audience out of the story at every given opportunity to gawk & scoff at the absurdity of modern romance. I know that I personally would’ve been more enthusiastic about the film’s rewards if it injected a little more heart into its satirical black comedy reflections on the predatory nature of romantic coupling, which didn’t even match the somber not of Anomalisa in terms of genuine emotion. Not everyone will feel that way, though, and a great deal of folks will perfectly enjoy The Lobster on an intellectual level without needing to engage with it on an emotional one.

Sci-fi romance horror has become a pet favorite subgenre of mine lately, best reflected in titles like Possession, Spring, and The One I Love. The Lobster does the genre one better & injects an unhealthy dose of black humor into the formula. A lot of my favorite moments in the film are when it pushes the surreality of its central premise into the familiar territory of a solid comedic gag: masturbation punished with a bread toaster, a Zero Theorem-esque headphones dance party in the woods, the idea that certain species are endangered because most people choose to become dogs, an over-the-top fairy tale narration that pokes fun at the absurdity of needless voice-over, etc. I also respect the film greatly for not shying away from the consequences of its cold, bloody violence, despite what you might expect from its tightly controlled Wes Anderson/Michel Gondry-type meticulousness & whimsy. The Lobster sets the tone early with an opening gun shot, a vindictive act of violence that chills the room before its absurdist humor has a chance to warm it up.

Still, I can see what the wheezing geezer at the urinal was getting at when he complained that the film, particularly the ending, was a letdown. The Lobster is not a romance for the ages titled The Lobsters or a yuck-em-up comedy titled My Brother the Dog, though it could’ve easily gone in either direction. It’s an uncompromising, absurd trudge through ennui & romantic dread, one that makes very little effort to bring the audience along for the deeply somber ride. It takes a leap of faith to enjoy the film. I enjoyed it a great deal myself, but I’ll admit that I was also a little miffed at the way it wore the “Not for Everyone” tag like a badge of honor every chance it got. I get where you’re coming from, angry urinal critic. I understand.

-Brandon Ledet