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

Brigsby Bear (2017)

There was a time before DVRs, streaming, and even VCRs when watching television was a more communal activity. The idea of a “water cooler show” that everyone discusses in the days after it airs is still alive & well, but in the early days of broadcast viewing there was a more distinct cultural phenomenon of everyone watching the same show at once. When I was a kid my two religious appointment-viewing shows were The Simpsons & Saturday Night Live, two cultural behemoths that shaped my comedic brain while simultaneously doing the same for snarky kids & juvenile adults everywhere who I virtually shared a television set with, but never met. Brigsby Bear taps into that exact communal phenomenon and turns it into a horror show. What if there weren’t millions of other people watching The Simpsons at the exact same time as me? What if, in fact, I was the entirety of the show’s intended audience? What if instead of it being a show meant to entertain a massive amount of people it was instead produced as propaganda to warp my (and only my) developing mind? In Brigsby Bear, the answers to these questions are darkly funny & informed by awkward, whimsical quirk, but also lead to some fairly earnest, heartbreaking discoveries about abuse, therapy, community, and art.

SNL’s Kyle Mooney stars as the victim of such an elaborate betrayal, a thirty-something man-child who was raised as the sole superfan of the fictional television show The Brigsby Bear Adventures. The show, which chronicles the space-traveling adventures of its titular bear, was meant to raise him from when he was a small child until his current state as an emotionally stunted adult. As a result, it has the appearance of Teletubbies or Barney style kids’ television with the complex lore of a sci-fi series that has lasted hundreds of episodes over the course of decades. Along with enforcing propaganda about “only trusting your family unit” and how “curiosity is an unnatural emotion,” the show also teaches him increasingly complex math problems & provides a window of mental escape within his horrifically insular surroundings. Beginning where Room winds up in its third act, Mooney’s over-sheltered protagonist ends his lifelong confinement to a small space where television is his only contact with the outside world to explore a new world where “everything is really very big.” The problem is that in order to be integrated into a larger, more conventional society, he must leave behind his memorabilia altar to the almighty Brigsby and adjust to a new life where a show that only he’s ever seen is no longer being produced on a weekly basis; he’ll never know how The Brigsby Bear Adventures ends. His only choice, then, is to complete Brigsby’s character arc himself in a final, self-produced movie that will satisfactorily conclude the only story he (and only he) has ever cared about once & for all.

If Brigsby Bear were made in the snarkier days of the Gen-X 90s, it would be unbearably sarcastic & mean. Although it’s a darkly funny film that builds its narrative around a fictional television show that stars an animatronic bear & adheres to an Everything Is Terrible VHS aesthetic, it’s instead remarkably earnest, with genuine emotional stakes. Along with Mooney (who co-wrote the screenplay), Brigsby Bear features several sketch comedy performers (Matt Walsh, Andy Samberg, Beck Bennett) who somehow sidestep snark to hold their own dramatically with more traditionally earnest players like Greg Kinnear, Claire Danes, and Mark Hammill. Only Tim Heidecker is allowed to fully ham it up in his single scene cameo as an objectively shitty action star. Everyone else plays the material straight, allowing the absurdity of the scenario to speak for itself. Mooney anchors the film by adjusting the socially awkward, overgrown teens he usually plays in sketches to convey a hurt, scared man-child who is unsure how to adjust to the expanse of the modern world, so he buries himself in his work, recalling outsider art projects like Marwencol or Henry Darger’s Realms of the Unreal. By crudely learning the art of filmmaking so he can complete the fictional saga of a space alien bear wizard, he finds his own place in society, making friends & learning to cope with an unbelievably tough adjustment along the way. It’s just as touching as it is strange.

I never thought I’d see the best parts of Room & Gentlemen Broncos synthesized into a single picture, but what’s even more impressive is that Brigsby Bear manages to be both more emotionally devastating & substantially amusing than either individual work. 2017 was the year Kyle Mooney made me cry in a comedy about an animatronic bear, a time I never knew to expect. My only real complaint is in the frustration of knowing that I can’t be locked in a room to watch a few hundred episodes of The Brigsby Bear Adventures myself. Regardless of how it was created to manipulate a single viewer/victim, its existence could only do the world good. Like an inverse of the haunted VHS tapes of The Ring, everyone who watches The Brigsby Bear Adventures is emotionally brought to life and I sorely wish I could count myself among them.

-Brandon Ledet