“Widows” full review

Intelligent, emotional, thrilling. Steve McQueen’s Widows is more than a thriller about a heist, it’s a stylish cinematic exercise full of social commentary on racial and social injustice within a city built upon political and business corruption. In a world that is completely exhausted from injustice, McQueen’s masterful direction brings Gillian Flynn’s multi-dimensional screenplay to life. Widows is brilliant in part because the film works on multiple levels simultaneously whilst delivering an edge-of-your-seat drama full of conflict. Not your typical action-packed film, the focus is truly on the central characters and the worlds from which they each come–worlds that collide after a robbery goes terribly wrong. It’s a brutal story with the highest of stakes. Witness a genre that is often not thought of as much more than a good popcorn movie, mature, grow, and exceed what society dictates this genre should be. While the characters themselves break through that glass ceiling, this film parallels the narrative by shattering expectations to create a thought-provoking work of cinema. Whereas a film in this genre seldom tackles such tough topics; and in general, many films that do seek to provoke discussions on race, social injustice, and gender roles come off as preachy, Widows never crosses that line from motion picture to sermon. The visually impactful story hooks you from the opening scene, and delivers command performances that force you to empathize and ask whether or not you would go to such lengths to forge a working relationship with people completely different from you in order save your very lives. What would you do when you are thrust into a situation in which you are way over your head and unprepared? Widows is as entertaining as it is thoughtful.

A heist goes terribly wrong. Very, very wrong. The result leaves four women widows. Four women that have no idea who one another are, or even the extent of their respective husbands dealings within the world of organized crime. These women are left with a debt owed to some powerful people who have a total disregard for human life, and only value money and influence. When Veronica (Viola Davis) is approached by a crooked politician for the $2mil her husband owes, she must devise a plan to deliver the money because her very life is in immediate danger. In order to get the money that she needs, Veronica blindly contacts the other widows in order to pull off the next heist her husband was planning. “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry. No matter how carefully a project is planned, something may still go wrong with it.” With little time to train, Veronica and her newly forged partners work tirelessly to plan and pull off the heist with a booty of $5mil.

After listening to the recent Mike Mike and Oscar (MMO) review of this movie, I am determined now more than ever to persuade them to my side of the argument that this is a great movie, and one worthy of the critical and general audience acclaim. There are so many layers to this story that it is difficult to know precisely where to begin my analysis. Before tackling the plot itself, the area where MMO and I agree is the cinematography and editing. McQueens stylistic direction is witnessed clearly in the phenomenal movement of the camera and editing. There are times that the camera feels like a character in and of itself. Without giving any spoilers away, there is one particular scene that was so brilliantly blocked and choreographed that I was legitimately wowed by the cinematography. And that is the gripping opening scene. The camera never misses a beat, and the editing is razor sharp. There are moments that the camera moves so exceptionally that I truly feel like a fly on the wall of the getaway van. Beyond the stellar cinematography and editing in the opening scene explosive action, the camera often lingers on reactions or reveals subtext in other scenes. While the characters may be talking about something innocuous or delivering a expositional dump, the camera is focussed on something entirely different.

The story of Widows is less about the heist as it is a character study on three incredibly interesting women who are forced to work together to achieve a common goal. An external goal of the theft of $5mil because of a mess left by their respective late husbands paired with the internal need to survive. And it in these characters and the conflict experienced by each that the film truly shines as taking this action genre to substantive levels. Much like a screenplay itself is build upon the three act structure, and individual scenes also embrace the idea of a “mini 3-act movie” within each act, the film provides three fascinating characters upon which the conflict and drama are build. Whether short or feature, films contain three acts, each with a specific diegetic purpose. Paralleling this concept of 3s is the central ensemble cast of Veronica, Linda, and Alice. Amanda is also left a widow by the police shootout, but does not play as active a role. Veronica is a character who lives on the wealth of her husband, but turns a blind eye to what he does. She is grieved and frightened of how she is going to cope with life, especially after having buried a teenage son. Linda is an entrepreneurial spirit who trusts that her husband is taking care of the logistics of opening a store but does not make sure bills are getting paid. She is unaware of his habitual gambling and penchant for unethical business ventures. Alice is a timid, shy person as a result of being abused as a child and by her husband. She demonstrates an unspoken relief that her abusive husband is gone, but reluctant to become an escort even though her mother trained her that she only has her looks and nothing else. We don’t learn as much about Amanda except the fact she is a new mother and doesn’t want to be involved in anything. All three of these woman are thrust into a situation in which they are over their heads and rise to the occasion to overcome the fear of impending death to take control of fate to forge their own futures. It requires them to drop walls, cooperate, and use each of their talents to combine together to create a formidable team. Alone, each of them did not have what was necessary to pull off the job, but together they become a solid team.

The stark differences between the three women are important because it allows the story to explore the socio-political and inter-personal affects the conflict has upon them. On the surface level, Widows is a heist movie; but ultimately, the heist itself is irrelevant, little more than a glorified plot device. Steve McQueen took a high concept film and made it low concept, gave it substance and meaning. Crafting this meaningful film out of a popcorn concept demonstrates McQueen’s ability to create something that is incredibly entertaining but never sacrifices character, the cinematic experience, or the important themes and subtext found therein. This is very much a #MeToo era film. It provides a platform for strong female characters to turn the tables on their oppressors, those who take advantage of them, and take back their dignity, self-respect, ambition, and independence. Thematically, the film is incredibly rich. Each of the central women are saddled with burdens of various kinds and to varying degrees however, the common denominator is dictation of place in society. This dictation is accomplished differently for each women, but the result is the same. They are all controlled by the men in their personal and vocational lives. Veronica must shed her codependence on her late husband and even her dog (a metaphor for her dependence on the external in order to function) and successfully cope with and overcome grief. Alice must realize that she is intelligent, has intrinsic value, does not need to rely on her body to generate income, and does require a man in order to survive. Linda is challenged with rising above having her passion business ripped out from underneath her because of a mess her husband left, and provide her children with a quality life while never forgetting her own needs and desires. All of these women are the victims of messes created by men, and leaving the women in their lives to clean up.

McQueen’s Widows gives a voice to the oppressed and downtrodden. Although the central characters are our three women, there are other characters in the film representing different kinds of real people out there who are selfishly creating messes and keeping those who aren’t wealthily, white, privileged on the bottom of the ladder and dependent upon the upper class. This is where different depictions of corruption enter the story. We have political corruption, business corruption, and even corrupted leaders of religious congregations. So much to talk about! It’s in these subplots that the film spends time highlighting and commenting on racism and gender roles. McQueen delivers a white ethnocentric political family who stops at nothing to keep minorities out of city government in order to hold all the control in the longstanding dynasties. Gender roles are analyzed by the manner in which the various women are treated by their male counterparts. Although much of these subplots are conveyed through exposition, there are some brilliant shots with the camera. One particularly powerful scene in which Jack Milligan (Colin Farrell) is driving home from his campaign stop in a predominantly black, poverty-stricken neighborhood to his whitewashed wealthy neighborhood. The distance is a matter of a few blocks, but the stark contrast between the neighborhoods is astounding. Whereas the conversation between Mulligan and his assistant could have been a boring expositional dump, it was dramatized by the setting and the reactions of the black chauffeur. This scene calls out the great divide that we see in our country. A few in power keep others oppressed and in their dictated places. Powerful material.

Gillian Flynn’s screenplay is tight, focussed, and deep. It wastes no moment to advance the plot and develop the central characters who all have well-defined external goals supported by well-defined internal needs. The big event of the heist gone wrong has a wide ripple effect that puts the very lives of the innocent in harm’s way, harm they may even mean eventual death. And it’s not a film that paints the “white male” as the only unscrupulous, unethical, power-hungry entity, it also takes the opportunity to show a black male politician who is just as unethical, power-hungry, and unscrupulous, even to committing murders. The lesson here is just how corrupt business and politics is. Even down to strong arming the religious community. Of course, this also shows that the leader of a religious congregation is not immune to picking up a racket and joining the game. Without ever feeling too preachy, Flynn’s screenplay uses visual juxtaposition to truly drive these points home. While the pacing of her screenplay may be slow compared to an action-driven plot, it is perfectly paced for this character-driven story. To be honest, I do not feel that this screenplay is as brilliant as Gone Girl, it’s still a powerful screenplay that balances the action components against the character ones in order to successfully experiment with the heist genre. For all its cleverness and excitement, of the three acts, the first two are definitely the strongest with a weaker third act closing out the film. Will the third act be what keeps this film from receiving a best adapted screenplay nomination? We will just have to wait and see.

There is so much to like about McQueen’s Widows! Make sure to go in with the right expectations though. If you go into the film seeking the next great heist movie, then you my be disappointed (as was the case with Movie Drone Podcast). Mike Mike and Oscar certainly stick by their impression that it’s just an okay movie all the way around and not the Oscar contender than many Tweeps and Podcasters are saying. After watching it for myself, listening and reading to reviews on both ends of the spectrum, I still feel strongly that this movie is fantastic! It’s a timely movie that gives voices and platforms to those who are often sidelined. From writing to directing and performances, you are in for a thrilling time with Widows.

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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Lin Shaye and Liam Neeson | January Box Office Gold

Both Insidious and The Commuter are gems in the graveyard that is typically true “January” release films. I say true because films like The Shape of WaterI Tonya, and The Post are wide-released in January but were originally released on a limited run during the Holidays in order to qualify for The Oscars. For those who follow cinema closely, it’s no surprise that months like January and September are typically referred to as movie graveyard because that is ordinarily where movies go to die that cannot stand up to Spring, Summer, Fall, or Holiday release times. However, the last couple of years have seen some very strong films in January/February. Last year’s examples are Get OutLogan, and A Cure for Wellness. Last week’s Insidious: the Last Key and this week’s The Commuter are very much paint-by-the-numbers horror/action films respectively; but the cast–in particular, the leads–makes these films fun and even exciting to watch. From background actress to leading horror queen, Lin Shaye truly makes the Insidious films ones to be experienced on the big screen. Her flair for paranormal/supernatural films is uncanny, and take mediocre horror movies and transform them into movies you don’t want to wait until it comes to VOD. Likewise, Liam Neeson wowed audiences with his trademark character with a “particular set of skills” in the Taken movies, and has since played similar characters in other films. When you see his name, you expect that character-type and often times you get it! The Commuter may be a cliche action-thriller, but Neeson makes the film one that is a non-stop ride, one you don’t’ wanna miss when it leaves the station.

But why do both Shaye and Neeson draw the audiences the way they do? By all accounts, movies like the Insidious and Taken franchises or some iteration of the aforementioned are filled with horror and action tropes that seldom provide a truly new experience for audiences. However, their movies generally do very well at the box office and are consistently thrilling to watch. Placing Neeson in an action thriller or Shaye in a supernatural horror is essentially a guaranteed box office success for audiences and investors. In a manner of speaking, what we are dealing with here are legitimate movie stars. Truth be told, 21st-century cinema does not see movie stars in the same way that the early and mid 20th century did. In early days of cinema, films were built on the back of the studio system stars. It was a Betty Hutton film, a Humphrey Bogart movie, a William Holden picture, a Bette Davis film, etc. I’d argue that Tom Cruise is the closest to a contemporary era movie star in the traditional sense that we have. But by extension, you can apply the same attributes to Liam Neeson and  Lin Shaye by the cache that they bring to their films–they are a box office draw. Just their respective names are enough to invigorate audiences and generate ticket sales. At the end of the day, that’s when you know you have a true movie star. The name alone is enough to excite audiences and drive ticket sales.

Both actors are equally talented in their respective ways. The level of talent, entertainment, and thrill is consistent. You are never disappointed in their performances. If you remove/replace either of them in Insidious: the Last Key or The Commuter, the movies would likely not play out nearly half as well as they presently do. I’m not knocking the writing, directing, scores, editing, or cinematography, I am stating that the films are nothing remarkable in and of themselves; however, Shaye and Neeson bring a powerful screen presence with them that take the mediocre horror and action films to transform them into a cinematic experience that is incredibly enjoyable.

“A Monster Calls” movie review

monstercallsA breathtakingly beautiful and dynamic film that typifies the art of visual storytelling in the gothic style. Focus Features’ A Monster Calls directed by J.A. Bayona is nothing short of a Terms of Endearment, in theme anyway, for a new generation. You are certain to laugh and cry your way through the film. Based upon the novel by the same name, written by Patrick Ness and illustrated by Jim Kay and conceptualized Siobhan Dowd, Bayona’s adaptation of the novel plays out to be a deep, rich story that will touch the hearts and minds of each and everyone in the audience. For anyone going through the stages of grief, this film will especially ring true and perhaps bring about comfort. Although the protagonist Connor, played by Lewis MacDougal, is twelve years old, this dark melodrama with a plot revolving around terminal illness is not typically something that will appeal to kids of Connor’s age. Despite the fantasy elements and the young protagonist, A Monster Calls is more suited for older teens and adults; however, by the same token, the movie isn’t entirely going to initially appeal to adults since the protagonist is quite young. I screened the movie last night in an auditorium filled with patrons of all ages and there was not one dry eye in the audience. Looking at the film from the outside and analyzing the plot and cast, it would appear that it may not attract droves of people because of the gothic fantasy nature, typically aimed at kids and young teens, with content and theming best suited for older audiences; however, the film truly transcends age barriers and stereotypes to touch those who are young or young at heart.

While most twelve year old boys are busy with school and learning to develop socially or even romantically, or just simply playing video games and having Stephen King type adventures, Connor (MacDougal) is dealing with far more than a kid should every have to deal with. Connor’s mother (Felicity Jones) is very ill and Connor is forced to grow in many ways kids should not quite quickly to take care of her. Not entirely going through this terminal illness alone, Connor has a grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) who looks in on him and his mother–a grandmother with whom he shares little in common. With Connor’s father settling down in Los Angeles, Connor feels very much alone while dealing with his mother’s illness. Expressing his emotions and thoughts through water color and sketch artwork, Connor uses his penchant for beautiful art as a form of therapy. Just when all seems lost, an unexpected ally in the form of a rather gothic tree-like monster (Liam Neeson) appears in his window one night. Apprehensive at first, Connor befriends the monster who guides him on a journey of courage, truth, and faith that combine in a powerful fusion of imagination and reality.

This is certainly a year for fantastic monsters and fantasy, isn’t it? However, A Monster Calls is definitely not your typical fantasy. It deals with deep emotions, dark themes, and material usually better suited for adults. Why then choose such a young protagonist? Perhaps the author Patrick Ness wanted to reach those kids who are going through tough times and who are dealing with situation that most kids won’t face until they are much older. Some kids are just forced to grow up more quickly than others. It’s important that cinema and literature not forget them because words on pages or moving pictures may be the only source of comfort, escape, or allegory. Director J.A. Bayona appears to have successfully translated the novel to screen–from what I know. Interesting that the movie opens with the narrator describing Connor as being too old to be a kid but to young to be an adult. By extension, that is precisely where this movie fits in. It’s too “old” to be a kid’s movie but too “young” to be an adult movie. And that’s okay. Growing up is hard, and when faced with a family member or close friend with a terminal illness, life is exponentially more difficult emotionally and even psychically. Unconventional as it may seem, this film is powerful and transcends the age spectrum to provide a strong emotional journey that audiences can appreciate and from which people may receive comfort. If for no other reason, having a kid starring in a melodrama brings audiences of all ages together–many who may be going through something similar as the child, parent, spouse, or lover of someone who is terminally ill. It’s okay to grieve and let go.

From the opening credits alone, I was confident that this was going to be a visually stunning movie. The water color animation and brushstrokes are reminiscent of the story of the three brothers in Harry Potter. Absolutely beautiful. Much in the same way Kubo and the Two Strings was an innovative animated film, A Monster Calls also contains unconventional and innovative methods of telling its story. Similar to how the animated story of the three brothers in Harry Potter was integrated into the diegesis of a live action movie, so it is with this film. The more I thought about the technical and emotional elements of A Monster Calls, it is clear that it’s truly a dynamic means of cinematic art. Dynamic in that there are three different types of storytelling methods used diegetically each highlighting a different form of art: (1) motion pictures (2) visual art (3) oral storytelling. It’s been said that the novel is an extension of oral storytelling, the play an extension of the novel, and motion pictures an extension of the play. At the root of all those methods of communicating through art is the very concept of storytelling. And A Monster Calls has the art of storytelling in spades. There are so many levels to the diegesis in this film; much like an onion or matryoshka doll, this film has a message of how to deal with grief at its core but there are many different routes to get to that central theme. Each layer teaches Connor and the audience something different and valuable. The cinematic storytelling elements of direction, cinematography, editing, and score are all equally beautiful.

Structurally, A Monster Calls is an intimate story reinforced and surrounded by artistic German expressionism calling attention to its own artifice. From the exterior shots to interior rooms, the various sets appear to be meticulously constructed on a stage and the wardrobe much like perfect costumes. The art tells the story effectively with little exposition required. Fernando Velazquez’ score is so incredibly moving that you may find yourself listening to the score as it too truly assist in the overarching means of telling this story. The design of the monster is brilliant and ominous all at the same time. Almost animatronic in nature, the tree plays out like there is a puppeteer on the inside articulating the movements. The monster feels just as much like an actor as the actors playing the human characters. Liam Neeson was a perfect choice to cast as the tree’s voice. His deep bass is comforting, warm, and wise-sounding. But just who is the tree (in the story)? Although we are never told whose spirit inhabits the tree that has seen thousands of years go by, there are a couple of hints as to who it might be if you pay close enough attention to subtleties in the film. At the end of the day, whether it’s the spirit of someone or the personified life of the tree itself, it is of little consequence to the movie. Still, its definitely fun and interesting to talk about as my friend and I did after the film.

If you enjoy movies such as The Iron GiantThe Giving Tree, or Terms of Endearment, then you will immensely enjoy this film. Presently in advanced screenings and limited releases, you may need to wait a few weeks before it is at a theatre near you. Although slated for a January wide-release, it may make its way through many markets before then. Originally set for an October release, it makes since to have held it until Oscar season since this is one of those films that could grab the attention of the academy. Definitely bring your tissues.