About halfway through Steve McQueen’s Widows, Viola Davis’ character Veronica meets Cynthia Erivo’s Belle. It is a tense scene where the two have at most three lines of dialogue. The scene is riveting not for what is said; but for what goes unsaid.
Widows is a heist film with little care for the actual heist. The script by Gillian Flynn jumps through all the familiar genre hoops, but refreshingly not in the ways you would expect. Most heist movies revolve exclusively around men. What few women that do exist in those films are often forced to use their bodies or sexuality as weapons or tools.
Flynn’s script shoves the men to the margins and shines the spotlight on the women. She does so in a way that is unexpected. The men in these movies often form a reluctant camaraderie. Even if they start off uneasy in the beginning by the end they will at least have earned respect and an induction of an elite brotherhood. Luckily Flynn and McQueen are as bored by that as we are.
The women in Widows, for starters, are not professionals. They are the wives or girlfriends of career criminals. The crew led by Harry Rawlins (Liam Neeson) are killed in a hail of police fire after a botched robbery. McQueen opens up Widows with Davis and Neeson sensually embracing each other in bed. He interrupts the scene with the ill-fated robbery itself. Cross-cutting the sudden violence of the crime with the sudden intimacy of a lived-in and well-worn relationship.
Soon after Harry’s death, Veronica is visited by Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry); the man who Harry stole from. Harry and his men died in a fireball of an explosion as they tried to get away in a van. Jamal tells Veronica that she now owes him the money, two million dollars, Harry stole. She has only a few weeks to get the money, somehow.
The other subversion from Flynn’s script is how Veronica recruits the other wives and girlfriends. She calls them up and essentially blackmails them into helping her. The other women have their own motivations but their decision to go through with the heist is not entirely their own. Veronica threatens to take them down with her if they do not help by ratting them out to Jamal. Veronica tries to soften the threat by promising a split of three million dollars.
One of the great treasures of Flynn’s script is the little things. Jamal doesn’t know about the other ladies because the only member of the gang he knew was Harry. He knows Harry, tracks down Veronica, and thus puts the onus on her. Veronica finds a book of plans and notes detailing a job, a score of five million dollars, that Harry was planning. So through that, she hunts down the other ladies.
But it’s how each character has their own motivations. Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), the estranged wife of one of Harry’s men, needs the money. She ran a clothing store for Quinceaneras. The store’s lease was in her husband’s name. After her husband’s death she discovers, the payments she was making to him, were gambled away. With his death, the mob, to whom, he owed money to, are repossessing the store. Since the store is in his name she has nothing. Even her kids are in danger of being taken away by her mother-in-law because she now has no way to care for them.
Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) is a woman mourning the loss of her abusive boyfriend. Stunned by his death she finds herself faced with moving back home with her mother Agnieska (Jackie Weaver). Her mother suggests Alice try sex work. Flynn and McQueen are very careful to show that sex work itself is not a bad thing. But that for Alice it is not something she wants. In one scene between her and Agnieska we begin to see maybe her boyfriend is not the first to abuse her. The way Weaver’s cajoling turns into psychological warfare is a truly menacing and terrifying moment in the film.
Even Jamal’s threat isn’t based on a mindless need for revenge. He needs that money. Jamal is running for Alderman of his local Chicago district. A gang leader himself he wants out. He’s tired and he wants the respect that doesn’t have to come at the end of a gun. The two million dollars that Harry stole was meant for his campaign. A campaign that is going to be bloody and treacherous since he’s up against a second-generation politician, Jack Mulligan (Colin Ferrell). Jack’s father Tom (Robert DuVall) is practical political royalty in Chicago and Tom is struggling to fill his shoes.
In many ways, Widows has many of the same flaws as The Crimes of Grindelwald. But, as the saying goes, the difference is all the difference. Both movies are dense with stories but with Widows the payoff is within the movie itself and not passed on to future installments on empty promises. McQueen understands how to work with actors and understands how camera movement and placement can enhance a scene.
Widows is dense in a way that is intoxicating. The heist itself feels almost like an afterthought. Though much of Widows involves us watching the preparation, we never see them rehearse or talk directly about the heist. So when it does happen we are both surprised by how mundane it is and caught off guard by things Flynn’s script has cleverly been laying out along the way.
Cynthia Erivo’s Belle comes in halfway through the movie and, if you recall, she was my favorite thing about Bad Times at the El Royale. Here she is every bit as charismatic and brilliant as she was then. Belle is a hairstylist, who also does part-time nanny work for Linda. Her arrival brings with it a new set of class issues.
McQueen and Flynn use the genre to highlight and explore what life in America, as a woman, a woman of color, and for people of color. They explore the sometimes messy but oftentimes distinct class divides between them. Veronica has worked for the teacher’s union and is used to living in a luxury apartment and having things her way. Her brusqueness and clipped way of delivering orders rub the other women the wrong way.
While waiting for Alice to arrive for a meeting, Veronica complains to Linda about her lateness. “Give her a break,” Linda replies. When Veronica asks what’s so difficult about getting someplace on time, Linda snaps, “Because our lives are more complicated.”
Yet, when Belle joins the group there is immediate friction between her and Veronica. The two share very little screen time with each other but when they do it is electric. Flynn wisely gives the two few words, while McQueen sits back and lets Davis and Erivo express their emotions and thoughts through their eyes. Their differences and similarities are too messy and complex to be put into words. But the magic of cinema is how much can be expressed through an actor’s face than through any pithy line of dialogue.
One of my favorite scenes involves Veronica and Alice arguing. Tempers rise and Veronica slaps Alice. The scene is rich in its emotional complexity. Alice’s reaction is, not just one of my favorite moments of the film, but one of my favorite moments of the year. It showcases a breadth of character development and understanding that so much of Hollywood movies tragically lack.
McQueen and Sean Bobbitt, the cinematographer, utilize tracking shots in an elegant fashion. As opposed to most filmmakers who use tracking shots as a form of visual chest thumping, McQueen and Bobbitt choose to visually show us the way neighborhood’s change after only a block or two. The duo embraces the technique as a sleek streamlined way to deliver visual and expository cues adding layers to an already multi-textured movie.
Combined with Joe Walker’s editing and Hans Zimmer’s subdued score, Widows gracefully dances along where other films stumble and goosestep. Walker’s cuts are pristine and exact giving Widows a lean but rich structure. With no less than five characters to concern itself with, Widows never seems bloated or aimless.
Debicki is a towering actress, whose height, McQueen doesn’t shy away from. Debicki makes herself look how she feels, small without ever sacrificing her natural height. I mention this because historically Hollywood has always gone out of its way to shrink its women to make its leading men seem bigger. The rare exceptions being action heroines. The likes of Geena Davis and Gal Gadot tends to leave Hollywood stunned as to what to do; all because they lack the imagination to even come up with a role for them.
McQueen allows Debicki room to give a stunning performance. No mean feat considering she’s in the same movie and often times alongside Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Erivo, and Voila ‘frickin’ Davis. But she holds her own and almost steals every scene she’s in, all because of a gesture or how she holds herself.
Rodriguez has the least to do but what she does in no less stellar. She commands every syllable and line as she struggles to figure how to go about even being a criminal. Consumed by the love of her children and desolated by the loss of her store she is, much like Veronica, adrift in confusion and fear. Watch her face as she argues with the man stripping her store as he tells her she is not in charge and is foolish for thinking so. It is a face of both restrained rage and sheer tumultuous anxiety at losing everything in a blink of an eye.
Davis is, as always, amazing and riveting. One of the great talents of our time she gives us a deeply flawed woman in Veronica Rawlings. Steeped in mourning, she is clear-eyed enough to understand these are dangerous men. Few things rival watching an actress at the peak of her craft, sinking her teeth into a meaty role and showing you new depths of her abilities.
McQueen and Flynn sublimely compliment each other. Every frame, every cut, every moment is a delight as Widows walks the tightrope of being a subversive genre movie. Widows dissects political corruption, explores grief, showcases the varying lived differences in the lives of women and women of color, as well as class boundaries and rivalries. Rarely do big-budget Hollywood movies contain this many ideas, let alone even one idea.
The more I think about Widows the more I love it and the more I find to love. Howard Hawks was once asked what makes a movie great. “Three great scenes and no bad ones.” If my math is correct, considering there are zero bad scenes, and considerably more than three great ones, Widows more than qualifies.
Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox
‘Vox Lux’ Goes for Broke Almost to the Breaking Point
Warning: Vox Lux contains scenes depicting a school shooting that could trigger some viewers. It also has many scenes with rapidly flashing lights that may trigger those with photosenstivey disorder.
Vox Lux is a magnificently flawed film of abject fury and empathy. Not since this year’s earlier Sorry To Bother You have I witnessed a movie so consumed with passion and anger. I’m just not sure it’s any good.
It seems to be railing against our current obsession with what I guess you could call “distraction culture.” A culture aware of the horrors and atrocities going on around them but whose own futility at what can be done is usurped by its own need to feel joy. Vox Lux argues there are distractions and then there is ignoring things so you don’t have to think about them.
Yes, it’s healthy to practice self-care and not get too wrapped up in things beyond our control. But at what point is looking away to avoid being overcome by the horror of it all turn into ignoring everything else except for our own obsessive need for gratification. At least I think that’s the main thrust.
To say Vox Lux is about any one thing would be foolhardy. Gun violence, the dehumanization of celebrities, and how women are marketed less for talent and more for their bodies are all fair game. Truthfully I’m not sure exactly what it’s trying to say. It’s hard to tell. For as giddy as I was watching Vox Lux I was also frustrated because I couldn’t quite understand what the film was trying to do. It didn’t help that the ending can be perceived as either irritating or brilliant. The film walks the knife’s edge of artistic brilliance and pretentious nonsense.
Brady Corbet structures Vox Lux as a fable about a young girl named Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) who survives a school shooting. Narrated by Willem Dafoe, his voice lends an air of forthright impenetrable honesty as he regales about the girl’s life. Celeste survives with a permanent spinal injury. At the memorial for the other students, she and her older sister Ellie (Stacy Martin) play a song they wrote. The result is Lady Gaga/Beyonce inspired superstardom.
Vox Lux is one of those movies where I can tell you what happened but it doesn’t do it the justice of sitting there seeing it all unfold. Corbet makes every scene palpable, every frame pulsates with energy. The film feels alive and as such seems untamable as it explodes onto the screen before our eyes. Operatic and feverish, it never lets up no matter how much you may wish it to.
Celeste survives a school shooting, this is true. But Corbet makes us feel the horror and the tension of living through the school shooting. The ubiquitousness of gun violence both in our media and in our day to day lives has perhaps deadened the very real, violent, and disturbing reality of the actual experience. The driving anger of Vox Lux is in our inability to hold onto meaningful experiences and instead, dropping them and moving on to something else.
Natalie Portman plays a grown-up Celeste. A world-famous pop star, she is all but coming apart at the seams. In many ways, Vox Lux looks at how we enshrine celebrities and make them impossible beings. Portman’s Celeste is a pop star on the verge of a nervous breakdown. With her thick Staten Island accent and slicked back hair, Celeste powers through when she should clearly take a breath.
Celeste has a daughter of her own now, Albertine, also played by Cassidy. In an abrasive and uncomfortable scene, the adult Celeste attempts to have a heart to heart with her daughter. But Celeste is so closed off due to her stardom and drug abuse, she seems incapable of basic human connection. Her daughter asks her why she hates Ellie. Celeste responds with a rambling monologue about how nothing we do matters anymore because people just move on to the next thing. “I did a commercial a few years back. That stupid little thing where the rose opened up and I was little fairy inside with a soda can. I thought it’d ruin me. Know what happened? Nothing. Everybody forgot about it.”
It’s an old joke on the internet that the internet never forgets, but it’s only partially true. Yes, the internet is forever but our attention spans are not. Vox Lux isn’t pointing fingers so much as expressing a deep and volatile dissatisfaction with the way things seem to be heading. Art can offer answers but sometimes art can just be a cipher for our volatile and, sometimes, corrosive emotions.
At the same time during this same scene, the manager of the restaurant comes over and asks Celeste if he could take a picture with her. “I’m not going to post it. I just want it for me.” A celebrity’s time is rarely their own. Social media has made fans voracious in their need to be seen with people who “are just like them” but who never get to be treated like normal people.
Portman turns in what is her second best performance this year behind the earlier and still haunting and gorgeous Annihilation. But her work in Vox Lux is jaw-dropping for the kinetic energy she imbues in her Celeste. It is a fearless performance. Portman all but leaps from the screen and into the audience. Her Celeste is larger than life as she struts, dances, throws temper tantrums, all before turning to the screen and smiling. We root for Celeste while acknowledging what an absolute hell it must be living in her sphere.
After getting high, and having sex with Jude Law’s character known only as The Manager, the two stumble out of Celeste’s hotel room. I mention the scene only because Portman does one of the best pratfalls I’ve seen all year. I howled because Vox Lux is a movie that constantly pokes you, daring you to express either frustration or laughter. At the very least it wants you to feel something and tries in earnest to get, at the very least, a rise out of us.
The tightrope act the actors have to walk in the film is how nuanced they are. Law’s Manager character is as flawed and fleshed out as anyone in Mary Queen of Scots. He is at once kind and caring while also being manipulative and brusque. Notice the storm of conflicting emotions on Law’s face, and Portman’s for that matter, when she walks in on him holding Ellie in her arms. For all it’s bravado it’s the quiet moments between the screeching vibrato of its tone is where Vox Lux holds it’s most haunting and galvanizing power.
Much of the film’s power comes from the harsh and ingenious editing of Matthew Hannam. Just as you think we’ve got a bead on its rhythms it switches gears and out of our grasp. Aided by Lol Crowley, the cinematographer, the two create a living pulsating piece of artistry hellbent on making sure their screams into the abyss are heard. Crowley never puts the camera in a boring or wrong place. Even if the angle might be familiar the lens or lighting make it seem fresh and new. It allows us to decide for ourselves how we feel about certain moments and reactions.
I mentioned Portman’s pratfall earlier. While the theater was not packed, it was far from empty, but I was the only one laughing. I tell you this to illustrate how the film works differently for different people. A scene may be darkly comedic to me but to you or someone else, it may play as unbearably tragic.
During the last act of the film, we see Celeste perform her latest album, Vox Lux, to a teeming throng of adoring fans. Magically the concert footage feels like an actual pop concert. The vibrant and inventive energy the film has worked so hard to cultivate never evaporates. I sat in awe as they seamlessly blended realism with the dreamlike imagery of surrealism. Corbet, Crowley, and Hannam have sewn together disparate scenes that would in a lesser director’s hands seem like patchwork.
The ending, as previously stated, is abrupt; almost daringly so. A crucial piece of information is revealed just seconds before Corbet cuts to black. Because of how Vox Lux is presented, many moments seem weird or odd so after a while, we do not think much of them. But Corbet, mere seconds before the end drops a bombshell of a revelation that might be true or not. Dafoe’s narrator, whose voice exudes authority and honesty, delivers the line almost as an afterthought. I don’t know if it makes Vox Lux an inarguable masterpiece or if it pushes the film over the line from operatic to camp trash.
Most movies never know when to quit. Vox Lux quits arguably too soon. When I realized the credits were rolling, it took me a few seconds to realize it was over. Time flew by, though I’m not sure I would call the time spent watching Vox Lux fun. Engaging, certainly but calling it fun seems shallow somehow.
I like movies that are fun but sometimes I think we value the movies that are merely fun over the movies that are not. As if a movie not being fun is somehow an excuse not to engage with it. I’m not arguing that movies that are boring are good. I’m merely saying that, if we are to call movies art, then we should allow for a broader sense of what we demand from them.
Still, when the lights came on and I struggled to catch my breath, I knew some would find it too much. It is not a film for everyone, it never pretends to be. Its brashness and audacity have stayed with me and I get kind of giddy just thinking about it. Vox Lux is an act of untamed cinematic grandiosity that flails about with such brashness you might end up kind of annoyed. I loved every minute of it.
Image courtesy of Neon
Mary Queen of Scots vs. the Patriarchy
I am normally not a fan of period pieces set in the Elizabethan era. I came up in the 90’s back when Hollywood was flushed with them. Despite this genre prejudice I found myself utterly absorbed by Josie Rourke’s Mary Queen of Scots. A smart, complex, enthralling tragedy so well paced and woven the Bard himself would be pleased.
Of the many feats Mary Queen of Scots somehow pulls off, is the slaying of the insistent but moronic myth that movies like these cannot be populated by queer people or people of color. They have always existed and are a part of history; regardless of what decades of whitewashed historical epics might have said. The inclusiveness of Rourke’s film is as refreshing as it is bold.
While Mary Queen of Scots may present itself as a costume drama about how Mary (Saoirse Ronan) tried and failed to unify Scotland and England, it is only partly about that. At its heart, it is a tragedy about two women Mary and Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) and how they are the head of their church and country but each sits at the heart of the patriarchy.
I’m not sure how historically accurate the script by Beau Willimon is but, in the end, it doesn’t matter. It feels real and when it comes to storytelling, that is the best we can hope for. Exiled to Scotland, the Catholic Mary Stuart attempts to bridge a peace with the Protestant Elizabeth I. Elizabeth refuses to marry or have children thus cementing her hold on the crown. Mary, on the other hand, is quite happy to marry and is, in fact, planning on having a child thus giving her a claim to the throne.
Don’t worry, Mary Queen of Scots is much more fascinating and moving than it sounds. For starters, Robbie’s Elizabeth is a woman on her own surrounded by men all but demanding she marry and sire an heir. Robbie is, per usual, magnetic.
Elizabeth confesses to her advisor William Cecil (Guy Pearce), “I am a man. If I were to marry, my husband would surely wish to be my king. I will not bow to any king. I am the queen. You are the closest thing to a wife I shall ever have.” The moment is a perfect marriage of the perfect words for the perfect actress.
Mary Queen of Scots is shockingly adept at showing how remarkably little power women in power have when their counsels and envoys are men. Schemes and double crosses are made both for power but also so to free the country from “the yoke of female rule”. Time and time again Mary Stuart and Elizabeth I remain always pitted against each other.
Mary wishes nothing but to be named merely the next in line for the crown. But Elizabeth’s men cannot tolerate a Catholic laying claim and Mary’s men cannot fathom bowing to a Protestant. Round and round it goes with treachery and betrayal littering the road. Willimon’s script has an aura of fate inscribed into its structure. Even as Mary is charmed by Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) we know he will be her downfall. Not because she is weak but because it will allow, by technicality, for there to be a way to kick her off the throne.
Ronan’s Mary loves her country even though it seems not to return her love. Ronan does not have the fierceness that Robbie has and in fact, her Mary seems innocent and naive comparatively. But Ronan is sly in her performance. Much like Elizabeth, we underestimate her but we soon grow to root for her.
Lord Darnley’s inevitable betrayal is uncovered and Mary is counseled to execute him. “I will not behave as some woman Henry the VIII beheading my husbands just to secure my throne. I took a vow to honor and love him.” Though he may not live with her, or rule with her, she will not break a vow taken before God.
Mary and Elizabeth both show courage and principle in a world filled with men who have neither. At one point Elizabeth, suffering from the pox, ailing, but still full of fire and grace, wonders, why she shouldn’t just name Mary as successor. Her advisors point out her failings to which Elizabeth laughs. In one of the best scenes Elizabeth lays out all that has been done to Mary and yet she still stands.
Mary for her part is dealing with a recently quashed civil war, a renegade Cleric John Knox (David Tennant) and a gay husband who is being blackmailed by her most trusted advisors to take the crown and give it to her brother James (James McArdle). Unlike Elizabeth, she refuses to give up her femininity or her right to love and passion. Rourke never says which queen is right or wrong, only that each queen is ruling in the way she feels is best.
Willimon’s script lays out each character so fully that we understand where each character is coming from even after only just meeting them. We understand Tennant’s Knox when he argues with Mary about accepting the Catholics. Willimon’s deep and abiding empathy flows through the very text of Mary Queen of Scots and adds to the verisimilitude of the story.
Gemma Chan, who was so wonderful in this year’s earlier Crazy Rich Asians is magnificent as Elizabeth Hardwick. A role with barely any words, she plays a friend and confidante of Elizabeth’s. Chan’s glances tell us more than dialogue can as she becomes increasingly worried about her queen.
Rourke and Willimon surround both Queens with an inner circle of ladies, each an extension of how the queen is perceived. Elizabeth’s are comforting but often quiet and reserved. Mary’s are much more outgoing and effusive in their praise. Mary show’s an inclusive streak herself when she allows a bard who seems to enjoy wearing dresses into her fold. She treats him as she treats her other ladies, and they accept him as so.
Scotland is a countryside we’ve often seen in movies. John Mathieson, who shot Logan, shoots Mary Queen of Scots with a lush and deft eye for rolling hills and misty beaches. For all the beauty he and Rourke never let us forget the grimy reality of the times. Yes, there are castles, but they are made of stone, the chairs do not look comfortable and when it rains, there is little hope of getting dry.
Mary Queen of Scots is breathtaking in its intimacy and drawn out tension. It is Rourke’s directorial debut in film and it is an announcement of confidence and joy of a craft. She has created a world that feels lived in and whose drama and characters feel immediate and real.
Full of political intrigue, but never dull or pompous, this is a generous movie filled with many tiny moments and gestures on the sides of the frame. It takes a great talent to portray a tragic tale of love, sisterhood, betrayal, and envy in such a way we feel exuberant rather than exhausted. Rourke is such a talent.
Image courtesy of Universal Pictures
Avengers: Endgame Revealed
Just ignore the silly name. We all know Endgame is a bit stupid and maybe the internet can shame Marvel into changing it. Regardless of the name, we have our first look at Marvel’s epic conclusion to the story begun in Infinity War. The Avengers are back to undo the damage Thanos wrought upon the universe.
We don’t see anything unexpected here. Half of all life is gone, our heroes are sad, Tony Stark is lost in space on the verge of death (not really), and they have a plan to undo the Snap. Steve Rogers lost his beard, and I don’t mean whatever woman he currently “dates” to distract from his feelings for Tony. Hawkeye is back and Ant-Man shows up. Really the only thing missing is Captain Marvel. Come on, Marvel, we all know she will be there. You want Captain Marvel to make even more money than it already will? Let people not in the know aware of her role in the new Avengers movie.
In this humble writer’s opinion, Infinity War did a stunningly effective job with the ensemble superhero movie and set a huge bar for this latest entry to not only clear but even match at all. Can they possibly recapture that magic again? Who will live or die? What will the new Avengers team look like in the end? How will they undo Thanos’s villainy?
All I know is that Nebula better be a feature attraction here. Her relationships with both Thanos and Gamora demand it.
Avengers: Endgame will snap half the money out of existence this April.