WIDOWS

widows

by Alan Yudman

If you are going into WIDOWS thinking it’s a version of the OCEAN’S franchise, you are going to be disappointed. But you also should be pleasantly surprised. While WIDOWS has none of the humorous banter, male bonding or cheeky sexuality of the OCEAN’S movies, it has something much more— stakes and real drama.

The movie begins by cutting back and forth between two scenes— husband and wife, Viola Davis and Liam Neeson waking up in bed and getting ready for the day, and Neeson and his crew pulling off a robbery. Everything goes sideways during the crime and everyone is killed in a shootout with the cops. That’s where the WIDOWS get their name. Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez and Carrie Coon all lose their husbands (or boyfriends, sometimes it isn’t quite clear, but it’s also not very important). Here’s where the intrigue of the plot really draws you in. There is political intrigue that ties into the heist story. Collin Farrell and Brian Tyree Henry are squaring off in a Chicago Alderman race. The seat was held by Farrell’s dad (Robert Duvall) and his dad before him and so on. Henry is some kind of gangster who has a reputation but no criminal record. His brother (Daniel Kaluuya) is his brutal enforcer. Apparently Neeson’s crew was stealing campaign money from Henry. And that’s where I’m going to stop pulling on that thread so I don’t give too much away.

Henry wants his money back and tells Davis to get it. He doesn’t care how. Sell her stuff, sell herself. Her husband took from him and he wants payback. Then we discover Neeson has left Davis a key to a safe deposit box— inside is a book that is basically a diary of all his crimes past, present and future. She sees a way out. Do Neeson’s next job. Take the money and pay Henry back. So she recruits Debicki and Rodriguez to help her. Eventually they recruit Cynthia Erivo to help them fill out the crew. Again, stopping here. You just have to see it yourself.

Steve McQueen has taken this genre to the next level. The heist is merely a framework for the real story about corrupt politicians, Chicago violence and moving on after tragedy and betrayal. He and co-writer Gillian Flynn chose a slow burn. Things are revealed in painstaking fashion. We learn all we need to know about one situation before we are served the next nugget. It is refreshing to be drawn into a heist movie in this way. Most of the time we know what the motivation is immediately, then the rest of the movie is about the planning and execution. That’s not what is going on here.

McQueen’s direction is stellar. Davis is scared and in pain, and depending on the positioning of the camera and setting of the scene we are either let in or kept at a distance, depending on the demands of the story.

There are strong performances all around. Davis is on the edge and you feel it in the way she runs the crew, yet seems completely untethered at the same time. Debicki and Rodriguez are great, but Debiicki is stellar. Her turn from abused girlfriend/wife to powerful woman is remarkable. Farrell as a corrupt politician trying to escape his father’s corrupt shadow does great work and is it never a pleasure to see Duvall? I think the answer is no. Erivo is also a wonder. And Kaluuya displays a true gift for playing a brutal, menacing villain. SAG should nominate this film for best ensemble. And it probably should win.

The score by Hans Zimmer is perfect and the soundtrack fits every seen (doesn’t hurt that Nina Simone is included). Special kudos to the sound design team also.

There are some backstories that go unexplained and you may wonder what some of those are. But it really does nothing to diminish the intrigue. That is a very minor complaint.

WIDOWS is a great action movie, but it is so much more than that. The story, the acting, the satisfyingly twisty plot all combine to make this film a must see.

CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME

can you ever forgive me

by Alan Yudman

People, well critics if you consider them people, always seem a bit surprised when an actor known chiefly for comedy takes on a dramatic role and kills it. There is a worn out quote that goes, depending on who you hear it from, “dying is easy, comedy is hard”. Given that Melissa McCarthy is such a wonderful comedic actor, is it any surprise she is so good in CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? Not to me.

McCarthy’s stock in trade so far has been her over the top physicality. There’s none of that in her straight dramatic portrayal of disgraced author Lee Israel. Israel had some success as a biographer, but as this movie opens she has hit bottom. She has writers block, she isn’t making any money, she has been fired from her copy editing job. It looks beyond grim as she shambles around early 1990’s New York City. Add to that she is the dictionary definition of a misanthrope. She hates people and makes no secret of it. Israel is a totally unsympathetic character. She is “working” on a biography of Fanny Bryce, doing research in a library when she comes across a typed letter, signed by the comedian. She takes it to a rare bookstore and discovers that it is worth hundreds of dollars to collectors. That is the spark that launches her career of forgery and fraud. Israel writes letters from famous dead authors and playwrights like Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward, signs them and sells them. It is a lucrative scam, until she is found out.

At her lowest point she meets Jack Hock (the amazing Richard E. Grant) in a gay bar. The two are fast friends mainly because they are both alcoholic social outcasts. They are drinking buddies, bonded by their social status.. which is none. Eventually she drags Jack into her fraud when she can no longer show her face in these bookstores.

Israel seems to be constantly teetering on the edge of being caught, until she finally is found out. Her motivations are desperation and revenge.. revenge against a society and culture that has disposed of her because of her lack of success and because she is a lesbian. Her belief that she is entitled to more and her complete desperation are the gasoline on the fire that are her crimes.

McCarthy is simply wonderful. Israel’s cynicism is powered by McCarthy’s comedic instincts. Her performance has the timing of a comedy without the jokes. It is a wonderful example of her range and potential as a dramatic actress. The part isn’t really the type that gets the attention of Oscar voters. Maybe it should, because this is an awards caliber performance. There are other fine performances. Jane Curtin as Israel’s agent. Dolly Wells as a shy bookstore owner who has a crush on Israel. But the other shining performance here is Richard E. Grant’s turn as Jack. He’s cheeky and funny. He tries hard to be Lee’s friend but cannot set aside his basest impulses. There have been a lot of good supporting performances this year, but this is the best I have seen thus far.

The script by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty was adapted from Israel’s book about this period of her life. It is spare and sharp. It’s witty without being too precious. Great writing. This is director Marielle Heller’s second feather (2015’s THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL was her first). Heller’s best attribute here is that her direction isn’t in the way. It’s not noticeable. She picks the right shots to show Israel’s desperation. It’s subtly great.

CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME has nothing to apologize for. This is a great movie that should be recognized during awards season.

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY

bohemian rhapsody

by Alan Yudman

I walked out of BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY on a high. Like the high you have after seeing a great concert. The performer energized the crowd and you leave feeling giddy and singing the songs. I was enthusiastic and ready to be effusive with praise.

Then after a while I remembered it wasn’t a concert, it was a movie. And that’s when I started jotting down my notes (a peek inside my reviewing process) and realized the film has a few problems.

There is no doubt at all that Bryan Singer captures the energy and glorious weirdness of Freddy Mercury. And that is completely because of a tour de force performance by Rami Malek. He crawls inside Freddy Mercury and disappears into the role. Malek captures not only the flamboyance and the artistic vision, he also gives us the insecurity, doubt and loneliness. Mercury was complicated. His public persona was outrageous and bravura. But in private he was tortured and tormented. Mercury wanted the rock and roll lifestyle, the fame and the fortune. But he came from immigrant parents who just wanted to blend in and do good. He was confused about his own sexuality, loving his longtime friend Mary Austin, but tempted by men. Malek gives it all to the audience. The strutting performer and the insecure man-child are given the same weight. This is a performance that should get Malek an Oscar nomination, if not the gold statue itself. Wouldn’t Freddy have loved that.

The rest of the cast is very good. They found three actors to play Brian May (Gwilym Lee), Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and John Deacon (Joe Mazzello) who seemed to be nearly doubles for the other members of Queen. Lucy Boynton captures the conflict and longing Mary must have felt being the love of Freddy’s life. Allen Leech (Tom Branson from Downton Abbey) is wonderful as Paul Prenter, Freddy’s longtime partner and band manager (or assistant manager, it’s not clear) who is a manipulative prick. The always great Tom Hollander and Aidan Gillen play the band’s lawyer and manager (again, not clear).

It really is the acting that elevates BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY. The story is compelling, but the telling has several problems. The movie races through the band’s early years until they get to the making of A NIght at the Opera. Then it slows down to show the making of that record and the fight with the record company over the first single’s release. There is a scene where they meet with a record company executive who doesn’t want to release the 6 minute opus, Bohemian Rhapsody, as the first single. That executive is played by Mike Myers, so when he trashes the song it got a bunch of laughs in the theater (because he played Wayne in Wayne’s World which lionizes the song). But it is a stunt and it takes you out of the scene. And Myers’ beard is some weird, glued on-looking mess. Singer decides to use on screen text to tell us where and when we are, but that only points out the time warp jumps through the band’s history.

About that history. Man did they take license with the facts. Rolling Stone fact checks the movie and there’s a bunch of problems. Click the link to see just some. I also found one they didn’t mention. On the band’s first tour of the United States, the movie shows Queen playing Fat Bottomed Girls. I know that was on the 1978 album Jazz, because that’s the first Queen album I ever bought. I was willing to accept they may have played a version of the song before 1975. But checking Wikipedia Fat Bottomed Girls wasn’t performed until after Jazz was released. That took me out of the movie too.

Singer and screenwriter Anthony McCarten do a great job weaving the themes of the music in with the story. They also seem to get the band dynamic right.. the love, the tension, the arguing. I heard before seeing it that Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis was “straight-washed”. I don’t think that’s the case. It’s dealt with, but it’s not really the focus of the movie. Though you see how his behavior lead to what you know will be his eventual diagnosis. The movie builds to Queen’s historic performance at 1985’s Live Aid concert at Wembley Stadium. I saw it then and I’ve seen it on YouTube since. Malek nails it. It is note for note perfect.

If you are looking for a historical telling of Queen, well this isn’t that movie. This is more of a biopic about Freddy Mercury and using the band as a framework to tell his compelling and tragic story. For that, the music, and Malek’s groundbreaking performance BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY is worth every dollar you pay to see it.