Widows

Widows is an exquisite piece of pulp. It revels in its genre setting, being a great example of the heist movie, but it has so much more on its mind. That is what sets it apart from other such movies; it frames the heist in a meditation on social and political problems. The combination makes for one of the best movies of the year.

Widows opens with split scene, going back and forth between Harry Rawlings and his gang of thieves on a job with them at home with their spouses, played by our stars Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki. Given the title of the film, it should come as no surprise that the job goes south and the thieves end up dead. Soon the man whom Harry stole the money from shows up at Davis’s home and forcing her to pay him back. Armed only with a book Harry kept with plans for his next job, Davis gathers the other widows to pull off a job and save their lives.

Widows is a great ensemble movie. Viola Davis is the star, for sure, but Rodriguez and Debicki each get their own developed arcs. Then there is the arc going on around the heist, with entitled an entitled alderman candidate Jack Mulligan, played by Colin Ferrell, engaged in a close election with Jamal Manning, David Tyree Henry, who just so happens to also be the crime lord that after Viola Davis. Cynthia Erivo is a late addition to the heist team and again shows that she deserves to be a star.

Davis’s Veronica initially seems emotionally numb. Seeded throughout before being shown in the back half is the event that had already damaged her marriage before her husband’s death. She projects an icy strength, but it is clear that is covering deep pain. The blackmail almost seems like a positive development for her because it gives her something to focus on and a reason to interact with anybody else. Rodriguez has the most plain, the most common, problems to deal with. Her husband left her his gambling debts and two children to care for. She joins the heist because she has no other choice, but she is the most aware of the likely outcome. Finally there is Debicki, long abused and stifled, whose mother pushes her to prostitute herself to make up for the loss of her husband. The heist for her is a chance to finally take action, to prove herself as valuable person.

The growing strength of the women is countered by the utter entitlement of Jack Mulligan. His father was a long serving alderman who is now retiring. Jack is unsure if he even wants the job that he sees as his birthright. With him as an example, Manning looks to exchange a disreputable life of crime for a reputable one. Meanwhile his brother sees no reason to change a something that is working.

Widows doesn’t preach. It lets the story speak for itself. It is easy to compare it to this summer’s Ocean’s 8 and see how that movie was lacking. Ocean’s 8 was a fun piece of popcorn entertainment that was very proud of its girl power cast but lacked in any coherent voice. Widows is less proud of itself for having a cast full of women, but has so much more to say about how the differences in how society treats men and women. Ocean’s 8 was good; it was a lot of fun. Widows is great.

*****

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Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is an unfortunate misstep for this Harry Potter spin off series. It is absolutely stuffed with plot, which leaves little room for any sort of humanity. The first movie in this series balanced the episodic charm of its protagonist dealing with magical creatures with its portentous undergirding excellently. It was mostly about the fantastic beasts from the title, with the other stuff happening in the background. That balance is flipped in the sequel, which is significantly less satisfying. It is all deep Harry Potter lore and the rise of fascism, with shockingly little magical wonder. That is not unlike the rest of the Harry Potter series, but it is definitely playing to a weakness rather than a strength.

The first act of the movie mostly works to unwind the ending of the first. Grindelwald, imprisoned at the end of the first movie, escapes in the opening scene. An apparently dead character is suddenly alive again; other characters are simply reset. It isn’t exactly clumsy, but it takes up a lot of time in a movie that ends up being rather heavy on plot. Soon after Grindelwald escapes prison, Newt and his old buddy Jacob are on their way to Paris on a mission that is not as unrelated as it initially appears. They are also looking for their respective love interests.

It is hard to talk about this movie because it is all plot. Everything is a spoiler. There are a few encounters with magical beasts, each of which holds just enough wonder to make you wish they were the focus of the movie. When the movie tries to show human emotion, it generally succeeds. When Newt’s brother Theseus attempts to hug him and Newt has no idea how to react it is perfectly heartbreaking. That is followed up by a later attempt by Newt to return the hug that is its equal. To its credit, the movie looks great. All of the performers acquit themselves well. It is just doing way too much, so none of it has the impact it should. Honestly, it feels like the worst parts of the movies that were adapting books, which I could more easily forgive because I knew the explanation and impact from the book. Here, the movie is all there is and it is simultaneously too much and not enough.

The movie is trying to deal with some pretty heavy subjects, and its ending leaves things in the air. Grindelwald is some kind of magical albino Hitler and he manages to sway many people to his side with his transparently self serving speeches. It is timely, what with nationalism and fascism on the rise again, but the movie’s depiction of things manages to be both heavy handed and muddled. It is obvious what Grindelwald represents, but Newt is such a withdrawn character that he isn’t much of a counterpoint. The magical governments are compromised. The would be good guys are lead by a young Dumbledore, but he is completely passive for reasons that are not clear for most of the runtime. Hopefully the sequel manages to successfully answer this movie’s questions.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald really seems to want to be the Empire Strikes Back of Harry Potter movies, but in the end it is the series’ equivalent of The Matrix Reloaded. The question is what does the next movie look like. A strong finish or next chapter could make this simply the slightly clunky middle chapter. A disaster would make this look even worse in comparison.

**1/2