The Favourite Review

The Favourite turns a story of the political machinations of the 18th century English court into a brilliant, witty comedy. It plays fast and loose with historical accuracy, but that really isn’t the point and it doesn’t diminish what is one of the funniest and smartest comedies of the year.

The film is centered around three excellent performances. Emma Stone plays Abigail Hill, a young noblewoman who has fallen on hard times who has come to seek help from her cousin. That cousin, Sarah Churchill, played by Rachel Weisz, is the current power behind the throne, running Queen Anne’s court with an iron fist. Olivia Colman plays Queen Anne, a physically and psychologically weak Queen who tries to do her job well. The Queen holds all of the power, but lacks to ability to actually use it, and Abigail and Sarah jockey for the position as her favorite to have the power turned to what is important to them, while also being generally kind of mean to everyone around them. All three are great performances. Sarah essentially controls Queen Anne. They have been friends all their lives, and Sarah knows how to manipulate and goad Anne into seeing things her way. Their balance is upset with the arrival of Abigail, who at first is hired as a maid but works to make herself indispensable to both Sarah and Anne. Abigail does not want to return to the life of hardship she has known and will do nearly anything to insulate herself from that. Sarah wants to maintain her position and the Queen needs genuine human contact.

The Favourite does an amazing of getting the viewer to change their sympathies over the course of the movie. At the start, Queen Anne seems weak and easily manipulated, Sarah ruthless and Abigail tragic. The movie starts the viewer in Abigail’s corner, with her stories of hardships contrasted against the lavish lives of those living in or near the royal palace. The movie then reveals more about Sarah and Anne that changes how you view them. Anne is weak, but she has also undergone many tragedies in her life and is shown to want desperately to be a good Queen. Sarah, meanwhile, is revealed to actually care under her prickly exterior.

The women take center stage, there are men on the outsides. Nicholas Hoult plays Robert Harley, a political enemy of Sarah and just a complete ass. There is also Samuel Marsham, the almost complete nonentity that ends up married to Abigail. They are there, but the structure of the movie keeps them on the margins. Marsham only matters to Abigail because he is how she get stability. As soon as that is achieved, he is all but forgotten.

Where The Favourite really shines is in its pitch perfect script. It may dispense pretty quickly with historical accuracy, but man it has some great dialogue. Most of it delivered perfectly from Weisz or Stone. Whether it is Weisz’s withering, perfect put downs of the puffed up clowns at court or Stone’s more vulnerable and slightly veiled shots at other characters, it all works.

The Favourite is a purely enjoyable movie. It has some fairly dense psychological underpinnings, dealing with the nature of power and the machinations of those close to it, layered into a wonderfully smart and witty comedy.

*****

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Aquaman Review

Through Amazon Prime, I got tickets to an advance screening of Aquaman. I loved it; to a shocking degree. I have generally been more receptive to DC’s superhero movies than most. Sure, Wonder Woman is the only one I wouldn’t begin my defense of with “it’s flawed, but…,” but I’ve enjoyed them. I was still caught off guard at how much fun I had watching Aquaman. Instead of writing a review right then, I decided to see it again. After plans to see it with family over Christmas fell through, I went see again just before New Years and everything fell into place.  I liked it even more the second time around.

Aquaman’s greatest strength is how unrelentingly earnest it is. That is a trait is shares with most of DC’s movie output. Marvel’s movies have this veneer of irony, a remove from the material that by treating it all subtly like a joke. The DC movies have lacked that remove. Aquaman is no different. This is a movie where the villain puts on a silly mask and tells everyone to call him Ocean Master, a moment that is treated as sincerely ominous instead preposterously silly, which it is. However, by playing the joke straight it keeps the viewer in the preposterous world of the movie. Assuming, that is, that the viewer bought in to begin with. It opens with mermaid Nicole Kidman washing up on shore near a lighthouse and pretty quickly fighting a squad of mermen in reverse scuba suit armor. You should know right then if you are in or out. And if you are in, the movie will take out on a ride.

Aquaman is something of an origin story, but not the one we’ve seen repeatedly in superhero movies. Aquaman’s, whose real name is Arthur, journey is one of accepting his place as a child of two worlds and of determining what sort of hero he wants to be. It is the same kind of story that Man of Steel flubbed the landing on. Early in the movie, Arthur makes a choice while rescuing a submarine from submarine pirates. It isn’t necessarily the wrong choice, his decision makes sense and is largely justifiable. It does, however, have repercussions. By the time he feels those repercussions, Arthur knows he made the wrong decision. The next time he faces a similar choice, he chooses otherwise. It is believable and gradual change, with Arthur deciding what kind of person he is going to be. In places Aquaman hits many similar notes to Black Panther, giving the movie something of a fantasy epic feel, like Lord of the Rings as a superhero movie.

Aquaman is also a movie filled with solid performers giving fun performances. Nicole Kidman plays Arthur’s mom. Dolph Lundgren plays an undersea king with murky motivations. Willem Dafoe plays Arthur’s mentor Vulko. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II plays the villainous Black Manta, though he mostly only gets to show rage. The central characters are Jason Momoa’s Arthur, Amber Heard’s Mera and Patrick Wilson’s Orm. Momoa brings a delightful sort of bro-y charm to Arthur, making him believably conflicted and brash. Wilson is fun as the wrongheaded, but not completely wrong, Orm. He is far enough gone to be villainous, but his motivations, both his larger ones and his more personal ones, are believable. Heard has by far the hardest job, being the only Atlantean to have to have meaningful interactions with the surface while also explaining to Arthur how a lot of the undersea world works. Still, she does it while making Mera a believable character except from some unbelievable wigs.

I am not blind to the movie’s flaws. The most prominent of which is some just miserable dialogue. The plotting of the movie is fine, good even, but the dialogue is frequently dreadful. Sometimes in a fun way, see “Call me Ocean Master,” but more often just being things that no person would ever say to another person. It can be rough. But the movie more than makes up for it with unparalleled spectacle. This is not a movie to hold anything back. It goes places and goes for it with every scene in the movie. You get to see the unreal majesty of Atlantis, then the real beauty of Sicily before the movie takes you to the horror of the Trench and then to the lost kingdom that is the last resting place of Atlantis’s first king. It is very special effects heavy, but it is gorgeous anyway.

I am a sucker for Aquaman’s brand of earnest nonsense. It is the same sort of thing I fell in love with in Flash Gordon (and recently Mortal Engines and 1996’s The Phantom). It is just the sort of movie the I am prone to falling in love with, and I did here.

*****

Mortal Engines Review

Mortal Engines is the kind of movie that comes along every few years; a completely excellent sci-fi or fantasy adventure that loses a lot of money and is dismissed by almost everyone despite being exactly what I want to see. A blu-ray copy of Mortal Engines will sit next to Willow and John Carter on my shelf and I will drive people crazy going on and on about how great it is. Because I loved Mortal Engines. The plot lacks any semblance of originality, but it just such a breathless adventure that I couldn’t help but love it anyway.

The opening exposition explains the concept of this movie. After an apocalypse, people built cities on tank treads and they roam the countryside devouring smaller cities for replacement parts and fuel. It is, of course, pure nonsense, but if you can simply buy into this initial premise the movie is sticks with its internal logic and is a heap of fun. It starts with a scarred young woman, Hester Shaw, sneaking aboard London to assassinate Valentine, an important official in the city. She is stopped, however, by a young historian named Tom. After Hester falls from the ship, Valentine throws Tom off as well. The two end up working together to get back to London, for their own reasons.

The plot is mostly Star Wars. Tom and Hester find themselves in many predicaments and eventually start to become an effective team. Hester learns to trust Tom and Tom learns how to survive as Hester has. Eventually they are joined by Fang, a mysterious woman with a bright red airship. She is essentially Han Solo, except she is the one with ties to those who oppose London and the superweapon Valentine is building. The trio are chased by Shrike, a undead cyborg who is after Hester for unknown reasons.

The movie just moves, never settling in one place for long. It does an amazing job of just keeping building. The problems and obligations faced by Tom and Hester mount and mount as they meet more and more colorful characters and learn more and more about what Valentine is up to.

It is a well put together movie. CHaracters have clear motivations and arcs, and are mostly well played by a cast of not precisely newcomers but also not big names. The visuals are amazing. The movie is filled with things that have never been seen in a live action movie before. The fanciful city and airship designs are delightful. Each place our heroes visit is strikingly different from the others. It all looks really good.

It is not shocking that this movie has not been successful. The only name in the cast is Hugo Weaving, and as good as he is, I doubt he is moving the needle much for a blockbuster movie. The books are not obscure, but they are also not extraordinarily well known. It is a big gamble on something original when original things really do not sell. It is also earnest and sincere in a time that is not particularly receptive to sincerity. I hope, however, that this movie manages to find its audience anyway. The movie is too much fun not to. I know I am going to be singing it praises to any faintly sympathetic ear for years to come.

****1/2

Robin Hood Review

The people behind this movie were clearly big fans of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, as this movie is essentially The Dark Knight: Medieval Edition. That might be setting the bar too high, it isn’t really in the same league as any in that trilogy. Instead, it is a mildly competent take on the Robin Hood legend that is all the more disappointing for the better movie that seems to be just beneath the surface.

Comparing Robin Hood to The Dark Knight is easy, and not a new observation. Batman’s connection to Robin Hood has been noted before, though no movie I can think of has made the comparison so blatant. But this version of Robin Hood doesn’t stop there. It opens with Robin’s adventures during the crusades, with a plot points that are right out of Prince of Thieves. But the battles scenes in the Middle East are shot like a modern war movie, they look like something out of Saving Private Ryan with bows and arrows in place of guns. There are other moments evocative of other films and genres. The whole thing becomes kind of a mishmash of other popular things that doesn’t really find an identity of its own.

The plot is Robin Hood. As noted above, there is a stronger Batman influence here, but the story is the Robin Hood story as you have heard it. Robin of Locksley returns from the Crusades to find Nottingham in shambles. The Sheriff has had him declared dead and seized his lands in the name of the crown. He uses the war effort to continually raise the taxes. Robin conceals his identity with a hood and begins to fight the Sheriff, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor.

The best descriptor of the Robin Hood’s execution of it plot is competent. It is rarely as exciting as it wants to be, but neither does it fall down completely. It just sort of is. Jamie Foxx as Little John is fun and no one currently plays a villain better than Ben Mendelsohn. It all works, but barely. It manages to be both engaging and disappointing at the same time. This seems destined to be one of those forgotten blockbusters that in two or three years people will be surprised to hear that this movie came out.

To its credit, Robin Hood does try to make something current and comprehensible from the progressive nature of the Robin Hood story, building on the robs from the rich to give to the poor to make a movie that at least tries to say something about the growing inequality of the modern day. It doesn’t do a lot to mask other failures, but an action movie at least attempting to have something to say is at least a good sign.

Robin Hood is not very good, but if it becomes a TNT regular in a few years it will be worth catching at least once.

**1/2

Ralph Breaks the Internet

With apologies to Tangled, Wreck-It-Ralph was Disney’s first great 3D animated movie. It was a creative and loving look at the early days of arcade games. The easy, and fairly apt, comparison was that it was Toy Story for video games. As much as I enjoyed it, I can’t say I was especially eager for a follow up. Luckily, Rich Moore and Phil Johnston found a worthy new story with the characters that wasn’t just repeating the first movie. This time, protagonists Vanellope and Ralph go to the internet when the arcade owner hooks up a router to the same power strip where all the arcade games are plugged in.

When the first movie released, the same year as Brave, I thought it seemed like Disney released the Pixar movie and Pixar did the Disney one. That Pixar feeling is here this time as well. I don’t mean that as a catch all for a good movie, which Pixar’s output almost invariably is, but this is a kids movie that is as much for the kids parents as for the kids themselves. It doesn’t just throw out some jokes that go over the kids’ heads but their parents will laugh at, it builds some adult themes into the movie.

The movie is about friends growing apart, at least a little. It is about growing up and maybe not having the exact same interests at your friends anymore and how to be a good friend in that case. But it is also about parents learning to let their kids grow up, that they eventually become their own people and move out the house. Both stories are remarkably effective.

However, it is still a kids movie and the plot is largely an excuse for the two protagonists to romp around a virtual internet and comment on internet culture. Luckily, Moore and Johnston show the same affection for weirdo internet stuff that they did for old arcade games. Sure, it feels just like a Futurama episode from … 18 years ago (I’m so old!), but it is still a fun romp for most of its run time. They physically visit web sites, deal with pop up ad street vendors, fail to understand the concept of money, etc. It mostly serves as a vehicle for jokes until the greater problems come into focus.

Ralph becomes a youtube star to get the money they need, while Vanellope becomes enamored of a dangerous online racing game. Ralph has no interest in the game, but Vanellope can’t help but go back to it. It isn’t the cause of the growing conflict between the two friends, but the a symptom of a conflict that was already there.

Ralph Breaks the Internet is a good movie, a solid be to its predecessor’s A. It has some inspired jokes and inspired visuals, a story that is at times very touching. Ralph and Vanellope are two strong characters, and the events here build on the previous movie rather than resetting things. However, the movie doesn’t really have place for much of anyone else. Fix-It Felix and Calhoun, who played big roles in the first movie, are almost entirely absent. They aren’t really replaced by anyone. The movie brings in Shank, a racer from the deadly slaughter race, and Yesss, a buzztube algorithm, but they aren’t as big of presences as they could have been. There also is no true villain in the movie. Nearly all of it rests on the conflicts between best friends Vanellope and Ralph. Luckily, that relationship is strong enough to support the whole movie.

This isn’t the best recent Disney movie, but it is still a strong addition to the canon.

****

What I Watched November 2018

Movies

Bohemian Rhapsody – read review here. **1/2

The Other Side of the Wind – This is an Orson Welles movie that has gone unfinished and unreleased for more than 40 years. It is fascinating, both for how the story of its creation kind of echoes the story it is telling and for how it goes about telling that story. It stars John Huston as an again film director who is showing off his latest movie, also named The Other Side of the Wind, at his birthday party while also trying to secure funding to get it finished. He is surrounded by hangers-on, admirers and former proteges, but is feeling how his career is coming to an end and all of his secrets are being laid bare. It can be a hard watch, but it is nothing if not interesting. ****

They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead – this is a companion documentary to The Other Side of the Wind that goes into how the movie came to be made and the struggles Welles faced in the latter part of his career. It is far from essential, but I thought it was pretty good. ****

Chappaquiddick – a dramatization of the incident involving Ted Kennedy in which Mary Jo Kopechne drowned when Kennedy drove his car off a bridge. It has some good performances, but it is dramatically lacking. It wants to have something to say about the corrosive nature of power, but it doesn’t seem to get there. **

The Outlaw King – A very solid historic drama. It gets into the grime and gore a bit much, but otherwise is a very solid movie, centered around a really good Chris Pine performance. ***1/2

Sierra Burgess is a Loser – A high school version of Cyrano de Bergerac. One girl poses as another to send messages to a boy she likes. Eventually, real friendships form. Then troubles come out when the secrets are revealed. ***

Private Life – A married couple goes to great lengths to have a child and the strain that puts on their relationship with each other and with their friends and family. It has really solid performances from Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti. ***1/2

Like Father – A mildly amusing look at a messed up father daughter relationship. Kristen Bell’s estranged dad, Kelsey Grammer, shows up at her wedding. When she is abandoned at the altar, she and her dad end up her honeymoon cruise together. Some mildly amusing and heartwarming events occur. It is fine. **1/2

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – This might be lesser Coen Brothers, but it is still an excellent film. It is a collection of essentially six short films. Each part is a meditation, at least in part, on mortality and the fleetingness of life. It starts with the most attention grabbing part, but there are several unforgettable bits. ****1/2

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald – read review here. **1/2

Widows – read review here. ****1/2

Paradox – This is a combination of a really long music video and a haphazard collection of someone’s home movies. It is not a film, not one worth spending even a few minutes with. Just awful. *

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – I know some people who rate this very highly among the Bond movies; I don’t really get it. It is kind of a dull outing, pulled down by a genuinely bad performance by George Lazenby. I don’t have much to say about it. **1/2

The Spy Who Loved Me – This one really didn’t hold my attention. It has a reputation as being one of the better Moore Bond movies, but I found it mostly kind of dull and rote. It goes through the motions, seemingly trying to be more realistic but mostly succeeding at sapping the fun from the movie. Maybe I was just in the wrong mood. **

Moonraker – This movie is dumb. It is a big stupid cartoon. That doesn’t mean there isn’t anything to like her, there is. This is Bond at his silliest. It is kind of worth seeing just for that. But it isn’t good. **

Daddy’s Home 2 – This movie has its moments, but it can’t seem to even attempt to string its various little sections into some kind of coherent narrative. It is just a smattering of plot threads that the movie hopes will lead to jokes. And sometimes they do, but just as often they don’t, or the jokes they lead to aren’t funny. **

The Pink Panther Strikes Again – There is a level of diminishing returns with the Pink Panther movies, but there is also a certain level of fun just watching this farce play out. It is watching a master at work, even if the result isn’t a masterpiece. This isn’t a great movie, but there are some inspired bits. ***

For Your Eyes Only – A solid Bond entry after the disappointing Moonraker. It highs are pretty high, but it also has some interminable low stretches. I don’t really have a lot to say about it; it is a Bond movie. This is the one I would show people who wanted to see a Roger Moore Bond, it might be his best and you get some idea of what was appealing about his take on the character here. ***

Octopussy – This is the second to last Roger Moore Bond and I was shocked at how much I enjoyed it. It’s depiction of Indian people is not ideal, but it is a fun Bond adventure and one of the bad guys has a buzz saw yo-yo. It is a pleasant watch. ***

Extinction – a little alien invasion movie that at the very least has a starring role for the always entertaining Michael Pena. Pena has visions of impending disaster, and struggles to keep his family together as those visions start to come true. It feels kind of low budget, but is entertaining nonetheless. ***

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before – a teenage girl writes letters to her crushes and stores them with her diary. Somehow, all of her letters end up being sent to the boys they were written to. So she sets up a fake relationship with a boy to get the focus off her, but their feelings start to become real. It is a pretty good high school focused rom-com. ***1/2

Last Flag Flying – This Richard Linklater directed movie follows three veterans who haven’t seen each other since their time in the service as they meet up while one of them goes to retrieve the body of his son who died in the Middle East. It is deals with a lot of issues, with death and regret and moving on and grief, through mostly great performance from Laurence Fishburne, a subdued Steve Carell and a boisterous Bryan Cranston. It is really entertaining. ****

Disobedience – Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams star as a pair of women from an Orthodox Jewish community. They had a relationship years ago, which was a factor in Weisz leaving the community. She returns when her father dies, and the women struggle their renewed feelings and their faith. ****

TV

Ozark S2 – I finished season 2. The show it what it is.

Castlevania S2 – This show should be right up my ally, but it really isn’t clicking with me. IT spends so much time with characters and conflicts that I can’t bring myself to care about, then jams all the good stuff into two episodes. It’s just not good.

Schitt’s Creek S4 – I was none too impressed with this show when I first started watching it. It was intermittently funny, but between the terrible title and unlikeable characters I just about quit on it. People I trust gushing over it kept me watching and it transforms rather quickly into something really good. While the title remains terrible, the characters evolve and become some of the more interesting characters in comedy. Season 4 continues that, being both funny and deepening characters that started out as unlikeable and shrill.

Futurama – It has been a long time since I’ve really watched Futurama, not just had it on in the background while I cleaned my apartment. I still maintain that the new stuff is good, but watching this time I realize what the biggest difference between the old stuff and the new. The new Futurama was a lot meaner than the old. It was still capable of the heartwarming stuff, but that was balanced by a deeper cruel streak that changes the complexion of the show. There are moments of cruelty in the early stuff, and those moments usually get laughs because they are unexpected. That almost becomes the default when the show returns, as if the laughs were remembered, but not quite the alchemy that lead to them. Still, I like it all.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 – A great return for this show. Its MST3K, I don’t really know what to say. It’s good; you should probably watch it.

The Romanoffs – The show finished up with some of its best episodes. The second to last one, End of the Line, was an excellent look at a couple traveling to Russia to adopt a baby through a somewhat shady organization, only to be met with the realization that the child might not be what they were promised. The last one is a cold revenge tale that at first appears to be otherwise. Both are well well crafted episodes, as all of these have been. But they also have something more going on. That is more than a lot of these episodes have had. This show has been an exquisitely crafted, but largely kind of pointless and empty. But the episodes where it all works show what The Romanoffs could have been.

Superhero Shows Supergirl is either telling a trenchant political story, or it has bitten off more than it can chew and hasn’t realized it yet. The Flash continues to be fine; not quite as good as you’d hope but not really bad either. Legends of Tomorrow is just distilled fun at this point. Black Lightning is not quite on the same level in season 2 as it was in season 1, but it is still excellent. It is growing in some strange directions.

Creed II

The first Creed was an excellent passing of the torch for the Rocky series. It kept the history of the long running series while opening up a lot of avenues for the future. It also helped that it was just a damn good sports movie, like the original Rocky, a movie were the sport is the focus, the heart of the movie is its characters. Adonis Creed was a nearly perfect new protagonist. As successful as the first movie was, a sequel was almost inevitable. While Creed II can’t match the first movie in any regard, it still manages to deliver a very entertaining movie that stands on its own.

The movie follows the very obvious next point for the son of Apollo Creed; it brings back the Rocky IV connection and has Adonis fight the son of Ivan Drago, the man who killed his father. The plot pulls a lot of notes from the first three Rocky sequels, telling its own story of fathers and their children. Adonis reaches the top and has to find out if he has what it takes to stay there or if he even wants to. This movie revolves around father and child pairings. You have the relationship, or lack thereof, between Adonis and Apollo. You have the surrogate father son relationship between Rocky and Adonis. There is Rocky and his strained relationship his son. Then there is Adonis and his newborn child. Finally, there are the Dragos, who also have unique relationship.

I don’t know that it is breaking any new narrative ground, but the fathers here have to make decisions about what is important to them. It is a decision that Apollo made when he fought Ivan Drago way back in Rocky IV. Now the fathers here face similar choices. Drago is trying to find his lost glory by training his son to fight in his place. Rocky, beaten down by life can’t sit by while Adonis makes the same choices as his father and can’t bring himself to reach out to his own son.

Thing is, it is still a boxing movie. It opens with Adonis fighting for the title, and then falls into the familiar refrain of a new challenger arising and Adonis having to find new strength to take him on. The movie still centers on the relationship between Adonis and Bianca. They are well rounded characters and thanks in large to excellent performances by Michael B Jordan and Tessa Thompson, they feel like real people. Bianca does get a little lost this time, she has her moments but doesn’t get enough to do.

The movie does rely a little too much on the past of the series. This is as much a sequel to Rocky IV as it is to Creed. Rocky IV was the bombastic peak of the series, the movie that went the biggest and most ridiculous. This movie tries to bring that bombast back down to something human. It mostly works, but jumping to this story seems a bit much coming from the largely very grounded Creed. For most of the movie Ivan Drago is the same cartoon villain that he was before. The tone from Rocky IV is not a great fit here and while the movie does its best to avoid it some of that creeps in.

What the movie lacks is just the filmmaking audacity and excitement of Creed. It plays exactly like you’d expect it play. It hits the familiar beats and in the ways you’d expect. I don’t mean to say there isn’t anything unexpected in the plot, only that the pacing follows very familiar tone and structure. It isn’t bad, it just lacks the spark that made Creed feel so fresh and special. Basically what I am saying the movie misses the touch of Coogler.

Creed II is a slightly disappointing follow up to Creed, but it is a solid addition to the Rocky series. It lacks originality, but it makes up for by simply being an effective execution of a formula. At its best, Creed II can be marvelously affecting. The ending alone makes it worth seeing.

***1/2

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.

*****

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

Bohemian Rhapsody

There are times when Bohemian Rhapsody lures the viewer in with its adherence to the rock and roll story formula and the genuinely great music, but it mostly fall flat in its widely varying tone and its twisting of events to fit the desired narrative. It is a largely unsatisfying mix of excellent and dreadful.

Leading up the good side is the performance of Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury. He captures the look almost perfectly, as well as the mannerisms during performances. It is an astounding performance that has to be astounding for the movie to work at all. Everyone else is fine. They are perfectly good, but this is Malek’s movie. The only other person who stands out is Mike Myers, who in a bit of stunt casting plays a studio executive that hates Bohemian Rhapsody.

That stunt casting hits on one of the flaws of the movie. Not that Myers is bad, it is in fact great to see him again. But the movie does a lot of little stunt bits. They vary from mildly amusing, like Myers, to frustrating, like the weird focus the movie uses during a hackneyed media appearance meltdown. The movie is just full of these little bits that mostly serve to change the tone for a few minutes in weird ways and distract from the story being told.

That story is another problem, mostly because the movie changes fact to fit a very tired rock and roll story arc. A big part of the last act is the band breaking up, something that never really happened. In the movie they get back together to perform at Live Aid, even though they had really spent most of the year before on a world tour. I will give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt that the framing of Freddie’s sexuality as the root of his problems, that he lost his way by leaving his heterosexual relationship, was an inadvertent implication during the rote rise and fall story they wanted tell. I think part of the problem is focusing on Mercury’s personal life while also trying to keep things PG-13, so the movie has to show what is going on by implication, but it is not very careful about what implications it is giving rise to. I realize the struggle that any biopic has in telling the story within the time allotted, but the telling here feels really sloppy.

What the movie does well, though, is the music. The movie shines when it is showing Queen being Queen; when they are performing or creating music. That is the good stuff, and it feels unfortunately underserved. There could and should have been more of the how they made their music. The movie does have the good sense to end with an extended recreation of Queen’s Live Aid performance, which is enthralling. The making of Bohemian Rhapsody is likewise very entertaining.

That is the problem with Bohemian Rhapsody; quite a few of the pieces are excellent, but the whole is less than satisfying. It stumbles whenever it isn’t directly focusing on the music, which is what everyone came to see. I can’t really recommend anyone go see this, but I wouldn’t discourage anyone either.

**1/2