Knives Out

This is likely the best movie I’ve seen this year. A mystery like this is almost perfectly calibrated to for me to like, even if the execution is merely competent. (See 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express.) Luckily, Rian Johnson’s Knives Out is more than just competent: it is outstanding. Knives Out isn’t quite the classic “whodunit,” as the killer is revealed pretty early, but it is a wonderful, twisting mystery that fully satisfies.

Harlan Thrombley, a wealthy mystery novelist, dies after his 85th birthday party. His entire family was there, as was his nurse. The evidence suggests a suicide, but when a pair of cops show up after the funeral to ask a few questions, they have famous private investigator Benoit Blanc with them, and he suspects foul play. Blanc and the officers proceed to question all the family members present.

That family is a classic array of mystery suspects. The first is Jamie Lee Curtis as Harlan’s daughter Linda. She is a proud and haughty real estate mogul, who seems to get along with her dad. Then they question her husband, Richard, played by Don Johnson, who had argued with Harlan before the party. There is Michael Shannon’s Walt Thrombley, Harlan’s youngest son who runs Harlan’s publishing company. He also argued with Harlan that night. There is Joni, played by Toni Collette, the widow of Harlan’s other son who is reliant on Harlan for financial support. Then there is the next generation of Thrombleys, alt-right dweeby teenager Jacob, performatively liberal college student Meg and family black sheep Ransom, played by Chris Evans. Ransom is not present, but the others have bits to contribute to the case. Finally, there is Harlan’s young nurse, Marta, played by Ana de Armas. She was the last person to see Harlan alive, as they played Go in his attic office before leaving for the night. She also has the unfortunate personal tic of vomiting when she lies. Taking everyone’s self-serving testimony, Blanc has to put together what happened that night and find out who is responsible for Harlan’s death.

It is a star studded cast. I haven’t even mentioned that Daniel Craig play Blanc, employing a delightfully overdone southern accent as he drops tortured bits of wisdom. Or Lakeith Stanfield as the lead cop on the case. Ana de Armas is the star of the movie though. She impressed in Blade Runner 2049, but she is even better here. Her Marta is pressed into service as something of a Watson to Blanc’s Sherlock Holmes. Her unavoidable honesty, and the fact that she has nothing to gain by Harlan’s death, makes her the person he can rely on while investigating.

To the shock of nobody, not everything is as it seems. Everybody is hiding something, even Blanc himself. The movie is light on its feet and wonderful to look at. It keeps flipping the viewer’s understanding and expectations. The one thing that is constant is that the Thrombleys are terrible. They are not equally terrible, or terrible in the same way, but they are all terrible. From Joni’s apparently good hearted but still thoughtless – she gets one of the early big laughs by noting that she knows Blanc from reading a tweet about a New Yorker article about him – actions to Richard’s overt, presumptive and unearned sense of superiority they all suck. When Ransom shows up, you really want to believe he is not as bad as you’ve been led to believe. Sure, he’s the black sheep, but the family sucks and Chris Evans is charming. But in the end he is another Thrombley.

The movie is just purely entertaining from start to finish. I loved every second of it. Rian Johnson has quickly become one of my favorite directors. From this to The Brothers Bloom to The Last Jedi, every movie I’ve seen of his has been both thoughtful and entertaining. With him being signed on for a trilogy of Star Wars movies, I hope he has time for diversions like this in the years to come.

*****

Parasite Review

Believe the hype, I guess. Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite is the masterpiece it has been called.

Kim Ki-taek lives with his family, wife Chung-Sook and children Ki-woo and Ki-jung, in a part basement apartment. Largely unemployed, they work part-time folding cardboard boxes for a local pizza restaurant. Thanks to the recommendation of a family friend, Ki-woo gets a job as a tutor for the daughter of a rich family, the Parks. After overhearing the rich mother talking about needing an art teacher for her son, he suggests a friend of his, Jessica. There is no Jessica, instead his sister Ki-jung poses as an art tutor, and art therapist, to get a job with the family. Soon, all four family members are working for the Park family. That is when things really get weird.

Parasite sets up a poor versus rich parable. It puts you on the side of the poor family, as they work whatever menial jobs they can get, as they huddle around their elevated toilet to snag the wifi signal from a nearby cafe, and as they leave their windows open as exterminators spray the streets to get rid of the bugs infesting their hovel. The literally live below ground, in a semi-basement. You see how little they have.

That is contrasted with the Park family, with their elegant, elevated townhouse. That family is so well off that they are essentially inventing problems to solve. While the movie puts the viewer in the corner of the Kims, it does not demonize their victims. The Parks are oblivious and careless, not vicious. The father’s seem to get along when Ki-taek is driving, but at home it is clear that Mr. Park does care at all for his driver. Ki-woo and his pupil Da-hye have a romance, but when the Parks throw a party and he looks out over the rich, well dressed guests and wonders aloud if he fits in, she clearly has never even considered the question. The Parks are not evil, they are simply unable to see outside of their own sphere. They never look below them.

Parasite does an amazing job of juggling tones. In my admittedly limited experience, Korean movies tend to be elastic with tones and it can be disorienting. Bong Joon-Ho’s previous movie, Okja, did this as well. Parasite managed to vary tones while keeping a feeling of consistency. It is often very funny. It is also frequently tragic, or poignant. It is sometimes scary. The movie jumps from one to the other with amazing deftness, flipping from hilarious to sad and back again in a few seconds.

I am trying not to spoil much of what actually happens in the movie, but Parasite is easily one of the best movies of the year. It starts as one thing, a simple sort of heist movie, then morphs into something else about midway and never looks back. It is stunning.

*****

Once Upon a Time . . . In Hollywood

Every new Quentin Tarantino movie is an event. His reputation has taken something of a hit over the last year or two, but none of that has anything to do with the quality of his films. Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood is simultaneously something of a culmination of all of his previous movies and a departure from them. For the bulk of its nearly three hour run-time, it eschews the violence that tends to permeate Tarantino’s work, as well as his distinctive dialogue rhythms. It still feels very much like a Tarantino movie. (By the way, I am going to end I am going to include a ranking because everyone loves rankings.) Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood is somewhat difficult movie to explain, but it is certainly a movie worth watching.

This movie is a pure hangout movie; a movie you just want to put on to hang out in the world and with the characters. Many Tarantino movies are hangout movies to some extent, but none are so thoroughly as Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood. It seems almost plotless, though that isn’t really accurate the movie does feature a lot of its stars just going about their business. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton takes a meeting with an oily producer, played by Al Pacino, then works a day on the set of a western TV show. Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth drives Rick around and fixes his antenna. He also picks up a hitchhiker who leads him on an adventure to Spahn Ranch, where he comes face to face with the Manson Family. Then there is a thread of Sharon Tate, played by Margot Robbie, who goes about her business, doing a little shopping and, in one of the standout sequences of the movie, sitting anonymous in a theater taking in the audience reactions to recent movie she was in.

It is also a movie about Hollywood mythmaking. Aside from the real actors portrayed in the film, there are its two leads: former TV cowboy Rick Dalton whose transition from TV to movies failed and he is scared he is on his way out of the industry, as well as his stunt double and gopher Cliff Booth. Most of the action is handled by Booth, while Dalton is something of a mess. Dalton’s primary concern seems to be his personal myth. He is concerned about what playing the villain of the week on various TV shows will do to his leading man credibility and the public’s perception of him and his most famous character Jake Cahill. He knows losing fake fights makes him seem like less of a tough guy. It is all about managing how he is perceived. Cliff, for all that he is the doer of the pair, has his own concerns with perception. While Rick’s star might be fading, Cliff is basically unemployable because of his reputation. There are rumors that he killed his wife, and the movie deliberately leaves the truth of those rumors ambiguous. He also remembers getting fired off of the set of The Green Hornet after fighting with Bruce Lee. While the event occurred, the truth of Booth’s recollection is suspect. Then there are the movie’s run ins with actual historical figures. Sharon Tate gets the bulk of the screen time, but others appear as well. Other than the ending, the scene that most plays into the overt mythmaking nature of the film is when Robbie as Tate is in the theater watching actual Sharon Tate on screen in The Wrecking Crew. It puts the artificiality of it all in the viewers face. This, however, is a movie that revels in that artificiality. What is important isn’t what actually happened, but having fun imagining your version. Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton didn’t appear in The Great Escape, Steve McQueen did. And not Damian Lewis as Steve McQueen, actual Steve McQueen. Hollywood is a place where you can make whatever story you want happen, so why shouldn’t a movie do that. It feels like what Tarantino has been playing with in his last four or so movies, at least.

Saying more feels like it would spoiling the events of the movie. This isn’t really a movie that depends on being unspoiled, but I am tempted to run down a list of my favorite scenes rather than reviewing it. I guess I’ll finish by saying the movie has a very good dog and Pitt and DiCaprio are charming.

*****

Rankings

9. Death Proof

8. Reservoir Dogs

7. Django Unchained

6. Pulp Fiction

5. The Hateful Eight

4. Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2

3. Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood

2. Jackie Brown

1. Inglourious Basterds

Booksmart

I finally got the chance to see Booksmart a few days ago and I’m glad I did because it is now my favorite movie of the year so far. It is the latest high school coming of age movie, this time focusing on two young women rather than the usual young men as they

The comparison I’ve seen made a lot is between Booksmart and Superbad. It is in some ways apt, as they both deal in large part with similar themes. Both follow two life-long friends on an attempt to get to a party at the tail end of their time in high school. While the macro view might make the two movies seem very similar, they are very different on the micro level. They certainly don’t feel the same. I would also argue that Booksmart is much more ambitious in its plotting and its filmmaking than Superbad ever even thought of being.

The move rests on the charisma and chemistry between the stars, Beanie Feldstein as the driven Molly and Kaitlyn Dever as the more withdrawn Amy. They are perfect. The rest of the cast is solid as well, with excellent pinch hitting performances from Lisa Kudrow, Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte and Jessica Williams and some great stuff from other students, especially Skyler Gisondo and Billie Lourd.

Booksmart does feature a lot of tropes familiar to this sort of movie, but it kind of back burners them to the more personal drama between the two friends. Both friends have partners that they would like to hook up with, but that is clear secondary desire to their other goals. A lot of the movie is more about the personal journeys of Molly and Amy.

Booksmart is also a remarkably empathetic movie. While characters are shown being cruel, it is generally out of the thoughtlessness and not malice. It is movie that emphasizes consideration of other people’s situation. This is true of nearly every character in the movie. Molly starts the movie as more than a little judgmental, and the film makes it clear that this is out of fear. She is preemptively rejecting people before they reject her. Which causes them to reject her. The movie doesn’t make a villain out of anybody. The kids who are mean to Molly are only doing so because she is almost deliberately abrasive. That doesn’t make them right, but it adds context. Even the two teachers that play a role are more than just teachers. The supportive English teacher is shown to make some bad decisions and the struggling principal is really struggling.

It also does a great job of letting the other characters have their stories going on that only briefly intersect with Molly and Amy. The big party they are trying to get to is not the only party going on. It is a big school and not everyone wants that party experience. The theater kids are having their own murder mystery party, with very well developed roles for each guest. The rich kids are having a party on their parent’s yacht. The roles are fluid, people move from one party to another as the night goes on.

The film is also visually inventive. There are a handful of standout scenes. One is kind of a standard drug trip the ends up with the characters imagining themselves as Barbie dolls. Another is a pool scene, where one of the protagonists swims underwater in the midst of a bunch of rambunctious teens.

Booksmart is incredibly smart, empathetic and interesting. It is a movie that creates comedy through its characters, rather than have characters that exist as a vehicle for its comedy, making it much more real and believable. It is equal parts profane and thoughtful. Booksmart is just really, really good.

*****

John Wick Chapter 3 Parabellum

I thought I understood where this third John Wick movie was going. I thought the second movie was this series Empire Strikes Back or Back to the Future 2; a movie where the end leaves the characters kind of stranded, kind of defeated, a low point setting up a triumphant third part of the story. John Wick Chapter 3 – Parabellum is not that triumphant third piece of a trilogy. It is a bigger, messier movie in the series that sends the titular protagonist on a journey through hell, but it is a highly entertaining trek.

Parabellum picks up right where Chapter 2 left off, with John Wick an hour away from being declared excommunicado, running with no safe place to run to. Wick starts this movie desperate, and it never really gets better. First, he has to escape New York. Then he has to find a way to get the contract on him lifted, to get back in the good graces of the High Table, the group that leads the assassin world. To do this, he has to call in all the favors left to him. He has one from The Director, who runs a ballet/wrestling school and has some kind of past with John Wick. She gets him passage to Casablanca, where he meets up with Sofia, cashing in another favor to try to find The Elder, to get him to intervene on his behalf with the High Table.

While Wick fights every assassin in the world, the High Table sends an adjudicator to hand out punishment to everyone who helped Wick along the way, from Winston at the Continental Hotel to the Bowery King to people he encounters in this movie. There are fewer and fewer safe places for John Wick to go.

John Wick does not have the resources available to him in this movie that he had in the past, making the fights rougher and meaner. Lots of knives, lots of hand to hand combat. This is not the carefully planned assassination from the last movie, with John Wick getting outfitted for every contingency. This is a scramble to survive, all the way up to the final action scene.

The movie introduces more allies and/or enemies with history with Wick. The most interesting is Sofia, played by Halle Berry. Sofia is essentially a female John Wick; one who realized she would never get out of the life and did what she could for her family. She shows her similarity to Wick in one of the movies highlight action scenes, right down to her affection for canines. Then there is Zero, an assassin hired by the High Table to help them get revenge on Wick. He too is another master murderer, this one something of a John Wick fan trying to prove himself to the legend by killing the legend. I kind of want to say more about certain developments in this movie, but I really don’t want to spoil it.

John Wick Chapter 3 – Parabellum is amazing in all the ways that its predecessors were amazing. This one tries to go bigger, and I would be lying if I said that path did not lead to some diminishing returns. I don’t fault the movie for it, the previous two basically perfected this sort of balletic violence. What is there left for this chapter but for more and bigger? It mostly works here, while occasionally feeling like too much; like the movie went too big. There are still plenty of memorable fights and letting characters that are not Wick get in more on the action was a good idea. It is everything you could want in an action movie.

I misread where John Wick was on his hero’s journey. I though the last movie ended with him further along, with John Wick at the abyss, ready to start his ascension out of the underworld. With the third chapter, I realized that he has much further to go. After Parabellum, I am eager for more adventures for John Wick and eager to see him find peace.

*****

Shazam! Review

For most people, the DC cinematic universe got started on the wrong foot.  The first two Zack Snyder directed films are controversial to say the least and set a tone that is certainly not to everyone’s taste.  But people seem to be unable to let go of his two and half movies and see what DC has been offering for the last couple of years.  Wonder Woman was one of the best just straightforward superhero movies of the last decade.  Aquaman was a bonkers spectacle that is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen.  Shazam continues DC’s trend of making individual movies that play the strengths of the characters, with the unifying feature the sincerity with which they approach things.  Shazam is a pure delight.

Shazam manages to find a new niche in the super hero movie genre.  It feels like a throwback, like the 80’s Amblin version of a superhero movie.  What came to my mind while watching it was Gremlins. Gremlins is a weirdo family horror movie.  This movie is combines a sincere, even touching drama about foster kids with strange magic secrets and some moments of terrifying horror.  It is a unique mix, but one that absolutely works.

Shazam starts with the young Thaddeus Sivana, bullied by his father and older brother, being magically transported to the realm of the wizard Shazam.  Shazam is old and his power is fading.  He is tested to see if he is worthy of the wizard’s power, but succumbs to the temptations of the seven deadly sins, who are monstrous spirits trapped in statues.  Shazam returns Sivana to his horrible family; Sivana then spends the next thirty or so years trying to get back there to get the power he feels he was wrongly denied.  Eventually he does, and the wizard is too weak to stop him from freeing the sins.  The story then shifts to Billy Batson, a troublesome foster kid who is searching for his birth parents.  Knocked around by the system, he doesn’t trust anybody and constantly finds himself in trouble.  At the start of the movie, he is assigned to a group home as sort of his last chance.  After sticking up for one of his foster siblings, he is transported to the wizard.  The wizard is unsure of Billy’s worthiness, but he is out of options and grants Billy the power to turn into the superhero Shazam.  The distrustful Billy must learn how to be a hero before Sivana finds him and wrests the power away.

Shazam feels like something from the 80’s because it is ostensibly a kids movie, but it still features some horrific stuff that is sure to scare kids.  The scenes of Billy and Freddie testing Billy’s new powers are delightful and sure to please children.  But mixed in with those are some scenes of the villains committing terrible crimes or one particularly graphic death.  They are these weird atonal elements that mostly get ironed out of kids movies these days.  There is also the a few genuinely heartbreaking scenes with Billy attempting to track down his mom.  It is this idiosyncratic mix of tones that makes the movie feel fully fleshed out. It also doesn’t feel like an accident, the movie wants to vary the tone.  And the mix just works.

It helps that it has some genuinely charming performances.  The combination of Zachary Levi and Asher Angel as Billy Batson/Shazam is perfect.  They manage to echo each other, making it easy to believe that they are the same person just with different outside appearances.  Jack Dylan Grazer has a perfect mischievous air about him as Freddie Freeman.  The two of them carry the movie, really feeling like a pair of teenagers that stumbled upon superpowers and are pushing the boundaries and seeing what they can do and get away with.  Shazam perfectly juggles teenage irony with a touching, childlike naivety with these two damaged kids figuring things out as best they can.

The movie does spend a little too long on the final confrontation.  It is a scene that seems to go on too long, and that time feels like it could have been better spent fleshing out Billy’s interior journey just a little more.  Still, that is a small complaint in a movie that is otherwise a delight.

Shazam treats the genuinely strange magical backstory of the mythos with admirable sincerity.  Shazam is a concept from the 40’s and it feels like it.  Most often backstories like this get sanded down in the adaptation process, Shazam leans into it, to great effect.  It is just a genuinely charming movie.

*****

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.

*****

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.

*****

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.

*****

Blindspotting

Blindspotting is powerful. It does an amazing job of balancing a high wire act of presenting a very real world but breaking from that at moments to add to the effect of the movie’s most powerful moments. It might not work for everyone, but I found it to be one of the most enthralling movies I’ve seen this year.

Blindspotting stars Daveed Diggs as Colling and Rafael Casal as Miles, two best friends living in Oakland. Collin was previously convicted of a felony and is nearing the end of his probation. He is trying to avoid any trouble. Meanwhile, Miles is a magnet for trouble, buying an unlicensed gun near the start of the movie and waving it around everywhere. They work together for a moving company. Collin’s former girlfriend works at the counter for that moving company. Miles lives with his girlfriend and their young son. With three days left on his probation, Collin witnesses a cop murder a man. The movie follows him for the next three days as he continues to try to keep his head down and stay out of trouble, despite Miles insistence on drawing as much trouble to himself as possible.

The movie deals deftly with so many issues. There are class issues, with the area where Collin and Miles grew up steadily gentrifying, with the lower class settings of their youth being replaced with more well to do facsimiles. There are now vegan burgers at the fast food place and expensive green juice at the convenience store. The two movers are always seen moving people out, never in. Often they are dealing with the remains of a family home with many affects left abandoned inside. These problems also touch on the movies racial musings. Collin fits in, visually, with the old Oakland because he is a big black guy. Miles works overtime to show that he is ‘street’ because as a white guy he is frequently mistaken for one of new hipsters in town. It is an advantage to him, since he can move in both worlds, but he considers it an insult. That also plays into how Collin ended up in jail; the idea that the world treats these two friends differently based on their race. Blindspotting plays it smart by mostly leaving the cop shooting in the background. It is always there and just like Collin the viewer is always aware of it, but he just has to go about his life regardless of what he saw. It builds, though, throughout until the movie gives viewers one of the most tense scenes I have ever seen.

Where the movie does some of its best work is in showing why the fairly mild Collin sticks with the erratic Miles. The bond between these two childhood friends is something that nearly everyone can relate to. Collin knows both that Miles is likely to get him into trouble and that despite his nonsense Miles is a good guy. Both things are true and while it seems pretty obvious that getting away from Miles is likely the best thing Collin could do, it is is easy to see why he won’t abandon a friend that never abandoned him.

Blindspotting is masterful. Wonderfully written and acted. Everyone should go see it.

*****