2 ½ (out of 4)
Steve McQueen requires no introduction. The man can lay claim to the most heartrending and meritorious Best Picture winner of the decade and his abbreviated filmography has thus far been spotless. After a few years toiling away at HBO, McQueen returns to cinema with his dramatic heist film Widows, doubtless his most accessible release yet.
On paper the film appears to be an unmistakable masterwork in the making and an effortless triumph for McQueen. Apart from plenty of prestige and the pertinent subjects of female empowerment and political cynicism, the cast of Widows is a distinguished list of players. Just with Viola Davis in the lead – which is to not mention Elizabeth Debicki, Robert Duvall, Colin Farrell, Daniel Kaluuya, Liam Neeson, Michelle Rodriguez and Jacki Weaver supporting – this appeared, from afar, to be not only a shoo-in for Academy buzz but destined for the higher honor of copious praise among the year's finest. Disappointment can be as hard to shake as exaggerated expectations following such as monumental career, yet Widows, for all its relative inadequacies, is one of the stronger releases in a very weak holiday lineup.
You want to love it – the premise compels curiosity, the direction is fully realized and the performances are more than serviceable. But it's difficult to deny how disenchanting Widows ultimately is. Hunger, Shame and, most decisively, 12 Years a Slave were all stories bearing urgency and purpose in their telling – the formal integrity merely sealed their potency. Widows too is forged with cinematic intelligence on behalf of McQueen's direction but Gillian Flynn’s story, based on a 1983 British television series, can’t escape the framework of a soap opera or a sleazy paperback. No matter how fetching the feminine heist concept or how passionate the acting, the twists, buildup and even the memorable encounters with Daniel Kaluuya are stilted at minimum, and the climax is frustratingly scant. As a comeback following a try at TV, Widows is superficial enough enough to say it'd be better suited for the small screen like its derivation.
But as much as critiques come faster when the maker's résumé is most laudable, when the film works it crackles like I dearly hoped it would. Davis and everyone behind her put forth fortitude and McQueen makes the most of the film’s terse bursts of action. It's best moments may not quite compensate for its substantial weaknesses but Widows earns a positive reaction by the skin of its teeth and the preeminence of its credentials.
2 (out of 4)
Joel Edgerton the director is an anomaly – he's often typecast as a villain in other projects and he does the same thing to himself. With a penchant for inserting antagonistic self-directed performances, The Gift and now Boy Erased are afforded a strange subtext that lends each of his films a disservice. The former was a solid psychological thriller stifled by Edgerton's own farfetched writing and distracting casting. In Boy Erased, the director has his hands some fresh Oscar bait subject matter and a new deranged loony to inhabit – this time instead of an avenging nerd weirdo we have a hyper-Catholic gay conversion therapist.
The main problem is there's nothing subtle about Edgerton’s presence or performance, and as the main extension of the movie's moral conflict there's nothing understated about the film either. Boy Erased is a thinly veiled hate letter to far right conservichristians who despise the LGBTQ+ community. While Edgerton’s performance is strained, Lucas Hedges' lead performance is the film’s only exceptional asset. Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe, as the insensitive parents, are like amateur stage actors next to Hedges straitlaced verisimilitude – they're own attempt at nuance is almost equal to Edgerton's hamminess, especially Crowe.
The film’s sensory output is one of perpetual gloom doused in teal and grey and as we're lulled into dreariness. Moments meant to shock or apply emotion are irregular in their effectiveness. The film's internal text – plainly used in order to let liberals applaud themselves for identifying the obvious villainy behind blatant emotional trauma – is far from terribly refined. But despite the easy footing on this moral high ground, Edgerton is still able to present the familial and internal struggles of this topic with exposé-like docudrama.
But if you're not into the political topic flavor of the month – or just one of those people who doesn't carve out time to see a scene of anal rape – Boy Erased, much like the superior social issue movie Beautiful Boy, is poised to flounder in reference to Academy attention. A distaste for Catholicism may suffice to not automatically say "skip!"; or maybe even that's not enough.
1 ½ (out of 4)
Claire Foy is having an exemplary breakout year and a leading role in a film as mediocre as The Girl in the Spider’s Web can’t hamper the momentum of her ascending career. She was the phenomenal face of Steven Soderbergh's Unsane – perhaps the most underrated movie of the year – and Foy is likely to lock down a Best Supporting Actress nomination for First Man.
As the newest Lisbeth Salander, Foy is suitable enough as the hot topic hacker but she doesn't possess the right shade of brooding, fragile vigor embodied by Noomi Rapace or Rooney Mara. Still she manages to considerably enhance the material with her capable presence in spite of a flimsy accent. Miscasting is the least of the problems with Spider’s Web – the faithful Swedish adaptations of Stieg Larsson’s beloved trilogy as well as David Fincher’s robust American remake all offer unquestionably superior adult escapism. If the latest film seems like an off-brand reboot, it's because the substandard incarnation stems from books written by David Lagercrantz, Larsson’s successor to the Millennium series following his death in 2004.
While director Fede Álvarez rightfully made 2016's Don’t Breathe an enjoyable horror hit after initiating his career with a Sam Raimi-approved Evil Dead redo, his inky, icy touch isn’t enough to either improve a deficient script he helped pen or give Lisbeth back her established infamy. To be fair, even Fincher’s meticulous murkiness couldn’t redeem the trite tangle of Spider’s Web, which takes everything annoyingly implausible about Jason Bourne movies twice as serious. There are a few neat sequences in the first act but once Salander's story is wrapped up with Lakeith Stanfield’s overly gifted NSA agent, a targeted youngster (Christopher Convery) comically forced into her care and a long lost sister slash cartoon villain played by Sylvia Hoeks (Luv of Blade Runner 2049), the plotting becomes plodding.
The emotional pivots of the film are as flaccid and formulaic as they are in something like the average James Bond movie. Spider’s Web pedestrian script chooses to forgo the mystery element of the series in order to posit itself as a fashionably clichéd action movie just violent enough to bear an R rating, convoluted enough to qualify as mature and packed with enough tepid confrontations and spyware to call it a thriller. This Girl's worst sin is it stretches a meager 43 million dollar budget into blockbuster bucks, actively assisting audience boredom by amping up what should be mostly macabre and enigmatic. Ironically every attempt to inject excitement into this misguided bit of brand burnishing is another compounding instance of disinterest within a guessable narrative.
1 ½ (out of 4)
With Tchaikovsky’s rapturously iconic ballet and a story as simple and surreal as E.T.A. Hoffmann's enduring 1816 fable at your disposal – not to mention 120 million dollars – how did Disney's spin on a Christmas classic turn out as pitifully deficient as The Nutcracker and the Four Realms?
Since, as a rule, invented sequels to popular lore are always inferior to their inspirations (how I hate to recall Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland), the abundantly affluent studio has warped dreamlike source material into a dull and diluted fantasy adventure. Disney is extremely practiced at shaping digestible and predictable family-friendly fare but the proclivity for pressing their stamp on established fiction could use some restraint in general, and especially here. You don't need to see the names of two directors in the credits – Lasse Hallström primarily and Joe Johnston for reshoots – to realize this Nutcracker was produced not by creative impetus but rather to cash in on the ballet's lasting onstage popularity.
Every character is an indistinct caricature. Morgan Freeman as Drosselmeyer, Kiera Knightly as the Sugar Plum Fairy nor Mackensie Foy as the central figure Clara cannot redeem celestially callous filmmaking. Acting was less the principal reason I entered a tyke-teeming theater than it was for Tchaikovsky's orchestral music. The movements alone are dazzlingly, resplendently expressive as Disney themselves proved in one of their greatest achievements Fantasia. At first some of the most famous sonic passages are present before getting misplaced within plot-heavy rubbish, when dancing could have told the story far better than neophyte Ashleigh Powell's script. James Newton Howard's accompanying score is forced to make up for the multiple movie moments Disney felt couldn't be harmonically sustained by the Russian composer's work – skilled as Howard is, his adjacent symphonic measures are meager next to Tchaikovsky’s innumerable timeless melodies.
In discounting unrestricted access to a wellspring of beautiful music and storytelling, Disney moreover squanders the opportunity to produce a potentially definitive screen version of The Nutcracker. The 1986 Maurice Sendak-assisted attempt did the ballet best and the Japanese 1979 stop motion feature exercised real narrative invention – neither are exactly exemplary but the Mouse King had boundless resources and wasted most of them. Although this Nutcracker's sheer production value is exorbitant, the fantastical factors are implemented without awe or splendor. Disney's substantial monetary exertion only accentuates the degree of wasted effort spent on a most prosaic adaptation.
2 (out of 4)
After eight tumultuous years in production, the arrival of Bohemian Rhapsody is hardly the momentous occasion for the music biopic genre one might expect from transcribing the extravagant life of Freddie Mercury to the screen. Succeeding only in staging the influential British rock band's most recognizable tracks with lifelike stand-ins and lively camerawork, the film is little more than a shot of nostalgia for baby boomers and Queen 101 for young punters.
Bohemian Rhapsody is manufactured to pander to those with scarcely an iota of familiarity with pop culture, which is to say anyone. But for music savants craving some scrutiny regarding Mercury's distinctive genius (as the film isn't really concerned with Queen at large), the pang of paucity will be poignant due to the paltry, bullet-pointed and undeveloped scripting. Writer Anthony McCarten's screenplay is dominantly comprised of obvious references and historical simplifications – Queen's speedy rise to international domination from 1970 to 1985 is awkwardly crammed into a three-act script simulator. McCarten is contented to appeal to plebeian emotions and convert facts to fantasy, not unlike his other feathery and shamelessly sentimental English biopics The Theory of Everything and Darkest Hour.
However, the sloppy editing and shoestring narrative impetus can be chiefly blamed on Bryan Singer, who was fired as director late last year after rumors of showing up late to work and clashing with the film crew, especially lead Rami Malek. Singer's name has already been clouded by multiple accusations of child sexual abuse but he deserves derision for taking full credit for two-thirds the filmmaking labor and exhibiting less than half the stylistic commitment of even his worst X-Men film. Replacement director Dexter Fletcher has not been awarded recognition as per the rules of the Directors Guild of America.
Malek on the other hand is so much better than anyone dearly wishing for the Sacha Baron Cohen version could have hoped for. His prosthetic British chompers are downright distracting in the first act but by the time the clean cut and mustache are in play, Malek operates smoothly as a convincing imitator of Mercury’s signature theatrical flamboyance. His acting alone, while exaggerated even for Mercury, salvages the film altogether. The supporting cast is also admirable – Gwilym Lee as lead guitarist Brian May, Ben Hardy as drummer Roger Taylor and Joseph Modello as bassist John Deacon are all just as plausible aside Malek's extraordinary performance. The real life Taylor and May were consulted during production and were the most outspoken against Cohen's casting. Their input seems negligible though, as Bohemian Rhapsody's narrative abbreviates the band's history and the muffled PG-13 rating eschews the reality of rock and roll – sex, drugs and foul mouths.
Failing to live up to the traditional standards of Straight Outta Compton, Get On Up and Walk the Line or even make an attempt at the experimental, poetic contemplation of I'm Not There or Love & Mercy, Bohemian Rhapsody is a safe and featureless portrait of a fearless and unforgettable performer. Still, the swimmingly climactic rendition of Queen's celebrated Live Aid concert and Malek's soulful caricature save the film from total tedium – easy come, easy go.
To keep it brief...
Soon to Come:
so many briefings
The Absolute State
of /tv/: Film on 4chan