Transplanting a British miniseries to modern day Chicago centering on a quarter of women completing a heist started by their late husbands, Steve McQueen’s mystery/drama Widows (A) is juicy, layered, intense and phenomenal. Buoyed by an excellent Viola Davis as the central protagonist (her late husband is inspired casting: Liam Neeson) and boasting an across the board fabulous ensemble, the film roars with thrilling intensity while always keeping the characters grounded in reality. McQueen organically laces into his vigilante milieu themes of racial and gender inequality and empowerment, cycles of crime and violence and the tenuous ecosystem of gangland and political turf. The film is ultimately a fugue on who’s playing one another in an elaborate urban powder-keg, with subtle shifts and surprises keeping viewers on the edge of their seats. Despite topicality, it’s extremely entertaining. Kudos to Elizabeth Debicki, who shape shifts in a complex emotional role as an abused woman discovering her power, and Daniel Kaluuya who plays against type as a cold-blooded criminal. Robert Duvall and Colin Ferrell are also superb as a father-son political dynasty brokering alliances in a corrupt neighborhood. The film is not for the faint of heart and doesn’t pull back from showing the evil that men do. Expect to see Viola Davis honored for characteristically superb work – she’s daring, direct and dramatically controlled – and it would be wonderful if McQueen’s thoughtful female-led thriller catches fire at the box office and awards season.
Note: This film will be available in wide release theatrically November 16, 2018.
This is the gripping “found movie” for a perpetually plugged-in world. In Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching (B+), the protagonist father portrayed wonderfully by John Cho often contemplates sessions further down the web’s wormhole while resisting the notion to simply shut down. Grounding this mystery thriller, Cho’s desktop pop ups the ante – online, engaged and amplified – and embarks on an emotional arch of triumphant connection over isolation. The propulsive plot about the disappearance of his daughter grants viewers a tense window into his soul and mindset, while the film’s action takes place largely in the virtual environment of computer and surveillance screens. It’s the Who Framed Roger Rabbit of social media tropes: humans mixing with fetching FaceTimes, charming chatbots, brilliant browsers and suspenseful streams. Among the emojified denizens and avatars, you almost suspect a cameo from an animated paperclip! Chaganty’s inventive high-tech hub is ideal for clue reveals stashed in the cache: flashbacks by archived selfie confessionals, public actions by viral video and forensic breadcrumbs dotting the underbelly of the social graph. The realistic interfaces are sturdy supporting performers, as is Debra Messing playing nicely against type as a hard-driving detective. While the film’s procedural formula doesn’t always measure up to its creative format, the #SearchingMovie is well worth discovery.
This is one of those declassified historical true stories like Argo that’s stranger than fiction and eerily prescient in its parallels to events of today. Pop cultural and historical provocateur Spike Lee’s brilliant 1970’s-set biopic BlacKkKlansman (A-) is an absorbing and gripping instant classic, the best non-documentary “joint” the writer/director has made in nearly two decades. The film’s success rides largely on John David Washington and Adam Driver, playing real-life undercover cops who mastermind and manifest a fascinating infiltration of white supremacists. Washington is charismatic and determined in his performance as Ron Stallworth, the first African-American detective to serve in the Colorado Springs Police Department, determined to make a name for himself. Laura Harrier is sensational as a civil rights activist, and Topher Grace is amazing in a career trajectory redefining role as David Duke. The filmmaker is acutely aware of the power of cinema to change perceptions and dots the movie with bygone celluloid images and contemporary references that put his work in a march toward progress in representation. Aside from lensing a few moments that seem superfluous to the central themes, Lee has crafted a tight and taut thriller. He provides powerful point/counterpoint sequences weaving subversive themes and an unexpected premise into great storytelling.
Ari Aster’s suspense drama Hereditary (B+) is a stunner, upending many expectations of typical horror movies for something even more raw: delving into the experience of losing loved ones, exploring compartmentalization of pain and unearthing abnormalities lurking in one’s family tree. The film deserves comparisons with The Shining and The Exorcist and showcases a master performance by Toni Collette as the troubled mother of two (Milly Shapiro and Alex Wolff, really effective). Gabriel Byrne is ho-hum as the family dad (someone needed to be the straight man, I suppose), and Ann Dowd is superb as a neighbor in grief. The film is a slow-burn downer of the first order but splendidly cinematic, and it builds to quite a crescendo. The production values, from art direction to music, build a brooding mood. The film relies heavily on Collette to sell some far-fetched sequences of spiritualism and to take her character way out on a limb. She delivers in spades. From the first moments set in miniature dollhouses to an epic denouement, the film gets bigger in its ambitions. Fans of the original Friday the 13th may even find echoes in its origin story. This is recommended for aficionados of great drama, and I hope horror fans will like it too.
Have you heard? A popular new film genuinely nails how fiercely parents will fight for the safety of their offspring. And the fact that the ultimate fight is staged in near-silence brings great power and resonance to the proceedings. John Krasinski directs, co-writes and stars in A Quiet Place (A), a taut and surprisingly tender thriller following a family who must live life in silence while hiding from creatures that hunt by sound. In career best performances, he and Emily Blunt are astonishingly effective as the protective parents, and the child actors are good too in a world they make very believable. There’s an urgency and economy to every sequence, whether horrific or heartfelt, and a lean logic to the film’s dystopian, supernatural milieu. It’s a rare mainstream movie of undeniable craft and nonstop upping of the ante, especially with the built-in limits about how sound is muted or conserved for much of the film’s breakneck duration. The filmmakers get very creative with ways for the characters to communicate, from sign language to subtitles to knowing glances. There are also psychological underpinnings that elevate the movie to master status. It’s a great cinematic offering with scares and heart whether you generally like horror films or not.
Written and directed by Terrence Malick protégé Trey Edward Shults, It Comes at Night (B+) is a superb psychological horror film that wrings generous art house thrills out of a straightforward apocalyptic premise. A couple and their son (Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo and Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) have secluded themselves in a country home as a contagious disease plagues the outside world, and they are faced with a cat and mouse dilemma when visited by another couple and their son (Christopher Abbott, Riley Keough and Griffin Robert Faulkner) who may or may not be safe or worth harboring. Edgerton and Abbott are fabulous foils, one the rule-abiding master of an elaborate isolated house and the other the scallywag with a backstory. The casting is creative and unexpected: Abbott is wonderful, and the acting is great all around. Shults makes the most of a fairly low-budget bare-bones production space to stage his wicked one-upmanship. He is imaginative in what he doesn’t show the audience and teases with darkness as an effective canvas for scares in the first act before introducing a more conventional narrative. Hardcore horror fans may be let down by the lack of gore and by the calculated pace, but this summer film-goer was delighted at the effective storytelling on display.
Regaining his strut as a writer/director of modern-day suspense films, M. Night Shyamalan has crafted an entertaining psychological thriller and met an acting match for his cinematic chutzpah in James McAvoy headlining Split (B). The film is above all else a showcase for the considerable acting talents of McAvoy as a man with 23 discrete personalities (Dennis, Patricia, Barry and Hedwig among the most notable). McAvoy uses some pretty sly ticks and tricks to bring brilliant life to his menagerie of characters. What starts as an abduction and escape room type movie in the vein of the recent 10 Cloverfield Lane becomes a more labyrinthine glimpse into a shattered mind. The female protagonist played by Anya Taylor-Joy helps anchor the film gracefully; she’s a perceptive outsider bent on cracking the code of the man holding her captive with two other teens. It’s also a hoot to see a late-career Betty Buckley in fine form clearly relishing a role as a therapist specializing in split personality disorders. The two other abducted teens played by Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula aren’t quite as indelible in the face of other sharp characterizations. The film is mesmerizing at times and taut throughout until the end, when it limps a bit to the finish line. Like his clear antecedent auteurs Hitchcock and De Palma, Shyamalan has created a twisty tale full of engaging mental machinations. It lacks the visual urgency to match its lead performances and can’t quite sustain the mental sharpness of its moving pieces. But for horror fans who like a PG-13 level basket of scares, it’s a gangbusters gateway drug to the genre and a corker of a story.
Haunted characters inevitably return to the scene of the crime, and in Tom Ford’s stunningly realized neo-noir Nocturnal Animals (B+), its principals traverse a tragic, twisty journey to discover the inescapable character traits vexing them through adult life. Ford photographs both a posh Los Angeles modern day story and a Texas-set film-within-the-film with an almost dreamlike clarity. The actors radiate an arch intensity in flashbacks and flash-forwards over a blissfully dense old-Hollywood Abel Korzeniowski score. This amped-up storytelling style benefits shape-shifting Amy Adams as a wealthy but lonely art curator a bit more than intense-in-any-role Jake Gyllenhaal as a novelist and star of his own shattered American pastoral. Shining in more straightforward supporting performances are Michael Shannon as a plainspoken Texas detective, Aaron Tayor-Johnson as a wild-tempered roadside ruffian and a nearly unrecognizable Laura Linney as a headstrong matriarch. Packing a punch within a puzzle, Ford’s tone poem is part romance, part revenge thriller, part requiem for one’s soul; and it’s consistently absorbing and affecting. In the tradition of Mulholland Drive, In the Bedroom and Fargo, it’s a film for those who love the form. The curious finale is sure to spark conversations among cinephiles.
Justin Kelly’s King Cobra (D+) is a mystery thriller with little mystery or thrills. Set in 2006 as YouTube was coming of age, the film purports to bring a Boogie Nights type allure to the goings-on behind the firewall of an adult film industry in transition. Newcomer Garrett Clayton plays a fresh faced Californian who gets swept up into the porn industry by a closeted amateur producer who makes movies out of his innocuous suburban home, played by Christian Slater. Meanwhile, James Franco and Keegan Allen play rival provocateurs who seem to be acting in a completely different movie universe, like Magenta and Columbia with a death wish. Kelly clearly believes his work is sexier and edgier than it turns out to be. Aside from Slater’s occasionally unhinged performance, there’s very little worth watching here. Fans of Clayton, who is featured in NBC’s Hairspray Live, will get the eye candy they seek but little substance.
Tate Taylor’s The Girl on the Train (C-) knocks off the time-hopping narrative structure of Memento – with alcoholism and blackouts replacing the novelty of constant short term memory loss. And although this new novel-to-screen adaptation has the occasional promise of another recent adult thriller done well, The Gift, it’s more akin to the ham-fisted Gone Girl with greater pulp than pulse. As the title character, Emily Blunt channels a wild-eyed love child of Fiona Apple and Gollum (not her best work!), and she’s still the most memorable of the female characters (the other primary actresses also underserved by this script are Haley Bennett and Rebecca Ferguson). Blunt’s character starts off as simply a voyeur to the adulterous follies in a commuter train adjacent neighborhood until she asserts herself as a locomotive-riding Nancy Drew. It’s a long slog through some predictable twists and turns ahead. The actors – Justin Theroux, Édgar Ramírez and Luke Evans – are also all bluster. Taylor has very few cinematic tricks up his sleeve. He’s like the substitute teacher of suspense directors. Rent the greatest hits of Hitchcock, De Palma or Fincher for something more edge of your seat.
David Mackenzie crafts his neo-Western Hell or High Water (A) with such methodical pace that he disguises how urgent a work it is for modern times. Yes, on the surface it’s a heist thriller about sworn “Comanches,” or enemies: a pair of bank robbers versus a duo of rangers facing off on stark Texas terrain. But a deeper viewing of the film finds a dramatic, elegiac tale about brothers surviving a cycle of poverty and abuse, about lawmen making a last stand to protect a land and a way of life and about a community coping in the shadow of institutional greed. There’s a sense everyone is playing their assigned role in a Western, down to the cowboys and Indians, but the pop psychology behind the characters is very much grounded in America after the devastation of recession, payday loans and foreclosures. Everyone is wounded in this unconventional oater that eschews constant shoot-em-up in lieu of rich character development. Chris Pine and Ben Foster are superb as the sibling protagonists, with Pine delivering the best work of his career to date as a man conflicted between duty to family and revenge against the bank that wrecked havoc on his homestead. Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham, playing a character of Native American and Hispanic descent, are also wonderful as the rangers. Bridges can add his colorful role to a series of late-career triumphs. It’s telling that the bank is ostensibly the real enemy in the film, but it is populated by low-level bureaucrats who seem unaware or indifferent to their effect on Main Street USA. Giles Nuttgens’ lived-in outdoor cinematography and Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ plaintive score bring additional gravitas to the proceedings. There’s action too, but this movie is best in the quiet reflective moments that speak volumes about pockets of the country left behind in the march toward progress.
Painfully predictable and uninspired, Jodie Foster’s Money Monster (D) begins with George Clooney on a toilet and essentially spirals downward from there. When Jack O’Connell’s gunman character holds the silver fox TV personality hostage on-air, it’s up to mild-mannered protagonist Julia Roberts in the production booth to help save the day. Tedium ensues. The theme that the stock market is corrupt is labored at best; and the acting from the central trio is quite disappointing. Foster fails at sustaining tension, seemingly rather oblivious to how obvious it all is. The film doesn’t take time to understand its characters or to have viewers delight in knowing them. Not one shot, not one set-up, not one line of dialogue, was interesting in the least. Despite the promise of an adult drama about the societal underpinnings of an investment community devoid of a moral compass, the film is pretty much what cashing a paycheck looks like. Instead of slaying the beast of Wall Street, the collaborators have created a banquet of bull that is difficult to bear. This formula has been executed many times much better.