Monday, November 19, 2018

Widows: Not What It Appears

Steve McQueen's Widows was not the low-budget dumb heist movie that I thought it was going to be. From the trailers, I thought I was going to see something along the lines of other 2018 female empowerment flops like Proud Mary or Peppermint.

Widows, however, is an extremely intelligent and purpose-driven movie that weaves multiple plot lines into an intricate cat's cradle that finally comes together at the end.

So what's our plot?

At the beginning of the movie, we're introduced to four men in a getaway van, intercut with shots of them interacting with their wives. Within the first five minutes, all four men are dead after the heist goes sour, and the women are left to fend for themselves.

I'm going to interrupt myself right here. Because at this point, within the first 20 minutes of the movie is where it veers away from the usual. I mean, traditionally, this is where a bad movie would have these women saying "I'm mad my husband's dead and I want revenge" and then a rag-tag group of tough girls comes together and becomes besties out of nowhere and kick a bunch of guys in the balls while saying something clever or something. But that's not what happens here.

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"Just to be clear, we're not here to kick guys in the balls."

Surprisingly, it veers off in another direction entirely. We're introduced to two characters, the Manning brothers, one of whom is running for office and the other who is a vicious psychopath ensuring his victory. We're also introduced to a ton of other characters, but the main plot line here is that Veronica (Viola Davis), wife of the head thief (played by Liam Neeson, by the way), owes the Manning brothers the money that was lost in the failed heist. Bringing the other widows together and going off of her late husband's heist plan book, they try to figure out if they can pull off stealing $5 million to settle their debts and live the lives their husbands ruined.

Other plot lines include Manning's political opponent (Colin Farrell) and the idea of political dynasties, Jamette Manning (Daniel Kaluuya) being a psychopath, the lives of all the women, and a couple other things.

Good things: the movie is super interesting in the way it approaches the subject matter. I've had more than one rant about how lazy feminist cinema translates poorly in the theater (I'm looking at you Ghostbusters and Ocean's 8), but this is done with a ton of consideration. It doesn't really state that the women are particularly smart or special--they end up getting shit done because they see no other choice. In going this route, it's really a spectacular example of women's resilience and resourcefulness. Each widow is tasked with doing something that she doesn't know how to do and she figures out a way to get it done. That's cooler than kicking guys in the balls, I'm sorry.

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Bad bitches, suuuuuppp

On that note, this movie takes almost no time to talk about any of the thieves besides Liam Neeson, which is interesting. It takes care not to be a revenge film, and in fact none of the widows really seem that wild about their deceased husbands anyway. One gambles away all their money, one hits his wife, one doesn't seem very attentive -- these are not men that our heroines need, and actually the reason all of them get into the heist is so that they can right the wrongs that their dead husbands dumped on them.

The movie's ending was a pleasant surprised too -- and not in the usual "I NEVER SAW THAT COMING" kind of way, but more of a "Ooooooh, that makes sense... Cool!" kind of way.

And now for the critiques: the movie drags a bit before it finds its feet. I've got to say, I found the first half to be a little disorienting. McQueen is an artist and the movie almost reads like a graphic novel in the beginning, full of little vignettes that explain actions and characters by showing pieces of their days. But frankly, for a heist movie (typically built on withholding details), all of these little vignettes can get a bit overwhelming.

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Was I supposed to remember that? Is that significant? 
Who's that person? Do we need to know them?? 

Though the pay-off at the end makes everything come together neatly in an intricate braid, getting there definitely takes some patience.

7 outa 10. I love McQueen's cinematography and how he transcends the heist genre to make a female-driven movie that's really interesting. Though it might be a little slow for some, and definitely not the film it appears from its trailer!

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Ocean's 8: The Problem with All-Female Casts

HA! Roped you in, didn't I? I bet you were all like "OMG SHE HATES FEMALE CASTS! FAKE NEWS! CLICK BAIT!" Well, I suppose you were sort of right about that last one...but I digress (as usual).

Let me be first to say I am 100% in favor of women-centered movies and casts. Look at masterpieces like Clueless, Bridesmaids, and Girl's Trip. Women's movies don't have to be all kumbaya to be relatable. They can be hilarious, they can be cool, they can be dramatic -- they can be all the things that every other kind of movie can be. But you know what they can't be? Inauthentic.

If you had to give me one word to describe a lot of the recent attempts at all-female cast movies it would be that word: inauthentic.

Honestly, I haven't seen a movie as bad as Ocean's 8 in a really long time. And I'm the girl who sat through Oliver Stone's 1981 horror The Hand (yes, that was terrible too, but far more entertaining).

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Michael Caine plays a cartoonist haunted by his amputated, murderous hand.
Yes, this is the same director that did Wall Street.

To be fair, female relationships are really hard to capture on film in general. Women are weird. We're raised in a society that praises us for being pretty, teaches us to be suspicious of other women, and has a history of pitting us against each other. Manipulation has a tendency to run rampant in inauthentic female friendships. If you don't trust a girl, you can be nice to her face but you won't be her friend -- and most girls can almost always tell the different between being nice and being friends. Maybe that's why girl friendships are so damn special -- and why movies that are supposed to be about us always end up being so fucking shitty.

Ocean's 8 makes a lot of mistakes with its...well, existence, if I'm being frank.

First of all, there's no reason to add to the Ocean saga, so like let's not.

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(I bet he died in a really cool way though...
like Thelma and Louise style with Brad Pitt...)

Second of all, it seems blatantly obvious that they made Ocean's 11, took out like 95% of the emotion driving the heist, made the guys into girls, and tried to swap "cool" for "glam." Or something.

Whatever kind of cool they try to make these women, does not play. Guys may earn the respect of other guys by being cool, but I can't think of many girls I know who respond to "cool." Girls respond to respect. Think about what works so well in Bridesmaids: they attack the pettiness factor dead-on, they're honest about it, and in the end everyone ends up being friends because they respect each other.

Ocean's 8, Ghostbusters, and many other attempts at these female-driven, nonsensical reincarnations completely disregard depth for the chance to "change it up." The plot becomes irrelevant because the fans of the prior version are going to drive to the theater anyway. And the egregious error in disregarding characters and storyline in these movies is that they become painfully boring. I really don't give a shit whose jewels they are -- none of these characters have me believing that they're real because they put out zero emotion for the entire duration of the film. Oh they stole them? Oh cool, I have more emotional involvement in the fact that I ran out of popcorn.

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Ya, it's prob made out of fucking rock candy, who cares.

While Bullock emulates Clooney as best as she can, the context doesn't work. Being betrayed by a former lover that she doesn't even really seem to have liked that much anyway doesn't give us a lot of emotional investment. Worse, it turns her heist into a classic "woman scorned" trope that seriously does no one any favors. And we don't even really get the impression that she's smart -- she had been pulling off a handful of deals at a community bingo over in Jersey, we learn at one point. Seriously? What is this, amateur hour? She goes from knocking over bingo to stealing jewelry at the MET GALA? I don't buy it.

Actually, I kind of had a hard time believing that any of these women were smart. Instead of getting insights into their backgrounds and them being people that the two mains know already, each basically gets accepted into the fold regardless. We don't learn hardly anything about them.

This lack of any investment in the outcome completely disintegrates what makes heist movies so fun. In Ocean's 11, the ending is a "WOAH" moment. In Ocean's 8, the ending is an "Oh." moment.

3 outa 10. Seriously, so disappointed by this film, even though I didn't really have high hopes. But not even entertaining in a stupid kind of way. Just mundane. Hollywood needs to do better for these ladies.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Thoughts on Three Billboards

I've been hearing about Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri ever since it came out, and a lot of it didn't appeal to me. It was one I knew I wanted to see, but I didn't think I would enjoy. And honestly, there are a lot of films like that. There are a lot of stories that speak to higher truths that aren't made to delight you. But they make you think. And that's exactly what Three Billboards does.

The main plot follows Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) a grieving, enraged mother who starts to up the ante in solving her daughter's rape and murder by publicly calling out the local police for incompetence. Obviously, the police aren't thrilled with this, namely Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell). And things sort of escalate from there.

It's hard to go into the rest of the film without going into spoilers, so if you want to see it with fresh eyes, stop reading here.

From all I'd heard about the backlash about the film, I had expected it to be a bit more obvious in carrying a message that perpetuates "otherness." But after seeing it, I really need to disagree with the argument that the film makes a deliberate attempt to redeem anyone by its conclusion.

In fact, I'd argue that the entire point of the film is that people are, by nature, flawed and incapable of being either wholly good or bad. 

The movie makes no excuses for any of its characters, and it hardly condones the behavior of them. Mildred assaults several people throughout the movie, either in her own defense, or to bring attention to something she finds unjust. But this mentality of rogue vigilanteism goes in several directions. She is nearly arrested for drilling through a dentist's thumb, her son has to deal with her assaulting his schoolmates, she has to deal with the guilt of burning Officer Dixon's face.

Same with Chief Willoughby. He tries and fails to solve the case of Mildred's daughter. He spends a whole glorious day with his family, only to violently end his life and leave his wife and kids behind. Does this make him a good person or a bad person?

And the same with Officer Dixon. After projecting his own inadequacies through anger, he's confronted with the consequences of his own actions. After throwing a harmless kid out of the window, he's forced to see and experience what he's done, sharing a hospital room with him. And he even experiences a bit of an epiphany after he's shown kindness from him, in spite of how hard he beat him up. Despite this, Dixon still drives off to kill who they've defined as the suspect at the end of the film.

I find it hard to believe that this is a story of redemption. I really read it as a story of grief and justice, and circumstance and consequence. So much of what we do is privy to circumstance rather than justice, regardless of intention. Angela Hayes' murder is despicable but, as we learn, sometimes there isn't enough evidence to pull a suspect. And revenge is a powerful motivator but, as we learn, is not always an effective course of action beyond catharsis.

I think, at its core, Three Billboards highlights the duality in everyone. That being a good or bad person is in the eye of the beholder, that actions have consequences, and that we all just need to try.

8 outa 10. Extremely thought-provoking and stellar acting by the entire cast.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

My Fave Movies of 2017

Ah, 2017. To be perfectly honest, most of the things that I watched last year involved old ladies (my beloved Golden Girls, and Grace and Frankie) or murder (whaddup Columbo and Poirot).

However, I did manage to make it out to the theater a few times and I liked a lot of what I chose to see. Colorful kids' movies, smart action movies, heartfelt indie dramas, and some seriously impressive horror.

That being said, here are some of my favorites of 2017, in no particular order.


Oh. My. God. Bless. This movie didn't get nearly the amount of attention it deserved. When little Miguel is forbidden to play music by his family, he takes matters into his own hands and accidentally ends up in the land of the dead. Seeking the approval of his ancestors, Miguel embarks on a journey to find his grandfather and win his blessing to pursue music. Far from scary (for those leery of a Corpse Bride, Burton-y feel), the movie is warm, bright, and colorful, with a heartfelt message and an incredibly overdue cultural perspective. Go for the songs, stay for the animation.

Lady Bird

Greta Gerwig's directorial debut Lady Bird is so relatable it almost hurts your heart. Young Lady Bird (nee Christine) is a senior in high school navigating her relationship with her mom, her dad, boys, and her best friend, and trying to decide where to go with her life. The beauty of it is its simplicity in finding humor in the normal. Lady Bird is a slightly overdramatic, hugely empathetic character who thinks she has it all figured out, only to realize time and time again that she doesn't. Saoirse Ronin and Laurie Metcalf are captivating as Lady Bird and her mother, respectively -- spending equal screen time pissing each other off and wordlessly falling into unconditional mother-daughter love when they need each other. Ugh. Worth the hype. Achingly nostalgic for anyone who was a teenager in 2003.

The Shape of Water

Another visually stunning feat from Guillermo del Toro. As always, the plot is a little unorthodox: it's the 1960s and a mute cleaning lady has fallen in love with a reptilian man from the science lab where she works. Resolving to rescue him from the hands of her evil boss, she implicates herself in a scheme that could mean the death of both her and the creature. Characters with heart and an unusual plot steer the narrative, but it's the cinematography and the coloring of each scene that really make it worthwhile.

I Don't Feel At Home in This World Anymore.

This is such a cathartic film to watch for anyone at their wit's end with shitty people. Ruth is an ordinary woman trying to live her life. She lives in an unimpressive neighborhood, and doesn't have many friends. When her house gets robbed, that's the last straw. Enlisting the help of her neighbor, she tracks down the thieves, and ends up getting mixed up with some seriously bad people. The ending absolutely makes this.

Baby Driver

Baby is a professional driver who listens to music to drive with laser-like focus. Who's he driving? Bank robbers. When things start to go south, Baby has to assess how far he's willing to go for his life of crime--or figure out how the hell he can drive out of it. You HAVE to see this for the TUNES. Barring musicals, I feel like it's hard to find a movie that so gracefully integrates music into plot. And they don't even have to break the fourth wall!??! The synchronization of the music with the action sequences is...immaculate. Highly recommend.

Thor: Ragnarok

I've gotta say, I've loved Taika Waititi since his hilarious vampire reality What We Do in the Shadows, and that sense of humor is even more present in Thor: Ragnarok. Creating a surprisingly graceful bridge between the more serious Avenger movies and the more playful Guardians of the Galaxy series, Ragnarok is one of the movies that I recommended the most this year just because it's so much fun. Balancing a very current sense of comedic timing with a touch of 80s nostalgia (LOVE that synth music!), it's a bright, fantastical romp. It was nice to see a movie that can be funny without being dumb. (Side note: Cait Blanchett as the villain. Yas.)

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I haven't wasted time seeing why the nerds didn't like this, and I don't really care -- more movies should be as fun, thoughtful, and entertaining as Star Wars: The Last Jedi. For the people knee-deep in cannon, or for those expecting something more like the originals, I'm sure that there were a lot of things that didn't line up. But as someone who appreciates the Star Wars movies as fun, sci-fi trips,  The Last Jedi provides a much-needed escape from reality, and a super satisfying peek into the upcoming capabilities of our two main characters. Party on, Luke.

Wonder Woman

I'm not usually a big super hero movie junkie, but I really enjoyed Wonder Woman. For a studio film, I was pleasantly surprised at how much of the movie stepped out of the usual formula. Or maybe it was just amazing to see a self-empowered, confident woman on screen kicking some major ass. Either way, I loved it.

The Big Sick

Just when you thought romcoms were dead, this movie comes out. Kumail is a standup comedian and first-generation Pakistani American who is dating a white girl. As things between he and his girlfriend get more serious, things reach a breaking point when she learns that he has no intention of introducing her to his strict, Pakistani parents. Things reach even more of a breaking point when she goes into a coma and he is the sole person available to take care of her -- until her parents show up. His point of view as a conflicted son and boyfriend is very plainly aired with a crisp sense of humor that's smart and understanding at the same time.

Get Out

And on the more sinister side of interracial dating, the groundbreaking Get Out. Damn. Chris is a black man going to visit his white girlfriend's parents at their country home. But when he arrives, he gets more than he bargained for -- the servants act strange, the parents throw a mysterious party, and Chris can't seem to get out of there. Smart, biting, terrifying, innovative, and pulpy. Jordan Peele's directorial debut finds an incredibly unique perspective to talk about race relations in America. Think Django: Unchained meets The Twilight Zone. Everyone should see this movie.


Oh man, do I loooooove me some Stephen King. The kids of Derry, Maine keep going missing and no one knows why. When a particular group of "losers" starts seeing their worst, most terrifying nightmares play out in broad daylight, the experience draws them together and they decide to confront the monster at the root of all their fears. I was pleasantly surprised at how character-driven the final product ends up being -- something that the original mini-series lacks. This version, too, goes deeper in depth to give the kids their own narrative, letting you see what scares them personally. All-around good adaptation, and props to Bill Skarsgard for making us forget Tim Curry's Pennywise in favor of something a little different.

Alien: Covenant 

After the disappointment that was Prometheus, Ridley Scott pulls it back together for Alien: Covenant. After arriving on a strange planet, a group of colonists are trying to figure out the reason for the planet's lack of wildlife. While plants thrive, animals are noticeably absent from the landscape, and when they find out the reason, they wish they'd never come. This one is not for the squeamish--in a horror-genre triumph the movie is full of every kind of scare, from jumps to core-chilling realizations about human nature and morality.

Honorable Mentions:

Ingrid Goes West
Ingrid becomes a bit too attached to a specific Instagram celebrity, and decides to move to California to become her friend. Fascinating commentary on social media stars -- and their stalkers. Examines both the superficiality of social media and the psychological problems that they can encourage.

A man decides to murder his wife, enlisting his son to help him. I thought this was a fantastic atmospheric thriller and old-timey creep-fest. Available on Netflix!