Widows [2018] – An Aesthetically Pleasing Thriller Undone by the Lackluster Script

Widows marks stark departure for writer/director Steve McQueen, whose transition from crafting sublime artsier endeavors (Hunger, Shame & 12 Years A Slave) to a star-studded genre feature offers mixed results. ‘Widows’ does bear the film-maker’s intriguing aesthetic signature, right from the brilliant opening frames. Yet the austere beauty found in the visual presentation often gets lost due to an under-written script (which McQueen co-wrote with novelist Gillian Flynn) and under-developed characters. Perhaps the writing feels too rushed, inchoate, and incoherent because the film is based on Lynda La Plante’s acclaimed British 1983 miniseries of the same name. Naturally, the compression renders some scenarios and character sketches ludicrous. Having moved the action to Chicago, McQueen and Flynn tries to tell a very American story of race, disintegration and gender without forgetting to check off the ‘heist’ narrative essentials (although the social commentary falls flat at times or one could say it gets sacrificed in the altar of genre).

The very first scene in Widows cross-cuts between the romantic interlude involving Veronica Rawlins (Viola Davis) and her husband, Harry (Liam Neeson), and genuinely shocking deaths of a heist crew following a bungled getaway, in which Harry is part of. McQueen once again cuts to the elegant, white bedroom as the recently widowed Veronica feels the emptiness within her while touching the cold bed-sheets. This is a trademark McQueen sequence, which imbues tension and sets up the character’s emotionality through unique set of expository details. The grief-stricken yet the sturdy Veronica Rawlins is visited by Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a crime lord looking to go legit by running alderman in a turbulent Chicago ward. Jamal claims that he was the target of her husband’s last job and demands two millions dollars, which supposedly went up in flames alongside Harry and his crew.

Jamal gives Veronica thirty days to pay back. Moreover, Jamal asks his brother/enforcer Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya exuding bone-chilling intensity) to follow her movements. After finding one of her husband’s notebooks that provides details to his next heist, Veronica desperate to pay off the debt, plans to pull off the job. She visits the widows of Harry’s gang (Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki), who are all suffering under financial strain, with the proposition of ‘one last job’ to settle in life. Veronica’s plan is to steal five million dollars (as detailed in the plan), pay back the Mannings and live happily ever after with the rest. Of course, the widows being amateurs at this brings forth troubles and fate also keeps on throwing curve-balls at them. Veronica’s plans crosses path with the powerful local politician Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), who happens to be running for alderman against Jamal Manning. Jack is the scion of a local political dynasty, the alderman seat previously held by his mulish, racist father, Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall). 

Steve McQueen’s visceral expression strives to mask some of the dull and preposterous plot-points. And some of those auterial touches easily overwhelms the nonsensical narrative textures. In one of the visually and thematically fascinating flourishes, McQueen follows Jack Mulligan traveling in his limo, who frustrated by the campaign event fulminates against the broken nature of the ward. Interestingly, the director frames this scene from outside the limo, the black-tinted windows hides the actors’ visage while only the audio is heard. The ‘show-don’t-tell’ approach neatly foregrounds the segregation, the limo in a matter of minutes moving from dilapidated streets to the neighborhood of million-dollar mansions, while Jack’s ironical rants goes on and on. Elsewhere, McQueen (and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt) puts mirror imagery to good use, which either serves as entryways to the past or allows characters to momentarily reflect on their circumstances. Some of McQueen’s visual precision serves to ratchet up the shocking quotient of a scene. For instance, the awkwardly included ‘police brutality’ sequence or when the central twist is revealed.

The relentlessly engaging aesthetic beauty does its best to carry the gravity of the subject matter and its social context. But the writing waddles between embracing the genre demands and exhibiting its weighty themes. Plenty of scenes and characterizations suffer from the hyper-contracted effort of squeezing TV series plot-points into a two-hour movie. The talented ensemble cast does their best to keep us engaged in the moment (actors like Debicki and Farrell steal the show despite their characters’ limitations). The cast also play well against each other, but the largeness of the material mostly reduces them to glorified props. It is frustrating to see how the big twist in the middle only serves to highlight the thematic preoccupation (an empowered women breaking free of sinister men) rather than affect the narrative flow whatsoever. For a popcorn movie, Widows is definitely good and complex. But it never comes close to greatness like McQueen’s previous efforts. Maybe, Mr. McQueen is aware of the criticisms that might follow his choice to take over this project. In one of the film’s earlier scene, Tom Mulligan refers to his son Jack’s pricey modern art as ‘$50,000 piece of wallpaper’. ‘It is art’ replies Jack, but his dad stubbornly repeats the word ‘wallpaper’. For me, Steve McQueen’s Widows (130 minutes) looks like a wallpaper with few artsy bits thrown in, although some might consider it a wonderful art with great depth. 


Private Life [2018] – A Poignant and Funny Drama on a Couple’s Infertility Agonies

American indie film-maker Tamara Jenkins’ debut feature The Slums of Beverly Hills (1998) opens with the scene of an adolescent girl being fitted for a bra. Now two decades later, Jenkins in her third feature-film Private Life (2018) opens with the shot of a woman in her knickers waiting for her husband to inject hormones. These might sound like normal yet extremely private occasions. But more than the sense of having intruded into someone’s private space, there’s a feeling that we are looking at some secret, embarrassing thing which our societal norms, for some dubious reasons, considers it a taboo subject. And through this jolt of ‘secret’ normalcy, Jenkins not only establishes the unseen female perspective, but also sets up the narrative course. If Slums of Beverly Hills’ ‘bra-fitting’ establishes the character of a poor girl tentatively coming to terms with her adolescent body, Private Life’s ‘hormone injection’ unveils a middle-aged couple’s burning desire for having a child which makes them painfully navigate the infertility industry. Moreover, both these features are loosely based on episodes or experiences from Jenkins’ own life.

The director’s second film The Savages (2007) revolves around two siblings caring for their dementia-afflicted father. Like Savages, Private Life also looks at the ignored dimensions of family dynamics without wrapping it under the comforting layers of sentimentality. Furthermore, both these films share the humiliations and absurdities of modern medical procedures. In Private Life’s case, it’s the complex world of assisted reproduction. Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) and Richard (Paul Giamatti) are middle-aged Manhattan couple trying to have child for a long time. The painful nightly shots Rachel receives, the hospital room full of sad-faced waiting couples, Rachel wandering the cold clinic halls in thin gowns and small shower caps, the awkwardly jovial doctor (Dennis O’Hare) carrying out the procedure, the porn video intended to enable Richard’s sperm delivery, the plaintive feeling as all of these fail, and finally clinging to hope offered by an entirely different, exhausting as well as more expensive medical procedure. Richard and Rachel have been going through this cycle for years, the costs claiming almost all of their nest eggs.

Richard even borrows from his brother Charlie (John Caroll Lynch) for an emergency procedure, which makes Charlie’s second wife Cynthia (Molly Shannon) rant, “They’re like fertility junkies! … They’ve been doing this for years! They need to stop.” Richard and Rachel are also open to adoption, but those attempts have taken them nowhere. The failures and disappointments do indeed take a psychological toll and makes it difficult to deal with other people. At one occasion, they hide in their apartment from responding to ‘trick-or-treaters’ knocking at the door. The feelings of being left out while gazing at other normal family unit  haunts them. The 'fist-bumping' doctor, however, suggests the couple to consider using an egg donor. Rachel is appalled by this, but she slowly comes around, browsing through the websites and looking at thumbnail pics of possible egg donors.

When Richard’s step-niece Sadie (Kayli Carter) – Cynthia’s first daughter by another marriage – lands on his couch for a brief stay, the couple decides to ask Sadie to donate her eggs. A medical counselor unflinchingly reminds Richard and Rachel that ‘it wouldn’t be incest’ since the 25-year-old Sadie isn’t a blood relative. Sadie is a flighty, impulsive girl aspiring to be a professional writer. She looks up to Richard for his avant-garde theater works and Rachel for being an acclaimed short-fiction writer. She calls them her ‘artistic parents’ and loves them for not being judgmental, unlike Cynthia who abhors Sadie’s decision to dropout and complete college in ‘absentia’. Always eager to please Richard and Rachel, Sadie immediately warms up to the idea of donating eggs and even finds a new sense of purpose in being an egg donor. But of course more obstacles and complications arise, making the fatigued couple to ask some toughest questions about their married life.

If there’s one thread that unites Tamara Jenkins’ three features, it is her examination of (naturally) changing bodies and the constant insecurities arising from it. A teenager growing breasts, an old man dying of dementia, and the issue of fertility plaguing a couple are all precisely and introspectively detailed by observing the characters’ cultural, social milieu which paves way to certain hidden anxieties. Interestingly, the weightiness of such themes is cleverly dispersed through Jenkins’ well-staged and written seriocomic episodes that make us laugh while also subtly conveying the underlying sadness of the situation. Much of Private Life’s humor comes from bitter emotions and the awkwardness with which the couples circumvent the alleged taboo subjects. When Richard requests Rachel to consider a egg donor, saying, ‘they do it with farm animals all the time’, Rachel explodes, “Well, I'm not a goat!”. Rachel’s fury over Richard’s suggestion to take a painting from their apartment leads to another hilariously embarrassing episode. Nevertheless, the comedic moments never sounds sitcom-like, partly because Jenkins’ writing brings forth an authentic, lived-in feel. She walks a fraught emotional tightrope, never overplaying the character quirks for unintended laughs.

 The other half of the credit goes to the lively dynamics between Hahn and Giamatti, both of them laying out Richard and Rachel’s private joys and pains with such profundity. They are so good at playing this normal, flawed couple that we rarely catch them ‘acting’. Newcomer Kayli Carter as Sadie is a spectacular addition to the cast. She authentically captures the sense of bafflement accompanying the much energetic yet anxious modern youths. There’s nothing much to nitpick in Jenkins’ storytelling. Her unsettling glimpse into the messiest parts of modern life and refusal to yield to the conventional cinematic notions of closure often cuts too close to home. Eventually, Private Life (123 minutes) isn’t just about the excruciating experiences of a couple fighting infertility, but also opens conflicted feelings about a society or culture that obsesses over parenthood (especially motherhood), making it the ultimate goal of (women’s) life. Tamara Jenkins showcases one couple stuck on this cycle of longing, heartbreak, and hope as if they are persistently moving through a revolving door while the destination of parenthood on the other side remains ever-elusive.

On Happiness Road [2018] – A Heart-Warming Animated Tale of a Woman’s Re-Awakening

What could a simple, melancholic existence of a woman in a gentrifying urban community offer the modern viewers? ‘A soulful and richly layered film’ says Hsin-Yin Sung’s autobiographical animated family drama, On Happiness Road (‘Hsing fu lu shang’, 2018). On the outset, it seems to tell the familiar tale of an adult reflecting on the dreams of perfect life she once possessed (as a child and teenager), which only stayed a dream. The narrative is all about our young protagonist looking back at her bittersweet past and processing her muddled present to find answer to the question: What Next? But such roughly detailed plot-line wouldn’t do justice to this brilliant drama, which gracefully intertwines the personal with the political and social. The weight of parental expectations, the promise of overseas life, the disorientation & bitterness of modern adulthood, and existential malaise of educated urban women are all some of the other themes Hsin-Yin Sung tackles in her story. Most importantly, the hovering philosophical question of ‘What is Happiness?’ lies at the core of On Happiness Road.

When we first lay our eyes on adult Chi (voiced by actress Lun-mei Kwei) she is supposedly living a dream life. Born to working-class Taiwanese parents in 1975, Lin Shu-Chi has moved to US after education. She is now (in her early 30s) married to a blonde-haired American and living in a peaceful suburban neighborhood. Chi receives a phone call from Taiwan, informing that her beloved grandmother has passed away. She journeys back to her native land and in tidbits the narrative showcases Chi’s uncomplicated, happy childhood she had while living with her parents in a tiny apartment on the ‘Happiness Road’. At age 6 while traveling on a truck packed with furniture towards their new apartment, Chi questions her parents, ‘what’s happiness?’, the answer to which Chi is still searching.

Beneath the sheen of her suburban American life lies heartbreak. Chi’s is estranged from her husband; the conflict over having a kid has driven them apart. Moreover, despite pursuing a university education she doesn’t have a career in America. Since the marriage is all but over Chi, after arriving for grandmother’s funeral, considers staying with her parents in the same ‘Happiness Road’ apartment. Once after reaching home, every little place in the ever-changing neighborhood triggers tons of childhood, adulthood memories: the friendships she had and lost; the ideological convictions and the dreams she cherished that were now laid to waste. The earthy, affectionate, betel-nuts chewing grandmother have always been a soothing presence in Chi’s life. Now gazing back at the vestiges of a sweet past, Chi feels the pressure of being at the crossroads. Adding further to her conflict is the indecision over telling her parents about the divorce procedures and her pregnancy.

What makes On Happiness Road not just another exercise in nostalgia is writer/director Hsin-Yin Sung’s ability to relate the changes in Chi’s life with Taiwan’s contemporary politics and recent history. Chi is born on the eve of Chiang Kai-shek’s death, the Kuomintang (KMT) leader. And as Chi grows, events from the turbulent political period of Taiwan is constantly evoked. The struggles of 70 and 80s Taiwan to establish its national identity reflects in the social, political undercurrents which directly influences Chi’s choices in life. Some of those details are expressed in a matter-of-fact manner; for instance, Chi’s elementary teacher announcing monetary fines for anyone caught speaking the native Taiwanese dialect instead of Mandarin (which the authoritarian KMT government mandated). Although for a time Chi seems to succumb to her parents’ desires and prepares for medical course, the Taiwanese student protests for democratic reforms imparts a political consciousness within Chi so as to choose a different major. She protests against banning of books in pro-democracy demonstrations, and like all of our na├»ve younger-selves believes in the greater change to be harvested from the impending revolution. However, after witnessing major social and political events in Taiwan, the family’s economic status pushes Chi to commit herself to an office job (the mundanity of her life is depicted through the sadly poetic scenes).

Even without having a clear understanding of Taiwan’s recent history, Chi’s existential woe is universally relatable (hence it’s no surprise that the film found more success on international festival circuits than at local box-office). As always, the glowing promises of revolution and change only follows up with ‘economic miracles’ that demands conformity and to drool over the empty, materialistic life. The ennui and existential woe Chi feels in her 30s despite making it big in America is painfully familiar. In a way, On Happiness Road reminded me of two other spellbindingly nuanced animated dramas: Marjane Satrapi’s adaptation of her own graphic novel 'Persepolis' (2007)’ and Isao Takahata’s melancholic tale of an unmarried career woman in ‘Only Yesterday’ (1991). If Persepolis demonstrated a country’s societal, political oppression through the point-of-view of one family, Only Yesterday pays an endearing tribute to girlhood dreams and subtly lays out the realities and disappointments that impact a woman’s life. Similarly, Hsin-Yin Sung also sharply attunes to the ‘Personal Is Political’ argument. In fact, this is a heavy subject to tackle in a first film i.e., juggling between themes of women empowerment and fraught national identity. Director Hsin-Yin does all this with a sincerity and preciseness that never veers into outright melodrama.

If I am pressed to find some issues with On Happiness Road, it solely belongs to the animated visuals. Unlike Studio Ghibli’s films or Marjane  Satrapi’s distinct aesthetics, Hsin-Yin’s pastel-colored world feels a bit limited and monotonous after a time (especially in the second-half). Of course, we could understand the budgetary constrains and the technical limitations since this is neither a major studio project nor made by a seasoned animator. Moreover, it’s a niggling issue when compared with Hsin-Yin Sung’s layered story-telling abilities. Altogether, On Happiness Road (111 minutes) is an engrossing, soulful tale of one lost woman finding the truth that the path to happiness starts within us.  


The Old Man & the Gun [2018] – A Simple Meta-Homage to an Old Hollywood Star

David Lowery’s The Old Man & the Gun (2018) opens with a bank robbery, just after the title card mentions the following story to be ‘mostly true’. But guns aren’t shoved into faces, voices weren’t raised, staffs and other people don’t lie on the ground, impaired by mortal fear. The film is set in early 1980s (shot on 16mm, the grainy faded look gives the genuine 1980s American cinema feel) and what we see is an old gentleman calmly collecting some money from an even-tempered young bank teller. In fact, the robbery is clearly confirmed only by the police radio, which the elderly bank robber is listening to through what outwardly looks like a ‘hearing-aid’. Some sort of police chase ensues, but this one isn’t similar to the tense opening segments in Refn’s ‘Driver’ or Edgar Wright’s ‘Baby Driver’. The old guy just stops to help an old woman having trouble with her pick-up truck. Out of courtesy, hidden under the intention to evade the police, the bank-robbing gentleman Forrest Tucker (Robert Redford) gives lift to the independent-minded widow Jewel (Sissy Spacek) dropping her at a sprawling ranch, outside Dallas, Texas. In the narrative course, Forrest courts Jewel and a tentative bond is forged between them. And, yes the old guy keeps on robbing banks for fun, just flashing his Colt .45 but without ever indulging in violence (as one bank manager tells the police, “He was such a gentleman”).

Director Lowery’s third feature and first acclaimed drama ‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’ (2013) seemed like a chase-thriller, but ended up being a wistful, Malick-ian romance between a outlaw couple. His next film was a strong and cherished family entertainment Pete’s Dragon (2016). Lowery followed this up with an unbelievably great art-house feature A Ghost Story (2017). Casey Affleck, fresh from his Oscar-winning turn from Manchester by the Sea, played a white-sheeted ghost haunted by love and loss. Now Lowery takes a true story of a bank robber and shoe-horns it to be a fitting swan song to Robert Redford, while also indulging his nostalgia for the 70s celluloid warmth. The Old Man & the Gun is largely a soulful and cinematic homage to Robert Redford the star as Lowery administers his artistic tools to add an extra shine to the actor’s charm. Hence, the film could easily be an underwhelming experience for those who don’t dig into the sweetness of Redford tribute (there’s plethora of nods to the octogenarian actor’s cinematic past, which includes films like The Chase, Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid, and The Sting).  

Written by David Lowery, The Old Man & the Gun is based on David Grann’s (Lost City of Z, Killers of the Flower Moon) New Yorker article about Forrest Tucker, a ‘charming’ career-criminal and escape artist, whose Over-The-Hill Gang’ (comprised of two other older prison pals; played by Danny Glover and Tom Waits in the film) only in 1980 robbed as many as 60 banks. Tucker has escaped from prison at least 18 times and went on to commit his final robbery at the age of 79 in 1999 (he passed away in prison five years later). Convinced that his name should be in the ‘hall of fame’ of outlaws and robbers, Tucker himself wrote manuscripts, hoping that Hollywood would one day turn it into a movie. Lowery’s story is simply a playful take on Tucker’s criminal life without ever attempting to carefully approximate the gentleman robber’s life and quirks through Redford’s performance. In fact, writer/director Lowery extracts events from Tucker’s life so as to create a meta-textual layer that neatly reflects Robert Redford’s fifty-years-plus acting career. Not to mistake Lowery’s vision as a post-modernist take on a self-possessed robber, but it’s simply a sincere and old-fashioned portrait of the artist as a veteran robber.

Lowery is comfortable with focusing on the subtle dramatics of the situation rather than frame it as a conventional ‘heist flick’ (one of the ‘Over-The-Hill’ gang’s biggest job happens off-screen). There’s absolutely no thrill in the robbery sequence. What interests Lowery is Tucker’s need to feel the thrill of being alive. This is marked by his sweet yet non-committal relationship with Jewel. The scenes between the iconic Redford and Spacek are clearly a lesson in on-screen chemistry as the pair exude affection and pathos that couldn’t be found in the entirety of modern rom-coms. Tucker also develops a sort of odd bond with his pursuer, a Dallas Detective named John Hunt (Casey Affleck). Hunt remains an unambitious cop but he suddenly becomes preoccupied with the mysterious, elusive robber. He is also partly captivated by Tucker’s singular talent and professionalism. Hunt’s warm family life (a beloved wife and two smart daughters) remains a clear contrast to Tucker who has an estranged daughter (Elisabeth Moss in a cameo) and has left a trail of agony and heartbreak. If Hunt’s eyes twinkles after bathing in his wife’s warm hug, for Tucker infectious smile naturally adorns his face once the stick-up is under way. Nevertheless, Lowery doesn’t make a clear-cut commentary on these characters’ masculinity, while highlighting Tucker’s preoccupations and nostalgic fancies as one-of-a-kind element which is not treated with pensive sadness but fondness.

At times, Lowery’s rigorous focus on the movie star, his brand of mischief and charisma, make the narrative course seem too lean and too relaxed. It’s also too muted for a character study as Forrest Tucker is mostly remains a symbolic figure and questions regarding his life and mindset are often dodged.  A heightened atmosphere of farewell illuminates the storytelling throughout (Lowery even conjures a setting to frame the star on the horse, echoing Redford’s status as old-school acting legend) and the director considers it satisfactory enough to leave it at that. The blunt psychologization, exploration of social or cultural milieus is just deemed extraneous. The real Forrest Tucker saw the gun he used in bank-robbery merely as an ‘essential’ prop. In The Old Man & the Gun (93 minutes), David Lowery uses Tucker’s life as a prop to devise a tribute to the 82-year old Robert Redford’s stardom (and may be like Forrest Tucker Mr. Redford wouldn’t call it quits?). It’s an easygoing, feel-good entertainment but wouldn’t be an unforgettable feature.