JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 – PARABELLUM Goes Beyond 11

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum has everything, and then some. And then some more.

It has mixtures of mythologies, even more world building, balletic violence, humor, stakes, a tactile palette of neon, dedicated performances, swords, knives, guns, horses, dogs, a book with a sturdy spine, hints of horror and fantasy amid the chaotic Hong Kong-inspired action… it may be too much sometimes, sure, but who really cares when this sort of precise vision and energetic, robust filmmaking is on display? Pick it apart if you must, I’ll be over here fist pumping.

Keanu Reeves is, of course, front and center as the unstoppable assassin. It’s remarkable that Reeves has been able to build on his legend with an entirely new generation of filmgoers. He is John Wick to so many, inseparable from the name, just as he was one and the same with Neo in the Matrix trilogy twenty years ago. The third entry in his new sensational franchise only solidifies his status as an icon, and the athleticism and dedication he pours into this role is awe inspiring.

The film picks up right where Chapter 2 (still my personal favorite of the trio) left off, with Wick disavowed by The Continental and fleeing the city before the contract on his life goes live and seemingly hundreds of assassins spring into action all around him to claim the bounty on his head. In no time, we are in a library and we get the first fight, a thrillingly low-tech battle with an adversary whose casting is a stylistic flourish in and of itself, the first of a seemingly endless barrage of action set pieces that are better left secret. From there, the plot swallows up the audience right along with Wick.

Trying to divulge the plot in John Wick: Chapter 3 is a fool’s errand. Wick seeks help, finds it, and layers of the story unfold as we spend time with Laurence Fishburne, Ian McShane, franchise newcomers Angelica Huston playing a vampiric ballet instructor, and Halle Berry, showing off some impressive skills in an epic fight sequence in the middle of the film. But this isn’t as much about the plot – although the continuing world building here only strengthens the trilogy as a whole – as it is about shuffling our hero from one exotic, lavish interior to the next. Dan Lausten’s cinematography, with a major assist from the lighting department, paints an alternate-universe popping with neon beauty, an elegance that helps to counterbalance and further separate the real world from the stunning amount of violence and brutality. It is everything in Chapter 2 turned up beyond eleven.

Chapter 3 pushes everything to the middle of the table, elevating visuals and themes to the loudest possible frequency. Early in the film, Wick has to retreat to old technology as his aides all around the city begin turning their back on him and the assassins close in. Western mythology blends seamlessly into samurai lore, and vice versa. The action reaches for the laughs a little too much on a few occasions, but the further visual enhancements of the hand-to-hand action and gun and knife play is as balletic and jaw dropping as it is vicious and brutal.

The ending will be a topic of discussion for some time, and I’m not sure how I’ll feel about it. The rules of this world are fast and loose in Chapter 3, but the final few moments rely on the viewer, and how far they’re willing to bend the rules of this universe to accept what happens. It isn’t bad, just strange, and it seems the same result could have been done without the flourish.

As messy and overloaded with plot as it might ultimately be, John Wick: Chapter 3 is undeniably watchable eye candy, anchored by the great Keanu Reeves. His all-in nature pulls us into this world, and his reliability as an action superhero keeps us there. I would be hard pressed to try and think of a single other actor who could fill these shoes. It’s a character nobody knew about five years ago, it’s become one of the tentpole action franchises of the modern era. That’s the power of Keanu.

Transcending Tragedy: THE CROW at 25

Before seeing a trailer, a press release, or any proper media buzz for Alex Proyas’s adaptation of The Crow, James O’Barr’s comic-book series, there was the shocking tragedy.

On March 31, 1993, Brandon Lee, son of the legendary martial artist and international movie star Bruce – and a blossoming action star in his own right – was filming a scene as Eric Draven, the slain angel of vengeance at the center of the picture. The scene in question called for Lee’s character to walk in a room and be immediately shot by a member of the gang of hoodlums who murder Eric and his fiancé. Lee hit his mark, the prop gun fired, and the grocery bag he was carrying properly exploded thanks to the squib inside.

Lee fell to the ground on cue, and it took a moment or two for anyone on the set to realize that the prop gun had either a piece of metal lodged in the barrel, or a live round loaded into the gun. Whatever the case, Lee was rushed to the hospital with a gunshot wound to the gut, where he died after hours of surgery and pints of blood.

He was 28, and he was gone.

Controversy still lingers around Lee’s death (a .44 caliber slug was retrieved from Lee’s body), though it was ultimately ruled an accident in 1993. Nevertheless, The Crow was only two weeks from the finish line at the time of the accident, and now a distraught Alex Proyas and crew needed to make a decision in the face of unimaginable tragedy. Ultimately, Proyas and the production team decided to move forward. After a six-week hiatus, script rewrites, and some stand-in work from Lee’s stunt double, future John Wick director Chad Stahelski, The Crow wrapped production in June of ’93. Except now, it needed a distributor after Paramount dumped the film after the delays.

A young upstart studio called Miramax picked up the project, and set it for a May 1994 release. After a year of sadness and controversy in the face of despair, Proyas delivered Brandon Lee’s dark, bloody, grim revenge tale to audiences who, with a mix of morbid curiosity and genuine interest, made the film number one at the box office on its way to a substantial $50 million haul.

The aura of Brandon Lee looms large over The Crow, even 25-years later. Lost amid said aura, however, is a nasty gothic superhero thriller that introduced audiences to the distinct visual language of Alex Proyas. Since 1980, the Egyptian-born, Aussie-raised filmmaker had been directing short films and music videos for the likes of INXS, Fleetwood Mac, and Crowded House. The success of The Crow opened doors for Proyas, who went on to direct two vastly underrated science fiction thrillers in Dark City and Knowing, one of the strangest, most exciting Nicolas Cage studio pictures of the new millennium.

Proyas leans heavily into the stark black-and-white panels of O’Barr’s comics, and adds an industrial tinge to some of the interiors that make everything feel cold and detached. Very little color exists in this hellscape of urban decay, save for the splashes of blood and the harsh lighting of drug dens and grunge-poisoned nightclubs. It is a haunted noir universe where characters are hopelessly lost, and Proyas wisely never allows the story to drift into camp or let his characters stray from the elevated gothic vibe he’s crafting. The Crow is, first and foremost, a style exercise, but it still has a soul thanks to its most soulful hero.

Even though the tragic history of The Crow never fades completely, Lee’s performance manages to still push through and transcend the distraction of his own passing. Lee’s long face makes the white makeup pop off the screen, and his ability to over-articulate his words in a natural way add a layer of menace to his delivery as Draven stalks and executes everyone responsible for his murder and the murder of his love, Shelly (Sofia Shinas). Lee’s performance is also boosted by the presence of some rock solid character actors, all who elevate the pulpy material and give it an identity that would never return in the increasingly terrible sequels.

Ernie Hudson is the hangdog beat cop trying to keep his feet in a reality that is slowly dissolving around him, and keeping an eye on the precocious teenager, Sarah (Rochelle Davis); there is T-Bird, the leader of the murderous gang of thugs, played by the great David Patrick Kelly, who stole our hearts when Arnold Schwarzenegger dropped him off a cliff in Commando. The criminal pulling all the strings is Top Dollar, a reptilian gangster played by Michael Wincott in an eerie, repulsive performance.

The success of The Crow was initially spurred by a morbid curiosity, there is no getting around that. But after it’s $11 million opening weekend and the number one spot at the box office (hard to imagine, isn’t it?), Brandon Lee’s captivating farewell proved to have legs beyond the ghoulish gimmickry involved with seeing a final performance and a film mired in controversy. Proyas captures the very essence of O’Barr’s work, and in Lee the writer and filmmaker found the perfect deliveryman.

It’s difficult to predict the future for Brandon Lee. Had he lived, The Crow may not have gotten that early surge in ticket sales and could have been the type of film that finds its legs on home video. The only thing that was certain with Lee, is that his star was on the rise, and this was destined to be at least his next stepping stone. The low key success of Showdown in Little Tokyo and the stellar Rapid Fire were clear indications that he was just beginning to step out from his father’s ubiquitous shadow and forge his own path as an actor.

Now, however, he is Eric Draven for legions of fans. There is no separation anymore, which makes the endless attempts to get a remake off the ground seem more and more like a bad idea. Fans of the character see Lee in the makeup and goth attire forever, a ghost trapped in a rain-soaked city, etched firmly into this moment in timet. The Crow may not be a perfect film, too melodramatic perhaps, too grim for some, but there is a dedication to the tone that cannot be denied and a propulsive quality to Proyas’s direction that compensates for any perceived shortcomings.

Above all else, there is a young star who became a posthumous pop icon.

UNDER THE SILVER LAKE’s Long, Strange Trip

The first trailer for Under the Silver Lake, director David Robert Mitchell’s L.A. neo-noir follow up to his nifty horror picture It Follows, landed on YouTube in March of 2018. It was headed for a summer release, and it appeared to be at least an interesting, esoteric indie that should find its audience. Then it stumbled at Cannes; that’s when A24, one of the torch bearers of indie cinema the last decade, became uncharacteristically gun shy.

Mitchell’s film was moved to December of 2018, then it was pushed to April 19, but by the time that date rolled around, there was no longer a wide theatrical release. It was unceremoniously dumped into a few theaters, then unloaded on VOD three days later. The whole  boondoggle was out of character for A24, a studio who champions new independent voices in all genres, and Mitchell’s It Follows was a grassroots hit for the studio in their earlier days. Burying his sophomore effort felt like an odd choice, no matter what the conflicts or concerns may have been – added to the fact that it was fairly easy to find defenders of the film without much effort.

Viewing Under the Silver Lake through the prism of delays upon delays, and a surprising lack of confidence, it’s easy to spot where Mitchell’s film could have been a cause for concern. It is far too long for the material in Mitchell’s screenplay; it’s 139 minutes when 110 would cure what ails the film. It wants to capture the meandering listless mood of our “hero,” the well-worn L.A. deadbeat archetype played this time by a squirrelly, squinting Andrew Garfield, and it does to a fault at times.

Garfield plays Sam, who feels like a combination of Elliiot Gould’s Philip Marlowe, The Dude, and “Doc” Sportello, the super-stoned hero at the center of Inherent Vice. Only Sam isn’t stoned as much as he’s drunk, and horny, and Under the Silver Lake drops us into Sam’s vintage L.A. apartment building right away, where he spies on the topless hippie neighbor and invites a young actress friend (Riki Lindhome) over for some casual sex. In no time, Sam’s perfectly curated life of leisure is interrupted by Sarah, the girl in the white bikini played by Riley Keough, who entrances Sam one night before promptly disappearing into thin air the next morning.

This happens in short order, and the rest of the film is Sam trying – albeit with minimal effort – to find Sarah. His investigation takes him into the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles, a place most movie fans know well, a place of weirdos and powerful conspirators pulling invisible strings. It’s best to leave the discoveries, and the sidebars, a secret, because that’s really the best part of these sun-drenched neo noirs. The destination rarely matters; the journey is key.

For the most part, Mitchell’s gorgeous film drifts in an out of scenarios at apartments, motels, and eccentric Hollywood parties. There are echoes of too many pictures to count here, but the film typically manages to balance pastiche with uniqueness and Garfield is surprisingly perfect in the role. He has a great confused scowl. In the end, however, like so many films in this genre, more time at the editing bay would help the picture flow more cleanly. The propulsive nature of the first hour to ninety minutes fizzles out in the end, but it’s not enough to ruin the finished product.

The runtime could have been the major sticking point for A24, and perhaps Mitchell was unbending on his vision. If that’s the case, it’s understood. Mitchell had no obligation to fit his fit into a runtime I would appreciate, but perhaps if the studio was asking for edits, they had more on their mind than fitting enough screenings in each day. Regardless, the willingness to push Under the Silver Lake down the line over and over makes no sense when the studio has made their name on releasing abstruse art, especially since there is plenty to love in David Robert Mitchell’s sophomore feature.

Karyn Kusama’s DESTROYER Starts Weird, Finishes Strong

It seems like those Nicole Kidman set photos from Karyn Kusama’s stark LA crime noir Destroyer had been around for years, before the film itself was granted an uber-limited theatrical release and quickly pushed aside at the end of 2018. Kidman, looking haggard and sallow and baked to a crisp by the unforgiving SoCal sun, plays Erin Bell, a detective in the City of Angels whose troubled past has left her a husk of a human. But Kidman’s look is so off putting, so uncanny, that it’s all there is to the first act of the picture. The story that unfolds is a distant second early on, but fortunately the second half settles in to a rather riveting – if deathly serious – Point Break riff.

Destroyer jumps back and forth in time as we follow Bell from a fresh-faced cop infiltrating a sadistic LA gang with her partner, Chris (Sebastian Stan), to this strange, warped, broken woman in the “present day” thread. Current day Erin drinks, drifts around town, and has quite a problem on her hands with a rebellious teenage daughter (Jade Pettyjohn) whose new boyfriend is up to no good. The setup of all these elements stumble out of the film while we adjust to Kidman’s look.

Comparisons were made to Charlize Theron’s transformation in Monster, but there is something more naturalistic about Theron’s sun-poisoned serial killer; it’s difficult to pin down, what is so distracting about Kidman’s appearance, but there’s no getting around it early on while you try, frustratingly, to put pieces in place. Kusama has a specific vision of this Los Angeles, sharp concrete angles and open spaces, heat, death, not a single shot of ocean water to be seen. She is going for a mood, you can see it, but the story isn’t cooperating through the first hour.

The second half of Destroyer pivots to something altogether more engaging and exciting, once you’re able to adjust to Kidman’s appearance (mileage may vary from viewer to viewer). The flashbacks to Erin’s undercover sting, her relationship with Chris, and the eventual disaster that ruined her life almost two decades prior  are able to punch up the plot, and a tense bank robbery sequence shows Kusama’s abilities to handle action well. There is a minor twist, some reveals along the way, and plenty of terrific camerawork as the film draws to a more satisfying close than what could have ever been predicted in the beginning.

Despite the look, Nicole Kidman is giving everything to her role here. It’s been an incredible few years for the Aussie legend, and Destroyer is another daring move from an actress who seems to be settling into an incredible second act. This is also a film almost entirely about Kidman’s Erin Bell, so much so that the supporting players practically don’t register as characters sometimes. They are all fine, and don’t distract, but in the end they all feel like ciphers put in place to tell Erin’s story.

Destroyer is a half-misstep for Kusama, whose last film, The Invitation, was one of the best of 2015 (and Jennifer’s Body is thankfully getting the cultural reappraisal it deserves). It’s tough to fault her direction, which shines in the second half; the fault is more in the meandering opening act and DOA delivery of these first few scenes than anything Kusama tries. Again, though, it all comes down to Kidman, who is able to fight through a strange makeup decision to turn the film into something worth seeing.

DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE is a Cold Rush of Nasty and Subversive Noir

There is no time to spare once the curtain opens on Dragged Across Concrete, S. Craig Zahler’s latest gritty genre opus, his most intentionally provocative yet, slyly, his most subversive. It’s a challenging, prickly, heavy mood piece soaked in shadow and light, and it jumps right into the seedy underworld of these lost souls. Every frame seems pulled from the dog-eared pages of an underground crime comic, written in blood-soaked prose and carefully placed in position by a master craftsman looking to elicit emotion.

It also has Mel Gibson, in one of his best performances this century.

Just the inclusion of Mel Gibson, now with a face carved out of stone, is enough to ruffle some delicate feathers out there. But as Brett Ridgeman, an openly racist and soured detective who has lost sight of what, if anything, ever made him a functioning human being, Gibson embodies what so many in the media and across the country already think he is on a daily basis. Ridgeman is out of touch, jaded by his police work, and is no longer able to tuck away his hatred for the “neighborhood” in which he lives and works. His real opinions are often less subtle than this description. If the consensus is that Gibson is this person (whether that’s true or not), then Zahler casting him in the role should be free of criticism, considering the character he plays here; this is what a certain facet of cultural opinion makers want Mel Gibson to be in their head, and now here he is, being that person on the big screen. How can they be upset?

Ridgeman is paired with Anthony Lurasetti, a younger, more amused detective played by Vince Vaughn, who clearly has fun delivering Zahler’s rope-a-dope noir prose. When a rough arrest is captured on camera (“not that bad,” according to their superior, Calvert, played briefly by Don Johnson), the two men are suspended six weeks without pay, placing them both in a bind for different reasons that should be left unsaid here. Regardless, Ridgeman cooks up a plan to acquire some wealth, and the trajectory of their story eventually brings them to that of Henry Johns.

Played by Tory Kittles, Henry Johns is a man who’s been to prison, been reformed, and is ready to escape the dire situation he lives in with his drug addict prostitute mother and wheelchair-bound nephew. But it requires, yes, the acquisition of wealth. Kittles’ work is on par with the two stars, so much so that he should be the one who most benefits from this hard-nosed performance.

Dragged Across Concrete is, at 159 minutes, essentially two movies with a short film – one involving a loving mother, played by fellow Brawl in Cell Block 99 actor Jennifer Carpenter in a role that would earn her a Supporting Actress nomination in a fair and just world – sandwiched in between. The first half is primarily stakeout scenes with Gibson and Vaughn, which will test the patience of many viewers, but those patient enough will be rewarded with smart dialogue and some humor with teeth. Zahler manages to keep all of the loose scenes and unwieldy dialogue focused, despite the fact that nothing you are seeing should be working. After his previous two films, Brawl and the terrific Western/Horror hybrid Bone Tomahawk, Zahler began getting labeled as a right-wing filmmaker – whatever that means. It was a category he was placed in, so whatever. Dragged Across Concrete will certainly stoke the fires of journalists and film fans who care more about the political ideologies at stake, or the mere existence of these words Zahler’s characters speak and the ideologies they carry with them, and less about what the director is doing within these very obvious conventions.

There is a forest made up of all these trees, and Zahler has pushed the envelope even further here in terms of pacing and plotting and conversation. It may not be as violent as the previous two, but Dragged still has its moments of grindhouse catharsis tucked away in its epic run time to satisfy genre fans. In the end, he subverts everything we’ve thought about the very existence of these characters within the framework of this movie. This is a look at the poisoned rotting core of an apple. To be offended is to show your hand, that you’ve only paid attention to the areas of the film you want to, and not the entire story as a whole. It’s provocative, but with purpose beyond shock value. That’s partly why the movie is so long, or why it’s length is so crucial; it’s a challenge. Zahler is asking you to stick it out with him, and you will be rewarded; bail after a few tough words or a few uncomfortable moments, and you’ll never get the full picture.

The Academy Awards are Dying From Self-Inflicted Wounds

For the past few months, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been slowly killing its Oscar telecast. It’s been death by a thousand cuts: a host controversy has plagued the entire season; the inclusion of milquetoast crowdpleasers as legitimate contenders also seem particularly egregious in a year where there has been wonderful diversity in storytelling. And then, there was the bizarre choice to not invite last year’s acting winners out to announce the winners in this year’s race.

That nonsensical decision was met with enough pushback that the Academy acquiesced and said “lol kidding, all four actors will be there to announce the winners.” If that mild annoyance drew enough public ire to make the Academy change their mind, perhaps their latest embarrassment won’t last long, because the outrage is now over legitimately baffling and gross decisions.

In order to shorten the program, allegedly, the telecast will not be airing the winner of the following four categories: cinematography, editing, makeup/hairstyling, live-action short. Let’s consider for a moment that the Academy did this to try and shorten the telecast, which is a stupid waste of time that anyone who actually cares about the program and the history of the Oscars have never complained about. They’re chasing a crowd who doesn’t care about their product, but let’s just assume, for this first rant, that this is the real reason these specific four categories were removed from the telecast.

Makeup and hairstyling are crucial to the art of moviemaking, the art that president John Bailey claims to want to celebrate in the telecast, despite removing categories. Not airing the live-action short winner is especially cynical, given the fact that whomever wins in this category may never return to the Oscars the rest of their life. It’s their moment, and now it will be handled during commercial breaks.

Removing cinematography and editing from the telecast, however, is unforgivable. It’s the final pair of nails in the coffin of this year’s show, which has been a complete trash fire for months. When I first read this news, I couldn’t quite put my finger on the reason why removing these two specific categories was so disgusting and idiotic. Then I read this, and it clicked:

This explains it clearly and succinctly, so there’s no reason to explain it further. Cinematography and editing are movies, so clearly this telecast is no longer about celebrating the craft of cinema, it’s about selling advertising and hitting a time window and, oh yeah, it’s about Disney’s control over ABC.

If these four categories seem like a weird collection of categories to take off the air, don’t worry, there is a totally cynical and even more disgusting reason they’re being axed: there’s not one Disney movie nominated in any of these four categories. Disney owns ABC. Again, the dots aren’t that difficult to connect, and those dots put together an ugly picture that is enough for me to turn my back on the entire process.

I first started watching The Oscars closely in the spring of 1991, having just turned ten. Obviously I hadn’t watched Goodfellas, but I had seen and loved Dances With Wolves (and still do) and I wanted to see how it did. From that year on, I was by the television every spring, for good movies or bad, and I stuck with it through thick and thin and four-and-a-half hour unwieldy behemoths with awkward moments and controversy and upsets and excitement. I learned about the history of the movies and the craft of the movies, I can name any Best Picture winner from 1968 to the present, and for years I explained to curious friends the difference between cinematography and art direction. If there is any person in this country who could claim a long-standing love and admiration for everything the Oscars stood for, it was yours truly.

Now that I’ve spent enough time needlessly qualifying myself, let me just say I don’t care to see this disastrous debacle unfold. It’s disheartening. There are plenty of ways to shorten the telecast that don’t involve turning the program into a three-hour Disney advertisement , but why the hell do you have to change it at all? It’s one night, it’s celebrating an entire year of movies and a slate of films that’s expanding faster than cells can duplicate, and it should be a party where all the bits and pieces that put together these beautiful works are universally celebrated. Let it go five hours. Who gives a shit? This feels cynical and tacky and gross, and John Bailey and the Academy should be truly embarrassed today.

Its’ unlikely that they’re embarrassed, however, because they don’t really care in the end. I didn’t really care if Kevin Hart was there – and I’m glad he isn’t because he isn’t funny and we all need to acknowledge this. Having no host seems like the product of a time when just about anyone can be labeled “problematic” enough to cause a stir. It’s an odd feeling to not have a host, but it’s manageable enough to get around with a few surprise appearances during the broadcast.

The nominees themselves, well, they need some work, but there is a logical reason why they would want to include popular box-office hits in the mix. Not inviting last year’s acting winners back felt like a shot in the dark that was quickly reversed, but who knows if this latest, most damning mistake, will get corrected. But now, despite my newfound resistance to being emotionally attached to such frivolous things, this latest news felt honestly, personally, hurtful. It’s an attack on a medium to which I have dedicated years upon years of my life; it’s a firm, uncaring slap in the face.

Stop tinkering with a product that has a niche audience, because you’re losing that niche audience and the “mainstream” crowd you’re trying to lure in won’t backfill those spaces. Perhaps terrible ratings will allow a true regime change in the Academy, not this window-dressing diversity quota we got a few years ago. The only thing fans of the Oscars can hope for is that this telecast is not only a disaster but, more importantly, a big money loser for ABC and Disney, so much so that they sell off the rights, or get someone to run the place who appreciates what the Academy Awards stand for.

Play to your fans and you will find the success you so desire, but it feels too late to learn that lesson.

 

WIDOWS is a Rare, Engaging Thriller for Adults

Widows is the rarest of major studio films, a strictly adult-oriented thriller with very little in the way of pomp and circumstance, directed by Steve McQueen with attention to performance over plot. It’s a showcase for an incredible, and incredibly deep, roster of acting greatness. While it may not carry that intensity all the way through to the flat conclusion, the means to which we reach this end are worth the time.

Based on a British miniseries from the mid ’80s, Widows begins with a heist gone horribly awry on the streets of Chicago. The four thieves – led by Liam Neeson’s Harry – are killed in a fiery shootout, and the money they stole disintegrates right along with them. The missing money belongs to a wannabe city councilman Jamal Manning (Atlanta‘s Brian Tyree Henry) and his murderous brother, Jatemme, played by Daniel Kaluuya with brilliant, eerie menace. The Manning’s need the money, and have transferred the debt over to the wives of the dead thieves, namely Veronica, Harry’s widow.

Viola Davis plays Veronica, and flashes every ounce of that recognizable Viola Davis intensity in moments big and small. Veronica has no friends, she owns nothing in the home she shared with Harry, and tragedy has followed her lately. She is shut off from the rest of the world, but she kicks into gear when her life is threatened. This means bringing in two of the other widows to help her steal five million dollars: the aloof Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), and the world-weary Linda (Michelle Rodriguez).

The machinations of the heist the women need to plan takes a backseat to some tremendous character building through the meat of the picture. Aside from the situation these women find themselves in, a subplot involving a smarmy politician (and Jamal Manning’s competition) named Jack Mulligan – played by Colin Farrell, who can so easily slip into this role – and his racist father, played by Robert Duvall, expands the breadth of McQueen’s film. While the tension of the necessary heist builds, and Kaluuya’s murderous Jatemme closes in, McQueen takes the time to show us the corruption of city politics. In one extended, unbroken shot, he gives us a glimpse in the disparity between city officials and the constituents for which they claim to work, simply by mounting a camera on the hood of a car.

Despite the sprawl of McQueen’s story – which clearly feels at times like an abbreviated mini series – Widows never loses focus, and the actors are all fully engaged to a point where their dedication to the story is palpable. Viola Davis does her thing, but there are great performances big and small all over the screen.

There are twists and turns along the way, but the ending fizzles when it should pop. That isn’t as detrimental to the overall experience, however, as McQueen crafts an endlessly engaging and compelling story surrounding characters we care about in a film where characters are so often thrown into heist films to move the plot forward. Widows is unique these days as a thriller aimed strictly at adults; for that alone, it should be praised.

 

 

THE STANDOFF AT SPARROW CREEK is a Focused Thriller That Demands Your Attention

The Standoff at Sparrow Creek could be compared to Quentin Tarantino’s breakout 1992 hit, Reservoir Dogs. The setup is similar: dangerous men are brought together in the wake of a crime – in this case, a mass shooting at a public event that should remain unnamed – each one suspecting the other of being the guilty party, and nobody willing to give an inch. Beyond basic comparisons, however, director Henry Dunham’s film (which he also wrote) is decidedly its own thing, a daringly minimalist thriller that spends 90 minutes tightening its grip.

There’s no release in The Standoff at Sparrow Creek, no catharsis, there is only screw-tightening tension between an impressive collection of character actors, all working with laser focus and never showing us too much. This story is as real as it gets. It respects and challenges the audience’s ability to pay attention and read between the lines, and leaves you in moral knots as it dives into the motivations and potential madness of both Militia and police. Everyone is a suspect and anyone can be guilty, depending on the circumstances.

James Badge Dale is our entry into the story. He’s Gannon, a former cop who serves as a sort of clean storefront to the local Militia to which he belongs. Gannon lives an isolated existence in his motor home, and he’s sitting down to cut into a fresh deer steak when he hears the gunfire. It’s from an automatic weapon, far away, but not far enough. Gannon knows something has happened, and he knows authorities will set their sights on the nearest Militia.

Gannon arrives at a remote lumber yard where a handful of Militia members and potential suspects arrive in short time. The leader of the team is Ford, played with serious authority and flippant sarcasm by the great Chris Mulkey; Brian Geraghty, Patrick Fischler, Robert Aramayo, Gene Jones and Happy Anderson make up the rogue’s gallery, but the less you know about each of these characters going in, the more satisfying the collection of twists and turns will be. Rest assured that each and every participant is emotionally self-contained, dodgy, and absolutely perfect in playing in their appropriate key.

The mass shooting is the catalyst that kicks the film into gear, and as the catastrophe outside intensifies in surprising ways, we are let into the lives of each and every member of the group. All of them live a life of isolation, and the film attempts to try and exhume the demons that can fester inside a person who would find solace in something a paranoia-fueled Militia. Except Dunham’s screenplay does not demonize or mock these characters and their intelligence. They aren’t fools or rednecks, and they each have their reasons for being in this predicament. Dunham is attempting to understand the world these men inhabit with an honest approach to them as human beings, and the result is a film that breaks down any reluctance you may have towards its characters and locks you inside this lumber warehouse right along with them, digging for answers.

This is a dark film, often lit with harsh flashlights, or fluorescents, or a clicking, buzzing security light setup around the lumber yard perimeter, or a patrolmen’s wandering beam. We are given a glimpse inside a what feels like an authentic Militia, where a carefully-manicured arsenal and a warehouse full of survival gear is handled responsibly, that is, until one of the members snaps. These Militia men have radical views, and they prepare and protect their own, and they are isolated, but are the criminals? Typically, they aren’t criminals until they are, and that’s the confounding chasm where this story unfolds.

There are reveals in Sparrow Creek, and a substantial twist that lays everything you’ve just seen out on the table, open for discussion. Here is a film that exists in the greyest of areas, forcing the viewer to pick a side, neither of which are desirable. It’s a slow-burning moral puzzle that feels unsolvable in the end, and it’s the confident arrival of a strong new voice in Henry Dunham.