A Time For Grief, A Time for Theft (Widows, 2018)

Widows_PosterVeronica, Linda and Alice have lost their husbands in a tragedy. They discover their husbands were professional thieves. To add to their grief, they find their lives under siege, specifically from Jamal Manning.  While he is running for public office, Manning is also a local crime lord…and it so happen’s the women’s husbands died stealing from him.  He wants his money and gives them a month.

When she discovers her husband’s records of all her heists, Veronica brings the other widows together to try and complete the next heist that her husband had planned.

Widows is one of those movies that you don’t really get prepared for from the trailers.  Most Heist films are heavily focused on the planning and the heist. Widows is more interested in setting up its characters.  Everyone feels important.  We walk with them as their lives intersect. This is to the film’s benefit.  We get to really know everyone involved, both the heroes and villains of the tale.

Viola Davis gives a great performance as Veronica.  She is both vulnerable and tough as nails.  Colin Farrell and Robert Duvall play son and father of a political dynasty that are at each other throats.  Daniel Kaluuya is riveting and immensely terrifying as Manning’s right hand man.

Director Steve McQueen makes some bold choices in the film (one sequence takes place within a car, and we only hear the actors as the camera stays outside, as the focuses on the car itself). The end result is a very compelling character film that happens to feature a heist.  Managing some excellent surprises before it ends, I found Widows a very satisfying watch.

Suitcase Packed (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, 2016)

fantastic-beasts-posterIt was not long after the Harry Potter series came to a close, we got the fairly expected announcement of a new movie that would be set in the magical universe of Harry Potter.  This was certainly enough to get fans excited.  It was then announced it would be a story set before Harry or Voldemort were walking the earth.

Earlier this year they said it would be a trilogy.  A few weeks back?  It became a …uh…Fivology.  And so, this new beginning for the wizarding world is meant to kick it all off.  Set in 1926, we find that the world of Wizards is not idyllic.  There are issues with the possibility of exposure.  The Dark Wizard Grindelwald has gone missing.  Disgraced wizard Newt Scamander has come to New York and finds a problem when his suitcase full of magical beasts gets switched with aspiring baker Kowalski’s suitcase of pastries.  This forces their lives to be intertwined, but things get even more complicated when former Auror Tina tries to take Newt in.

Instead of a coming of age tale focused on friendship, sacrifice and so on, Fantastic Beasts is more focus on political thriller territory.  This is not inherently bad, but it is all pretty light in how it is handled.  There are good ideas at play, but one big twist is absolutely no surprise at all.  While the film explores surface issues such as the rules of the Wizard world and the conflicts between the various Wizarding communities.  At this time, no muggles  (or No-Maj as they are called in America) were allowed to be aware of the Wizard world.  Wizards are not allowed to have friendships with muggles, even.

The film is a bit stuffed with characters who feel like they are important.  There is  the creepy anti-magic “family” led by Mary Lou.  Her use of children to disseminate her ideas is never deeply explored.   Then there is publisher  Henry Shaw and his sons Henry Jr and Langdon Shaw.  Langdon is intrigued by the claims of Mary Lou, but his father is more concerned with his brother’s political campaign.  And yet, these characters do little to the point of barely feeling necessary.

On the other hand?  I really liked Newt and Tina.  Both are simply trying to do the right thing, and both are thoughtfully compassionate and, a little clumsy.  I found Kowalski an enjoyable presence.  He is at first stunned, but then takes great joy in his discovery of the world of wizards.  Rather than be frightened of Tina’s psychic sister Queenie, he finds it exciting.  The four make a fun team.

It is fun to revisit the Wizard World of J.K. Rowling, really, it is.  I enjoyed the character moments (especially between our four heroes).  Remember how I said there were going to be five films?  Well, as the film built up, I was finding myself looking forward to the story of these four going forward.  Except, really?  The film ends in a way that makes it clear this was originally going to just be one film.  Everything gets neatly tied up and everything is fixed, making much of the film feel rather meaningless on its impact on the world of wizards.

This will be fun for those who simply miss getting to revisit the Harry Potter Universe.  I had a nice time watching it, it is just that it ends somewhat…anti-climatically.  It is passable entertainment, but it is not quite a triumphant return.

Blind Faith (Daredevil, 2003)

Daredevil_PosterOh… Daredevil…

On the heels the success of the X-Men, Marvel pushed forward to get other properties going.  Spider-Man was in the works and so was the Hulk.  This was before Marvel Studios existed and the company was working with other studios.  There was no cinematic universe, because different studios had the rights.  Then the Marvel brass worked out a Daredevil deal.  Daredevil was getting a resurgence due to the Marvel Knights line (being one of Kevin Smith’s first gigs for the big two).  Daredevil had a classic background among Marvel books and certainly, would be less costly than Spider-Man or the X-Men.

Add to that the interest from some high profile actors and everything seemed good on paper.  And so the film got greenlit.  Unlike the X-Men, Spider-Man and Hulk, they opted to go with a director who was relatively unknown.  Daredevil was Mark Steven Johnson’s second film, having recently directed Simon Birch.

Casting news was where the strength was.  You had Ben Affleck as the Daredevil/Matt Murdock, Colin Farrel as Bullseye, Jennifer Garner as Electra, John Favreau as Foggy Nelson, Joe Pantoliano as reporter Ben Urich and the most controversial choice…Michael Clark Duncan as the Kingpin.  The fans were unhappy, because the Kingpin was a large and rotund white man.  The problem is, there did not seem to be a way to translate that without it looking pretty comical.  Duncan actually is a large man, and had both the muscle and height to be an imposing threat, as the Kingpin should be.  Granted, this was years before Vincent D’Nofrio made the role his.

Oddest casting complaint:  They totally whitewashed Electra!!! (for those unsure why this is so strange…Electra is Greek but more than one person seemed to think she was Asian)

The film introduces us to Matt Murdock.  He idolizes his boxer father (a nicely cast David Keith) until the day he discovers that his father is also working for the local mob as an enforcer.  Matt gets into an accident as he runs away and gets a chemical splashed in his eyes.  Matt is blinded, but soon discovers his other senses have taken on enhanced sensitivity.  It creates an echo effect that allows Matt to “see”.  What is really neat in the film is that they do let us see from Matt’s perspective.  The way the film shows his powers is pretty wild, a world that is turned into sensory braille.

Grown up Matt is a lawyer, specializing in helping the poor in Hell’s Kitchen by day and dressed up at night as the Vigilante Daredevil.  The police deny he exists, but he does leave telltale signs.  Ben Urich is trying to prove the Daredevil is real.

Daredevil himself is working to track down the Kingpin.  He scours seedy locations for lowlifes working his way towards the Kingpin, as the law has been unable to take the crime boss on.

The Kingpin hires expert assassin Bullseye to take out Nikolas Natchios (Erick Avari).  He and his daughter Electra are in town for a gala event.  Daredevil interferes and had a battle with  Bullseye.  Bullseye succeeds in killing Nikolas using one of Daredevil’s fighting sticks.

Electra goes on a revenge kick and falls in love with Matt/Daredevil.  Meanwhile, Bullseye is now trying to take out the Daredevil and Electra is trying to kill Bullseye, because it turns out she is a ninja because…of course she is.

In a fight with Bullseye, tragedy strikes and Matt finds himself on his own.  He is getting more and more desperate, and eventually takes down Bullseye.  He manages to get to the Kingpin, in a big fight, the Kingpin is taken down.  Happy ending, people!

The film got a very lukewarm reception when it opened on Valentines Day.  This is not a totally unexpected.  It is not a terrible movie, but it is far from perfect.  The story seems to attempt to force a lot of stuff from the comics.  It is clear that the primary source of inspiration comes from Frank Miller years.  No big surprise, as those were part of the innovative years of Daredevil (before his more recent run by folks like Ed Brubaker).

But there seems to be some problems with a single movie that takes a massive character arc and compresses it.  The film tries to take the character from a positive place and drag him through hell, all while also bringing Electra into it and having him take down the Kingpin.  It seems a bit counter intuitive, considering they were attempting to get a franchise started.  The darker edge seems like it might have been better saved for a sequel, as it all feels very rushed and not fleshed out here.

There seems to be confusion in the script as how to present Daredevil as well.  Noble hero or grim vigilante.  You have a sequence where he could save a rapist he failed to put away or let him get killed.  Yeah, he may be a rapist and therefore scum…but it really is not the best portrayal to show Daredevil so callous about death.  Then there is the moment where Daredevil dives in through a window and takes to pummeling one of Kingpin’s enforcers.  Daredevil realizes that he is being watched…by the enforcer’s terrified kid.  This would have been a great bit in a stronger film.  In a sequel, you could have really sold a tale about Matt Murdock wallowing in darkness and being pulled back to reality.  And that is what they are trying to do here…but it never has enough time to make it work.

It is nice the way they try and weave Murdock’s Catholicism into the story (with some great shots of Daredevil standing atop a cathedral to boot).  It is fairly nicely handled with some interaction between Matt/Daredevil and his Priest.

Affleck does pretty well, though he and Garner (ironically for the time) don’t have a lot of chemistry.  I am not sure I feel Ben fully carries the movie as a solo hero, he has little support from other heroes like the X-Men.  Colin Farrel is pretty entertaining and he clearly just decided to really ham it up.

The odd thing with Bullseye is he has no costume.  On the one hand, I get the concerns about his outfit from the comics.  On the other, they gave Daredevil a pretty close approximation to his comic book costume.  Bullseye simply has a bullseye carved into his forehead.

Jennifer Garner is kind of lifeless.  I never really buy Electra’s hearbreak and thirst for vengeance-even though they give us a training montage set to a Evanescence song.  The direction of the film feels pretty pedestrian, resulting in a film lacking real identity.  And nothing really saves it.  There is not a real unique sense of style to the film.

The film does a nice job in addressing Matt’s powers though-including how distracting they can be.  In the film, he sleeps in a sensory deprivation chamber.  And as I said, the times when we see things through Daredevil’s sonar are nicely handled.

But ultimately, while I appreciate the effort, in the end it is a film that is simply “okay”.  The director’s cut is actually a slightly improved version, though the flaws remain.

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