Review of “Widows”

A crew of armed robbers led by Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) conduct big money heists in and around Chicago. They are very good at what they do, but one night their luck runs out. A shootout in a garage with police causes an explosion of compressed gas canisters, killing Rawlings and his three accomplices. Rawlings wife Veronica (Viola Davis) is left to grieve her loss, but she also has a much bigger problem. The target of Rawlings last job was gangster turned aspiring politician Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). Rawlings and his crew stole $2-million and Manning wants it back to use in his campaign for a seat on the Chicago Board of Aldermen. Manning give Veronica one month to come up with the money or he’ll kill her. Manning’s opponent for the seat is Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), the son of long-time alderman Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall). Jack is reluctantly following in his father’s footsteps but is just as corrupt and bigoted as him. Manning and Mulligan are in a tight race and that $2-million could be important in the final push to election day. Rawlings kept a notebook of all his jobs, including his next one that has a potential take of $5-million. Veronica recruits the widows of Harry’s crew: Linda Perelli (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice Gunner (Elizabeth Debicki). The fourth widow Amanda Nunn (Carrie Coon) has a newborn baby and doesn’t want to be involved in the plan. Each woman has their strengths and weaknesses and Veronica is the leader despite rubbing her partners the wrong way. A fourth woman, Belle (Cynthia Erivo), who babysits for Linda and works at a hair salon that’s being shaken down by Jack Mulligan, joins the crew as a driver. The group of inexperienced robbers have just a few days left before the one-month deadline passes and must learn to work together as a team to pull off a complicated plan to save their lives.

“Widows” is a smart heist movie. It shows us almost all the parts of the plan but holds just enough back to allow for a few surprises. The film also drops personal nuggets about the main relationship in the story, between Harry and Veronica, that are mysteries at first. As the film moves along, we get explanations to these mysteries and reasons for moments of drama and sadness. Director Steve McQueen has taken what could have been a very average crime flick and turned it into a relationship drama between the four women and the ghosts of their husbands. The amazing thing is it works no matter what part of the story is the highlight at any given moment.

Viola Davis gives a masterpiece of a performance as Veronica. The grieving widow shows us flashbacks to better times with her and Harry. We also get a look at their darkest time during the loss of their son. It’s a tough and intense performance that was likely emotionally tiring for Davis. She is called upon to cry approximately a dozen times throughout the film. Veronica rarely smiles when she’s on screen. The one time she does, it looks like it takes all the strength she has. Davis is a warrior and a leader as Veronica. She isn’t always the most likable character, but her motivations are understandable. She is under the gun, literally, and has a plan in place to get Manning his money. She can’t waste time with weakness, mistakes and stupidity. Despite her own inexperience as a thief, Veronica must put on a brave face. In quiet times alone in her home, Veronica can barely get out of bed, but somehow finds the strength to lead her crew. While this may not be the kind of film that gets Oscar recognition, Davis deserves serious consideration for best actress.

The rest of the supporting cast is excellent. A standout is Daniel Kaluuya as Jatemme Manning, the brother and bloodthirsty enforcer for Jamal Manning. He has a crazy look in his eye all the time. He gets in people’s faces to intimidate them and is quick to pull the trigger. Kaluuya doesn’t have many lines in the film, but his character doesn’t need many to get his point across. A simple wave, smile and wink have the opposite of those gestures usual meanings when Kaluuya’s character uses them. He’s a bully but can also back up his threats by carrying them out. You may have loved his character in “Get Out,” but you won’t be a big fan of Jatemme Manning in “Widows.”

The story of “Widows” doesn’t stick to one topic. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker that might have been a problem; however, Steve McQueen handles the various topics in the film with an even hand and laser focus. While the heist planning and execution is the focus, the story veers into politics and the corruption Chicago is famous for. The family dynasty at risk, the kickbacks, the payoffs, the quid pro quo, all is on display in the film. Embedded in the corruption is racism and misogyny. Davis delivers a line about no one believing the women have the balls to pull off the job and she’s right. Mulligan uses a group of women business owners as a prop during a campaign appearance but doesn’t let them speak. Mulligan has a female assistant that is frequently referred to in derogatory terms or ogled like a piece of meat. A couple of the wives are used and abused by their husbands. One of the wives becomes an escort to make ends meet. While her client appears to be a decent guy that can afford to pay for her company, he winds up treating her more as an employee than a partner. It’s a movie with many messages and most of them are powerful men suck.

“Widows” is rated R for some sexual content/nudity, language throughout and violence. There is a brief sex scene that shows a man’s bare backside and a woman’s breasts. There are some bloody shootings and a scene where stabbing is used as torture. There is also a scene showing the aftermath of domestic abuse. A mother slaps her adult daughter. Foul language is common.

“Widows” doesn’t waste time trying to convince us anyone in the film is a good guy or a bad guy. The real villains wear suits and the women commit a crime to save their lives. There is no black and white in “Widows” only varying shades of grey. It’s a tense film with the looming dread of death hanging over all the characters. Who lives and dies is always in doubt. While you may question whether a group of inexperienced people could pull off such a complicated robbery, you will be thrilled by all the planning, details and the execution. It’s a fantastic film and you should see it.

“Widows” gets five stars.

The holiday weekend sees most releases opening on Wednesday. I’ll see at least one of the following:

Creed 2—

Green Book—

Ralph Breaks the Internet—

Robin Hood—

The Front Runner—

Listen to The Fractured Frame for the latest news in TV, movies and streaming available wherever you get podcasts. Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman123@gmail.com.

Review of “The Man from UNCLE”

If there’s a saying that sums up the thinking of movie executives it must be “Everything old is new again.” So far this year we’ve had reboots or sequels to “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” “Mad Max,” “Fantastic Four,” “Jurassic Park,” “Ted,” “Magic Mike,” “Terminator,” “Mission: Impossible,” “Entourage,” “Pitch Perfect,” “Despicable Me,” “The Woman in Black,” “Taken,” “Hot Tub Time Machine,” “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” “Cinderella,” “Divergent,” “The Fast and the Furious,” “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” “Avengers,” “Poltergeist” and “Insidious.” And that’s just through the middle of August. The rest of the year has more ranging from another visit to the animated “Hotel Transylvania” as well as a galaxy far, far away for another episode of “Star Wars.” Many of these are or were greatly anticipated while others caused either a collective groan or disinterested shrug. Probably falling into the disinterested category is the big screen interpretation of a 50 year old TV show about Cold War spies from opposite sides of the Iron Curtain that work together to keep the world safe. While I was aware of “The Man from UNCLE” TV show and may have seen an episode or two, I can’t say the idea of a movie version ever crossed my mind. It apparently crossed the minds of movie executives who approached director Guy Ritchie to bring his unique visual style to this reimagining. While it certainly has style and very pretty people playing the roles, “The Man from UNCLE” doesn’t feel at all substantial.

Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) was a notorious thief in Europe until his capture by a task force of elite law enforcement. His prison sentence was suspended in exchange for using his special talents to help the CIA. Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) is a KGB agent with anger issues due in part to his treatment after his father was caught skimming funds from the Communist Party and sent to a gulag. It’s the early 1960’s and the Cold War is at its zenith. Solo is sent into East Berlin to help Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) escape to the West. Her father was a German nuclear scientist helping the Nazis in World War II try to make an atomic bomb. He has developed a way to quickly and easily enrich uranium and has recently disappeared. The CIA thinks Gaby can lead them to her father. In trying to escape, Solo and Gaby are followed by Kuryakin and a chase ensues. Solo and Gaby are able to escape. The next day, Solo’s boss Saunders (Jared Harris) reintroduces Solo and Kuryakin and, along with Illya’s KGB boss, informs the pair that they will be working together to find Gaby’s father as it is in the best interest of both sides that her father’s work not fall into the wrong hands. Gaby’s Uncle Rudi (Sylvester Groth) works for Alexander and Victoria Vinciguerra (Luca Calvani and Elizabeth Debicki), the owners of a shipping company in Rome. His late father started the company and was a fascist that supported Mussolini. The company may have ties to Nazi sympathizers. Despite their utter dislike and distrust of one another, Solo and Kuryakin must work together to find Gaby’s father and keep the world safe from Nazis with nukes.

It’s hard not to like “The Man from UNCLE.” From the far flung international locales to the witty banter, the film is designed to be interesting to both the eye and ear. Director Guy Ritchie pulled a few pages from films of the past to embed the notion that this is a 1960’s film that just happens to have 21st century actors in it. The action scenes are tight with little wasted space and the story zips along almost faster than the audience can keep up. It has all the makings of a giant money maker that should launch a franchise. Then why did I feel like I’d just walked through a sprinkler when I intended to jump into the deep end of the pool? I should have been soaked head to toe in nostalgia and international intrigue but instead I feel practically bone dry.

Perhaps the fault lies in setting the story in the early 1960’s: Kennedy is president, the Soviets are perceived to be the biggest threat to freedom and the scourge of Nazism isn’t that far in the rearview mirror. While I certainly remember the old USSR and the fear that the world would fall under totalitarian rule, it isn’t something I look back on with fondness or warm feelings. “The Man from UNCLE” seems to long for the day when our enemies were much easier to identify and target. Moving the story into modern times would have been easy as the U.S. and Russia don’t get along much better now than they did back then. Preventing a terrorist group from getting their hands on a nuclear device would seem to be an easy enough translation from the 1960’s to now since that’s one of the intelligence community’s biggest fears. Drop the Nazis and put in ISIL and you have a modern story that could throw in a few digs at NSA eavesdropping on all our calls and emails. It could have felt more relevant while also being a globetrotting romp.

Maybe it is due to the heroes having only a small amount of trouble in dealing with the bad guys. In the latest “Mission: Impossible” movie, Ethan Hunt gets put through the ringer a couple of times. He actually seems to be in some peril. Neither Napoleon Solo nor Illya Kuryakin is in any real trouble during the course of the story. They do get in a few tight spots but get out practically unscathed. When the heroes of a story appear to be able to cruise through any danger it makes the whole thing seem unimportant.

Despite the setting and lightness of tone, “The Man from UNCLE” still manages to be entertaining. Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer make a winning team of likable secret agents that have a begrudging respect for each other. Cavill’s Solo is the more James Bond-like with a command of several languages, a love of fine wines and a winning way with the ladies. A nice counterpart to that is Hammer’s Kuyrakin. The stereotypical ice-cold Soviet agent that has a warm spot buried deep in the Siberia of his soul, Kuryakin has knowledge of fashion as well as a number of ways he can kill someone with his bare hands. Both agents possess skills complimentary to the other. Throwing Alicia Vikander into the mix as the master mechanic Gaby Teller and you have a team that can handle just about any situation that is thrown their way.

Director Guy Ritchie keeps the action moving from scene to scene with very little wasted time. Ritchie’s style is quite recognizable with the occasional odd camera angle, the uniqueness of the soundtrack and the use of quick flashbacks that show what happened in scenes just a few minutes earlier. Ritchie keeps the eye moving along with the story and that helps to keep the momentum at a fast pace.

“The Man from UNCLE” is rated PG-13 for action/violence, some suggestive content and partial nudity. There are several fist fights with one resulting in the death of a character from a stab wound. There is a scene of torture using an electric chair. Several nameless henchmen are shot. One character is shot at point blank range. There is very little blood shown. There are some sexually suggestive sounds heard over a radio. We see a topless woman in silhouette and get a brief glance of side breast. Foul language is widely scattered and mild.

“The Man from UNCLE” is a stylish and witty spy romp that puts to full use the fashion and look of the 1960’s. It is about as substantial as cotton candy and may leave the viewer with a feeling of “that was nice” but that’s about all. Apparently audiences want more than “nice” since it was left in the dust by “Straight Outta Compton” and came in third at the box office behind “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” which is in its third week. I enjoyed the film and think it is worth seeing but I can’t say it’s great.

“The Man from UNCLE” gets four stars out of five.

Three new flicks this week and at least one of them will get a once over by yours truly.

American Ultra—

Hitman: Agent 47—

Sinister 2—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.