Tag Archives: steve mcqueen

‘Widows’ Swings for the Fences, Comes up Short

It’s like “Ocean’s 8” just with none of the light-hearted jokes or Rihanna and Awkafina quipping.

“Widows” is based off the 1980s British TV series of the same name, and follows a group of women (Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki and Cynthia Erivo) who must complete a heist to pay back a crime boss after their criminal husbands are all killed in a botched job. Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Jacki Weaver, Carrie Coon, Robert Duvall and Liam Neeson also star as Steve McQueen directs.

This film had so much going for it that is almost wasn’t fair. It features an ensemble cast, with half of them sporting the words “Academy Award winner/nominee” in front of their name, and is co-written by  Gillian Flynn, the author of the “Gone Girl” novel and subsequent film. It also is helmed (and co-written) by Steve McQueen, who directed “12 Years a Slave” and won a Best Picture Oscar for producing it. The final product of “Widows” leaves a bit more to be desired, but there is still plenty to enjoy in this indie arthouse disguised as a blockbuster action piece.

I have seen “Gone Girl” a handful of times and with every viewing I fall more in love with Gillian Flynn’s script. Her dialogue is fantastic, probably the second-best next to Aaron Sorkin, and there are parts throughout “Widows” where it is clear the scene was written exclusively by her. Characters have lively interactions and quick retorts, and the film just feels “cool.” Then there are some (I wouldn’t say bland, but) sequences where the dialogue and exchanges feel almost contrived and less organic, and while I wouldn’t put all the blame on McQueen’s half of the pen…I’d just say “Gone Girl” had none of those types of scenes, take that as you will.

The performances across the board from the main cast are all phenomenal, with Michelle Rodriguez turning in a career-best performance, Brian Tyree Henry taking a nice dramatic break from his normal comedy work on Donald Glover’s “Atlanta” and Daniel Kaluuya giving probably the most silently badass performance of 2018. Kaluuya has had quite the past 20 months, being skyrocketed to fame and an Oscar nomination for “Get Out” and then taking part in “Black Panther” this past February. Here he is playing the brother and enforcer of Henry’s mob boss-turned-aspiring politician, and he says more with a silent stare or a hum than he does with his limited words.

No one plays cold and cunning nowadays better than Viola Davis and she is everything you’d expect her to be here, and Liam Neeson has some quietly affecting flashback sequences as her criminal husband.

The film’s problem is that it at times seems unsure what it wants to be, or at least doesn’t come across to the audience the way McQueen intends for it to. He tries to add some fancy camera work and just like “12 Years a Slave” he loves him some lingering shots. I enjoy a long take as much as the next guy but there has to be a reason for it; there is one fantastic sequence here but another (or two) that just comes off a bit show-offy. There is so much planning and running around for the heist that the film does slog and drag a bit, and despite only clocking in at a little over 120 minutes it feels like a longer journey.

I really wanted to like “Widows” more than I did, although I will campaign for Kaluuya and the screenplay to get Oscar nominations come February. The final heist sequence has a couple heart-pounding moments and it gives famed faces like Robert Duvall and Liam Neeson a chance to remind us that they can still hang with the best of them, but the points leading up to the climax are either slow, silly or a mixture of the two. Viola fans or those who wished “Ocean’s 8” had more headshots should be more willing to forgive the flaws, and as far as adult entertainment at the multiplex you can do worse, but given all this had going for it on paper this could have been a homerun.

Critic’s Grade: B-

20th Century Fox

’12 Years a Slave’ an Unflinching Look at History


Hollywood is often accused, and rightfully so, of glossing over harsh topics and sugar coating grey areas in history. But Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” refuses to take part in that practice. The film shows American slavery in all of its horrors and evils, and it makes for an unforgettable, albeit at times uncomfortable, film going experience.

Based on a true story, Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a free black man living in upstate New York in 1841. When Northup is kidnapped and sold into slavery, he must find a way back to his family. Steve McQueen directs.

“12 Years” is no “Django Unchained” revenge fantasy tale. It is the gritty facts about the forced labor of an entire race of people, and the horrible conditions under which they suffered. There are several lashing scenes, one of which is painfully realistic and disturbing. But it hits you that human beings actually endured this; it isn’t some fictional punishment that only exists in the movies.

The acting in the movie is nothing short of excellent. Ejiofor keeps a calm presence most of the film, however when he feels he is being mistreated even by slave standards, he snaps and goes on rage-fueled rants about freedom and how he doesn’t want to just survive; he wants to live. It is a multi-layered performance that gives the film’s hero a special amount of humanity.

The film’s best performance, however, comes from Michael Fassbender, who plays a sadistic plantation owner. Fassbender portrays a man who is naturally wicked and more than just a product of his environment. He gets angry at the smallest things, such as Solomon having conversations without his permission, and whips his slaves if they pick less cotton than the prior day. It is a chilling performance that is sure to earn Fassbender award talk.

The film is not without its flaws, however. At times we feel like Solomon is merely a spectator to these horrific events, not living them, and that makes us less empathetic towards him. Also, the whole concept of the audience rooting for one hero to make it back to his family is a bit unfair, for lack of a better word. Yes, this is one movie and one story, but there were millions of people separated from their families in real life and most all of them never saw their loved ones again. So when the film tries to give off this sense of hope, it is a bit diluted since it is really the exception to the rule.

Problems with the story arc notwithstanding, “12 Years a Slave” is a gripping, horrifying and brutally honest piece of American cinema that shows the darkest part of our nation’s history. Few films have ever dared to be so loyal to their dark source material, and almost 200 years after it took place, it is great to see the story of one man’s triumph over the evils of slavery.

A moving score by Hans Zimmer and steady direction from Steve McQueen, not to mention the two powerhouse performances from Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender, make “12 Years a Slave” a necessary film that needs to be experienced by people of every age, young and old. It is a tale of perseverance, determination and triumph of the human spirit, and those traits are what make life, and the movies, so great.

Critics Rating: 8/10