Widows

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British artist and art-film director Steve McQueen goes semi-mainstream with his somber take on the big cast, big city crime drama, Widows, adapted from a British television mini-series that he loved in his younger days. Very much in the style of Lumet and Pollack, with a dash of Michael Mann’s Heat, the film swings big and mainly connects; it excels in characterizations, and only stumbles when confronted with straight-up genre elements, which McQueen is either least interested in, comfortable with, or both.

Viola Davis leads a small crew of Chicago gangland widows in pulling off a heist left unfinished by her dead husband and his dead gang. They’re a diverse bunch in various stages of grief. Davis is carrying the heaviest heart, and her performance is, unfortunately, enervating and monotonous. But Elizabeth Debicki spectacularly steals the movie – and, I’ll warrant, a huge new stage of her career – with a sublime portrait of a very damaged woman finding her feet by focusing on a fun new project: a heist! I hope a Best Supporting Actress nomination comes her way at Oscar time; she deserves it.

The generous first and second acts build a complex and nefarious world, populated by difficult and complicated people. Besides the female widow crew – rounded out by Michelle Rodriguez and Cynthia Erivo – there are a bunch of men, all shades of nasty, including Colin Farrell, Liam Neeson, Robert Duvall, and most interestingly Brian Tyree Henry (Paper Boi in Atlanta) and Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out). This is the Lumet-type universe, where a city is sketched in by its power-playing inhabitants, and where crime and the city go hand in hand. The third act, unfortunately, which includes the heist, feels rushed and confused, and the ending left me scratching my head. Thinking back on all of McQueen’s films (I’ve seen them all), endings are not his strongest card. Perhaps he’s simply far more intrigued in examining his characters than saying goodbye to them. Indeed, the closing moments of Widows almost imply a sequel, as odd as that sounds. I’d certainly come back for more.

LAST LOOKS, FINAL CHECKS: POTENTIAL OSCAR UPSETS

Well, tomorrow they’re not gonna matter more than a hill o’beans except to the winners, but it’s Oscar Day, so some final thoughts are due.

Every year, the punditry (of which I am part) gets noisier, more crowded, but also – I guess because of the first two – more accurate. The Oscars are losing their surprising quality. When I was a kid, I could cross my fingers ‘till they ached hoping that Raiders of the Lost Ark was going to win Best Picture; these days, by the time I’ve read the blogs, heard the radio spots, and checked the bookie’s odds, I know what is likely to pan out (and it wasn’t going to be Raiders). I have put my money where my mouth is before (by laying bets), and I’ve won. I decided to stop doing that because it took a little of the fun out of it for me.

But there are still, always, thankfully, some surprises. So here are a few concepts of what might happen. In other words, some possible upsets.

surprised-little-boy1GRAVITY WINS BEST PICTURE

The money’s all on 12 Years a Slave to take the Producer’s prize at the end of the night, and Alfonso Cuarón is as much of a lock as has ever been for Best Director. But everyone I speak to says something along the lines of, “Look, I loved 12 Years A Slave, but for me, the best picture of the year was Gravity.” Some of these people vote. A lot of the voters, I suspect, feel this way. All those sneaky votes for Gravity may just end up in… a win for Gravity.

LEONARDO DiCAPRIO WINS BEST ACTOR

All the money’s on Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club, he deserves it, he’s won all the others, and he’ll almost certainly win it. But DiCaprio has been campaigning like no-one has ever campaigned before, particularly “behind closed doors” – ie, through his Top of the World contacts and status in Hollywood. He wants this award more than anyone in this race wants an award. He bought the rights to Wolf of Wall Street, he went through all sorts of financing hell to get it made (over seven or so years) and it’s become an astronomical financial success and a huge favourite with audiences despite lacklustre reviews. Leo’s the Last Man Standing in Hollywood, the only performer left who can open a picture, guaranteed (Will Smith having fallen to the mat with After Earth, big time). If Leo has said to enough people, on closed lines and in private rooms, “vote for me this one time, and I owe you one”… then, in a huge upset, he may just, bizarrely, win an Oscar tonight.surprise

SANDRA BULLOCK WINS BEST ACTRESS

Even more unlikely, Bullock leapfrogs Amy Adams to then push Cate Blanchett off the podium to take home that weirdest of concepts: an acting gong for Gravity. She hasn’t won anything leading up to the Oscars and Blanchett has had her face stamped with “Oscar Winner” since Blue Jasmine hit the screens months ago. But Gravity only works if the (essentially only) character works, she owned it, and by now everyone knows what a new-fangled method of performance was involved to actually play the role, stitched up like a cyborg in all sorts of contraptions all day, being hurled around and imagining… everything. It’s old-school versus new school, Blanchett essentially giving a performance that smacks of theatre training. If Bullock hadn’t won for The Blind Side a couple years back, I’d consider her a lock. But she did, kind of unfortunately.

gabby-sidibe-laura-linney-big-c-surprise-04THE WIND RISES WINS BEST ANIMATED FEATURE

Every bookie in the world would shoot themselves if this happened, as Frozen is already considered The Greatest Animated Film Ever, a true cultural phenomenon, the saviour of all the teenage (and younger) girls in the world; it’s already been green-lit as a Broadway musical, a “Sing-A-Long” version is already playing in theatres, and the DVD will probably outsell the light bulb. But Hayao Miyazaki has stated that The Wind Rises will be his last feature film, it’s made for adults, it quietly takes the concept of animated feature films into new areas, and Hayao Miyazaki has stated it’s his last film. If Picasso was offering his last painting against a still-productive Warhol’s Soup Cans, which would you vote for? It’s that kind of choice.GomerSurprise-271x322

20 FEET FROM STARDOM WINS BEST FEATURE DOCUMENTARY

If this slight, feel-good peek at what is undoubtedly a fun and deserving subject wins over the ground-breaking, bold, challenging and completely original brain-f**k The Act of Killing, it may come as no surprise to anyone who prefers slight, feel-good movies about celebrity to bold, challenging mind-f**ks about mass political slaughter.

HER WINS ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

There’s a lot of love for Spike Jonze’s Her, but not a lot of room to give it any awards. Here’s a spot; it would take a statue away from David O. Russell for American Hustle (isn’t that fun to say?) but in the last couple of weeks, not everyone is saying they liked that script nearly as much as the performances it inspired.

surprise-01ANYONE WINS BEST MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING

Dallas Buyers Club reportedly had a hair and makeup budget of $250, which was used to make sure that McConaughey and Jared Leto were always at the right stage of their HIV+ effects. This was really tricky, as the film had an independent film’s shooting schedule – that is, short and out of sequence. Although the actors lost weight, their characters still had to be leaner, and “sicker”, some days more than others. It’s really subtle work, the kind that doesn’t normally even get nominated here (see The Wolfman for the kind of film that wins the Oscar). Bad Grandpa’s makeup is astonishing, and really should win, as the whole film is predicated on that makeup being so good as to fool “civilians” (while they’re surreptitiously filmed) into believing Johnny Knoxville is 86. The thing going against it is that it’s a prank movie called Bad Grandpa. And The Lone Ranger just seems to be here as some sick joke. What’s missing is American Hustle, which used hair and makeup as an essential metaphor for its themes of artifice, illusion and trickery.

The Big Ones

Film Mafia now continues its prognostication and comment on the upcoming Event Of The Year. Comments welcome! And don’t forget to listen to the Movieland Podcast — click on the pic to your left.

Best Director and Best Picture

Alfonso!
Alfonso!

As seems to happen more and more these days, these two categories are gonna split. As Ang Lee got Best Director for the astonishing technical virtuosity of Tiger On A Boat, sorry – Life Of Pi, so too will Alfonso Cuarón win Best Director for Gravity. And so he should. Cuarón did this: he imagined the unfilmable – and then he filmed it. The director’s branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences all know this, and they’re going to give him the Oscar. It’s a lock. And so it should be…

Star Wars... not Best Picture.
Star Wars… not Best Picture.

But Gravity isn’t going to win Best Picture. It should, but it won’t. No matter how astonishing it is, it is Sci-Fi. Star Wars didn’t win, 2001: A Space Odyssey didn’t win. And those two, just like Gravity, deserved to win. Sci-Fi doesn’t win Best Picture at the Oscars.

2001... not Best Picture.
2001… not Best Picture.

You would think this left 12 Years A Slave for the Best Picture slot as a lock, but this isn’t necessarily the case. American Hustle is not just in the mix, it’s neck-a-neck. How can this be so? There are a few explanations. One is that 12 Years A Slave has a reputation of being a “difficult” watch because of “unprecedented brutality” (both unwarranted charges: Django Unchained was tougher in this regard – remember the Mandingo fight and the hot box?) The Academy’s membership remains at an average age of 63 years old. Some of those old geezers will simply not have watched the film. However, American Hustle is a breezy, easy watch, totally accessible to anyone, and will have been watched by everyone who got a screener (which is every single Academy member). This alone could easily put American Hustle onto the podium.

American Hustle... not just in the mix, but a 50/50 chance for The Big One.
American Hustle… not just in the mix, but a 50/50 chance for The Big One.

There’s also a brimming undercurrent of resentment – rarely vocalised but real enough – that America’s great slavery movie has been made by Britain (actually, America’s great slavery movie as made by America is Django Unchained). Director Steve McQueen is British, the cast is British. It’s a British movie about not only a uniquely American subject, but one that every single American is ashamed of. It’s kind of a fuck-you – or at least, is perceived by some as such.

By contrast, American Hustle is so American it even has “American” in the title.

Mcqueen... Too British?
Mcqueen… Too British?

So where to place your money on this one? I can’t call it. To me it’s a fifty-fifty between Slave and Hustle. If they were my awards to give (see the Movieland Awards elsewhere on this page) Gravity would win. But, if I had to give the award to Slave or Hustle, I’d give it to Slave. I loved them both, but a movie begins with the thought of making it, and I really appreciate that McQueen has taken an absolutely astonishing, fundamentally important historical text and given it the screen treatment it deserved, retaining its language, its idiosyncrasies (both main slavers are incredibly nuanced and strange as they are in the actual book) and its essential raison d’être, being the story of one man’s journey, as told by that man.f834f891-852d-428b-9aad-20113fe21194

But McQueen won’t be taking out that Best Director award. That’s all Cuarón.