2018 release

In Steve McQueen's Near-Masterpiece, "Widows", Change Is Front and Center by Keith LaFountaine

Widows is about much more than a heist. On the surface, this remake of the 1983 miniseries updates its characters and themes accordingly to further service its slick, explosive action. However, there is something deeper going on here; McQueen is not just telling a story about a heist, he's telling a story about change.

This is ironic given the events of the final act, but I think that is intentional. Rather, I am confident it is. Widows takes place during an election. Jack Mulligan is running for alderman of his ward, a position his family has held for decades. Running against him is Jamal Manning, a man of color who also happens to be involved in criminal enterprises throughout Chicago. Their election largely happens behind the scenes, with flashes of yard signs, radio broadcasts, and occasional conversations being all we see. Yet, the implications of this election's outcome directly parallel the importance of the widows' final heist. Both have the potential to change everything.

At the end of the day, though, very rarely do things change on a macro scale. While in film and television we are used to seeing these macro changes -- elections bringing sweeping change, characters attaining millions of dollars and running away to another country, and more -- the smaller, more personal changes have more of an impact. Not only is it more realistic for a person to change rather than an entire ward, it's more fulfilling for us as a viewer. Yet, it is also more difficult for us to process.

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Widows follows four women who undertake a heist in the wake of their husbands’ death. As they do, Jack Mulligan fights to win a seat for alderman that his family has held for four decades from insurgent candidate Jamal Manning.

Widows is nearly perfect when it comes to characterization. Aside from the men, who we don't have time to really contextualize due to the nature of the plot, every character is handled with care and depth. Even Robert Duvall's character -- the slimy, sinister Tom Mulligan -- has enough characterization for him to seem like a real person while also functioning as an integral part of the plot. The women are also very well written, especially Viola Davis as Veronica. Their individual stories are interesting, though the film really fires on all cylinders when they are together. The final twenty minutes are a perfect example of how consistent characterization and meticulous plotting can lead to a memorable and exhilarating climax.

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McQueen's direction is just as impressive as you would expect. His visuals are always on-point (especially one of the final moments in the film, where two characters' faces are reflected in mirrors in a wide angle shot), but his editing is particularly taut. Despite the film's runtime topping out at two hours and ten minutes, the pacing is brisk and engaging. You never feel as though the story is going to fast, nor too slow; rather, it is taking its time in the right places, and pushing you to the brink in others. Gillian Flynn's writing is as good as one would expect. Her ear for dialogue is as sharp as ever, and paired with McQueen's weighty themes, they make a great team. I would love to see them work together on future projects.

I have a bad feeling that Widows is going to get passed over this year. It's not doing well at the box office, and it's the kind of film that we will look back on with fondness. I even think this is the kind of film film professors will dissect in classes, especially in terms of its sociological themes. I implore you to go see it in theaters though, if for no other reason than it is a thrilling, exciting, and engaging experience.


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“WIDOWS” ★★★★½ 

directed by STEVE McQUEEN

written by GILLIAN FLYNN & STEVE McQUEEN

released November 16, 2018 || Rated R || 129 MIN

"Eighth Grade" Is the Coming-Of-Age Story We've Been Waiting For by Keith LaFountaine

Bo Burnham did something quite astonishing: he made a very accessible, very compelling coming-of-age film.

This may not seem like a revelation; there are tons of coming-of-age films released every year, often centered around high school students, all of whom are searching for themselves in a world that seems increasingly odd and uncomfortable. In fact, coming-of-age films tend to cover the same basic themes of alienation, bullying, breaking out of one's shell, and discovering inner confidence.

Eighth Grade follows Kayla Day during her last week of eighth grade, during which she struggles to connect with fellow classmates.

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The difference between the usual coming-of-age film and Eighth Grade could not be starker, though. Comedy tends to be the lens through which tragedy is viewed, taking the gravitas out of the latter element. While these films are still well worth watching, and can even be considered great (Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused comes to mind) none of them have truly captured the young-adult experience quite like Bo Burnham did here. Kayla Day is a regular eighth-grader, someone who I could imagine being in school with. Her experiences are grounded and realistic, from the conversations she has with her father, to the ways she attempts to interact with girls who are more popular with her. While these elements of Burnham's scripts aren't groundbreaking (as I said, these are the same themes other writers and directors have covered), his direction and execution of these themes do feel fresh.

The best thing about Eighth Grade is that it treats Kayla as a person: someone who is flawed, who is struggling with her identity, someone who wants to be liked and accepted. She feels layered and complex; when people say mean things to her, or laugh at her, we see the consequences of those actions on her psyche. Even the smallest details -- from the way her face contorts into sadness when she hears her senior superlative, to the breathless way she talks on the phone while pacing back and forth -- inform her personality without using dialogue or exposition. In fact, one of the largest elements of her personality -- her disconnect with her father -- is never truly explained until the end of the film, even though we can clearly see an empty spot at the kitchen table.

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In other words, Bo Burnham made a film that actually explores what middle-school (and young-adulthood) is like; he didn't make the typical coming-of-age film. He set out to tell a specific story about a young girl coming to terms with her own insecurities during the last week of her middle school experience. That is drastically different than what films like I Love You, Beth CooperAmerican Pie, and Superbad offered us. Eighth Grade does not offer scenes of rambunctious parties filled with drunk high schoolers, nor does it create the "gorgeous jock" character who our protagonist befriends and/or dates. Instead, it is a stripped-down, turbulent, and complex film that is accessible to the current generation of young-adults and people like me, who left middle-school a decade ago. It is for these reasons that this film will be looked upon fondly as the definitive coming-of-age film for quite some time.


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“EIGHTH GRADE” ★★★★½

written and directed by BO BURNHAM

Released August 3, 2018 || Rated R || 93 MIN