Thursday, December 6, 2018

A court corrupted by ambition

The Favourite features fine performances by three actresses and bravura work by its idiosyncratic director, Yorgos Lanthimos.
The moral decadence of an aristocracy has been carried to ridiculous (and, yes, instructive) extremes in director Yorgos Lanthimos's The Favourite. Set in the 18th-century court of Britain's Queen Anne, The Favourite laces an irresistible story with strong doses of intrigue, sex, betrayal, lust, and power. All that makes for a meal that should satisfy the most voracious of thematic appetites.

The Favourite doesn't pass muster as accurately portrayed history or entirely caustic drama; it exists in a world that floats between those two poles, dispensing amusement and rue as if they were party favors at a festival of human folly. Lanthimos has created a world that conjoins conniving ambition with the preening excesses of a court where the events of the day (a war to name one) are kept at an antiseptic distance.

One aristocratic faction opposes the continuation of a war with France on monetary grounds. The anti-war nobles have grown weary of financing it. Another faction sees the war as vital to the kingdom's security.

Issues of the 18th century aside, The Favourite seems particularly attuned to the current moment, reminding us that politics often eschews substance as it wallows in baser impulses of vindictive self-interest.

The story centers on three women. Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) becomes an object to be manipulated: She's a childish, impetuous monarch who falls victim to her moods and to her physical maladies. Her gout makes her moan, cry and walk with a limb.

Rachel Weisz portrays Lady Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, confidant and chief adviser to the queen, as well as her lover.

Last, but by no means least, is Emma Stone's Abigail, a Churchill cousin who arrives at the court in gravely reduced circumstances. Abigail becomes a protege of Lady Churchill and eventually tries to surpass her in influence.

Sex, as seen here, relates neither to love nor lust: It has become currency to be dispensed when necessary in the quest for personal advancement or to secure one’s position.

Colman, in one of the year's best performances, creates a queen of deep sadness and flighty temperament. Every now and again, Anne remembers that she's in charge and issues an irrefutable order, probably to remind herself that she’s at the top of this aristocratic heap.

Weisz's Churchill mixes sharp intelligence and cunning into a poisonous cocktail that shows trace elements of actual conviction. Stone follows suit in the most difficult role, an ingenue who knows how to keep her talons concealed. Abigail eventually connives to marry an empty-headed young man (Joe Alwyn) for reasons that serve her ambitious purposes.

Beautifully upholstered in foppish finery, the court becomes an arena in which these noble souls compete, perhaps because without intrigue their lives would choke on vapidity and boredom. The men in The Favourite come across as powdered peacocks who strut about while ostensibly fretting about weighty matters of state.

Lord Harley (Nicholas Hoult) sports rouged cheeks and a wig. He's angling to advance his political position as chief opponent to the war with France.

At one point, we see the nobleman behaving like silly fratboys, tossing oranges at one their naked companions, who attempts to dodge the splatter. They also engage in indoor duck racing, a sport that happily did not survive the 18th century.

The queen has her own preoccupations: She keeps pet rabbits that run around her chambers, furry substitutes for the 17 children she lost to death.

Lanthimos heretofore has been known for The Lobster and The Killing of the Sacred Deer, movies that many found indigestible in their strangeness. By comparison, The Favourite comes off as quite accessible, although closer observation will reveal much of the weirdness that has defined Lanthimos' work, this time emphasized with fish-eye lenses and a mood of sustained madness.

Steeped in human dereliction, The Favourite certainly can't be accused of dreariness. Screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara keep the story moving and don't stint on expressions of profane wit.

All of this is brought to an astonishing conclusion with close-ups, one of Queen Anne's face on which Lanthimos practically bets the entire movie. He asks Colman to reveal the queen's mental and emotional state after so much plotting and deceit. Colman more than makes Lanthimos' bet pay. Anne's look at the end of this engaging, disturbing and gleefully malicious movie proves unforgettable.

A family that steals together

Shoplifters qualifies as one of the year’s best movies.
Director Hirokazu Kore-eda won the top prize at Cannes this year for Shoplifters, a movie steeped in the kind of understatement that lulls us into acceptance as Kore-eda works his way toward an emotionally powerful conclusion.

Kore-eda (After Life, Nobody Knows, Still Walking and Like Father, Like Son) has made a career out of quietly upending expectation. This time, he introduces us to a family that shoplifts in order to eat.

Although their survival may be based on larceny, the Shibatas are basically happy and devoted to one another. The father of the clan (Lily Franky) intermittently works on construction projects but also operates under a logically dubious credo: He argues that taking things from stores isn't really stealing because these items don't yet belong to anyone. To make this clear, the movie begins with Franky's Osamu and his 12-year-old son Shota (Jyo Kairi) on a "shopping" expedition.

The rest of the family includes a mother (Sakura Ando), an older sister (Mayu Matsuoka) and a grandmother (Kirin Kiki).

In case those characters don't represent enough of a tribe, the family takes in a stray, five-year-old Juri (Miyu Sasaki). Osamu and Shota discover the child freezing on a balcony: She seems to have been abandoned and abused. Kidnapping? Of course, but Kore-eda never underlines anything. It doesn’t take long for us to believe that as a part of this impoverished family, Juri's better off than she was.

Kore-eda excels at injecting volatile movie elements (kidnapping, theft, etc.) into situations that seem entirely ordinary, even banal. As a result, we go with the flow, which turns us into co-conspirators of a sort and widens the movie’s thematic reach until it touches the borders of social statement.

Nearly all the family members are employed. Mom works in a laundry where she presses clothes. Big sister earns money doing soft-core porn in a place where men watch young women dressed as schoolgirls as they disrobe behind glass partitions. Kore-eda doesn't allow this occupation to degrade Matsuoka's character because she doesn't allow her work to penetrate her soul.

We're unsettled by the idea that the obviously bright Shota doesn't attend school, but once again, a disturbing detail becomes a matter-of-fact addition to the lives we've been observing.

Gradually, Kore-eda allows a plot to unfold and the family faces severe challenges. We shouldn't be surprised. This group scrapes by in a cramped one-room home and surely, we know that a life supported by shoplifting doesn't qualify as highly sustainable.

And, of course, this family isn't quite what it seems. I won't say more. But Shoplifters has less to do with plot twists than with finding the pathos in marginalized lives that we've come to care about thanks to Kore-eda's keenly observed treatment of them.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

A family caught in a moment of crisis

Actor Paul Dano moves behind the camera to direct Wildlife, a big-screen adaptation of a Richard Ford novel set in Great Falls, Montana, a lonely outpost where a mother (Carey Mulligan) and her son (Ed Oxenbould) have been moved by Dad (Jake Gyllenhaal), a guy who can't seem to settle into anything. The town of Great Falls marks Dad's latest stop on what seems to have been a road to nowhere. Gyllenhaal's Jerry ignites the drama, which begins in 1960, when he's fired from his job tending the greens at a local golf club. The club offers him his job back, but Jerry -- stuck in a rut created by what seem to be obscure but irrevocable principles -- refuses. Instead, he's off to fight forest fires, putting his life in danger for very little money and leaving his wife to tend to their teenage son Joe. Joe, played with just the right degree of quiet confusion by Oxenbould, tries his best to cope, taking on the uneasy role of man of the house. With Jerry off fighting fires, Mulligan's Jeanette begins what seems a willed unravelment. She takes up a relationship with Warren Miller (Bill Camp), an unlikely love interest who owns the local car dealership and whose friendliness toward young Joe wavers between sincerity and calculation. Oddly, Jeanette drags her son into the whole business, taking him to dinner at Miller's house. Could anything be more uncomfortable for a kid? The fires raging away from the town suggest a looming conflagration but the fire that rages in Mulligan's performance pushes the movie toward its sad final shot. Not always easy to read, Wildlife nonetheless entangles us in the lives of characters who defy easy definition.

Friday, November 23, 2018

When ambiguity becomes the suject

If you have a taste for uncertainty, South Korean director Lee Chang-dong's Burning may prove intriguing.
If you're the sort of person who likes movies in which every "i" is dotted and every "t," crossed, you'll probably want to avoid director Lee Chang-dong's Burning, a film that's loosely based on a short story by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami.

If on the other hand, you're game to join Lee as he travels through a world marked by uncertainty, ambiguity, and behavior that often defies explanation, you may find yourself intrigued by Burning, a movie that leaves us with the kind of space that invites speculation.

Lee brings his own social concerns to the material, setting his story against a background in which too many of South Korea's young college-educated men are unemployed or under-employed and in which class gaps have widened. Within that environment, Lee builds an artfully slow look at relationships that he never entirely defines. Then again, Lee's characters are not so much defined as sketched with small, telling strokes.

Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-lin) graduated from college and aspires to be a writer, but he's stuck tending to his decaying father's farm in rural Paju, a village so close to the border with North Korea that he often hears North Korean propaganda blasting on loudspeakers. Jong-su's father, who has anger management problems, has been arrested for attacking a local official.

Early on, Jong-su meets Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), a young woman from the same village. Jong-su doesn't remember her, but Hae-mi tries to reassure him by saying that she's had plastic surgery and, as a result, has become "pretty." Should we believe her? Questions about the veracity of what characters say ripple throughout Lee's movie.

Hae-mi pushes the relationship. Initially, Jong-su goes along without showing much enthusiasm. But after the two wind up in bed, Jong-su falls deeply in love with Hae-mi. He agrees to feed her cat while she travels to Africa in search of satisfaction of what she calls "the great hunger;" i.e., spiritual fulfillment.

It's not difficult to see why Jong-su is captivated by Hae-mi. She's beautiful, engaging and charming, a young woman who claims that people easily can be tricked into believing illusions. Perhaps she's an illusion.

Over drinks, Hae-mi does a convincing job of peeling and eating an invisible tangerine. It's her way of making her point about deception to Jong-Su.

When Hae-mi returns from Africa, the story takes another turn. It seems that Hae-mi made a new friend in the Nairobi airport, an affluent young man named Ben (Steve Yeun). To Jong-su's dismay, Ben is probably more than a friend.

Later, Hae-mi and Ben visit Jong-su in the country. The trio smokes pot and the free-spirited Hae-Mi dances topless. Ben also tells Jong-su about a strange hobby he has. Every couple of months, he burns down an abandoned greenhouse.

Not long after this country gathering, Hae-mi disappears and Jong-su spends the rest of Lee's two-and-a-half-hour movie searching for her.

OK, that's enough about what passes for a plot in Burning. The movie isn't about what happens; it's about whether the characters ever really can grasp the nature of reality. Do other people, by definition, remain impenetrable mysteries?

Burning invites us to question everything that we're seeing, a process that's aided by its cast of fine young actors. As Jong-su, Yoo Ah-in can seem obtuse, even a bit dull, but the camera sticks close to him. He's trying -- without much success -- to figure out a game for which he doesn't know the rules. Because he doesn’t always push to find the answer to questions that bother him, you may wonder whether he’s willfully keeping himself in a state of confusion.

Jeon couples the allure of a femme fatale with an adventurous spirit. Yeun conveys the sense of entitlement that has come easily to a young man who never in his life has struggled.

Lee provides strong hints about what may have happened to the vanished Dae-Mi, but nothing transpires with absolute certainty in a movie in which all the characters are, in one way or another, adrift in a society in which meaningful connections have become as difficult to latch onto as the smoke that arises from the joint that Jong-su, Hae-mi, and Ben pass from one to another.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Creed again climbs into the ring

Creed II isn't as good as the first installment, but it's no disgrace, either. Credit the cast for keeping familiar characters alive -- if a little bruised.

The characters in Creed II — at least some of them — talk to tombstones, take what appears to be life-threatening beatings, and somehow manage to get caught up in Russian intrigue.

Also, in Creed II, Michael B. Jordan returns as Adonis Creed, son of Apollo Creed and protege of Rocky Balboa, who now runs a Philadelphia restaurant named for his late wife Adrian. Rocky's restaurant seems sparsely attended, which may make you wonder how the former Italian Stallion keeps himself in porkpie hats.

Also on board for this second helping of Creed, which follows director Ryan Coogler’s 2015 Rocky spinoff, is a veteran of earlier Rocky movies. Enter granite-faced Dolph Lundgren, who appears as the vicious Ivan Drago, an outcast former boxer who now trains his equally vicious son Victor Drago (Romanian boxer Florian 'Big Nasty' Munteanu).

The elder Drago has several goals in mind: defeating Adonis, recapturing the heavy-weight title for Russia (a way for him to salvage the reputation he had prior to the Soviet collapse) and using his son to banish memories of the humiliation Ivan suffered at Rocky’s hands in Rocky IV (1985).

In this episode, which has been directed by Steven Cable Jr., we also witness Adonis’ engagement to hearing-impaired Bianca (Tessa Thompson). Clearly devoted to each other, Adonis and Bianca also welcome their first child, a daughter. If they need parental advice, they always can turn to Adonis’ warm and knowing mother (Phylicia Rashad).

Sometimes a bit lethargic, sometimes amusing, sometimes brutal, Creed II loads up on father/son themes: Adonis tries to avenge his father’s death in the ring at Ivan Drago's hands; Rocky’s burdened by continuing estrangement from his own son; Ivan Drago tries to reclaim his honor through his son; and, if all that isn't enough, Rocky plays father figure to Adonis.

Initially, Rocky opposes Adonis’ desire to fight the younger Drago, perhaps sensing that Adonis' style doesn’t match well with that of the physically imposing battler from Ukraine. Rocky sits out the first fight. Rocky, of course, will return to Adonis’ corner for the rematch, dragging his charge off to the desert for a punishing training regimen before traveling to Moscow for the championship bout.

In taking over the controls, Cable stages the big fights with as much hoopla as he can muster, even if they don't quite provide the rousing uplift one expects from such movies.

The last Creed movie felt surprising and fresh. It was fun to watch Jordan and director Ryan Coogler breathe new life into an old chestnut, and Stallone's return as a beloved screen character proved welcome. Who knew we missed Rocky so much?

Creed II drags here and there, but Stallone keeps Rocky endearing and Jordan has the kind of intensity and earnestness that makes us root for Adonis, even if the whole business wavers on the edge of a split decision: Not awful enough to take the 10-count but not quite exciting enough to be declared an untarnished winner.

One wonders about the franchise's future. Coogler moved on to direct Black Panther and Jordan, who also appeared in Black Panther, is slated to star in another Coogler movie, this one about an Atlanta teacher who alters test scores to increase his school's chance for funding. (See IMDb.)

Far be it from me to tell the filmmakers to hang up the gloves, but they could well be satisfied with having achieved great success with one movie and keeping Adonis and Rocky afloat for another, even if Creed II leaves them slightly staggered by an inevitable loss of punch.

An odd couple takes to the road

Viggo Mortensen and Merhershala Ali team up in the crowd-pleasing Green Book.
The temptation with movies such Green Book is to make too much of them. A movie about an unlikely friendship that develops between a cultured black man and an unenlightened white man too easily can be taken as a prescription for racial harmony. Better to view Green Book as an anecdotal tale which — no matter how amusing — doesn’t speak to complex racial issues that remain frustratingly unresolved in 2018.

Now that that’s off my chest, let me tell you about a crowd-pleasing odd-couple comedy directed by Peter Farrelly, who usually works with his brother Bobby on movies such as Shallow Hal, There's Something About Mary, and Dumb and Dumber To. Green Book stars Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali in a story about a trip through the American South taken by Ali’s Dr. Don Shirley, an accomplished pianist, and Mortensen's Tony Vallelunga, a Bronx-based Italian-American with racial attitudes rooted in the 1950s.

The title derives from the book that black travelers used to learn locations of black-owned hotels, motels, and restaurants in the segregated world of Jim Crow or in other racially inhospitable parts of the country; i.e., most of the rest of the US. Oddly, the book gets short shrift as the movie unfolds.

As Vallelunga (a.k.a. Tony Lip) Mortensen gives his broadest performance yet, channeling his inner Joe Pesci to play a crude — albeit ultimately good-hearted — guy who loses his job as a bouncer at Manhattan's Copacabana nightclub and lands a gig driving for Shirley. The year: 1962.

The two men are polar opposites, which in movie language guarantees that they’ll eventually become friends.

Dr. Shirley is a decorous artist who, when he first meets Tony, appears in a flowing regal robe. Educated and cultured, Dr. Shirley initially is wary about Nick, but he knows that he needs a tough guy to guide him on his musical tour through a potentially hostile South.

Once Tony and Dr. Shirley hit the road, the movie becomes a two-hander in which an incredulous Nick reveals his stereotypical ideas about black people. What? A black man who's too fastidious to eat fried chicken or listen to R&B? Can Shirley be genuinely black if he doesn’t know the music of Aretha Franklin?

These bits typify the kind of odd-couple humor that Farrelly builds into the proceedings, playing them against Nick’s dawning realization that the Jim Crow South wasn’t a great place for a black man — much less a black man the movie shows as having gay inclinations.

Mortensen looks to have packed on the poundage for the role. A man of ravenous appetite, Nick eats -- while smoking, while driving, while anything. I half expected him to try to eat the '62 Cadillac in which this bickering pair travels. For Nick, a slice of pizza consists of an entire pie folded in half and jammed into his mouth.

Ali, who impressed as a drug-dealing father figure in Moonlight, creates a portrait of a lonely man whose talent and cultivation can’t insulate him from racism. At a recital at a country club, Shirley is fawned over as a performer but isn't permitted to eat in the dining room lest the club’s white members should be put off their feed.

The two main characters are meant to learn from each other: Tony tries to introduce Dr. Shirley to what he sees as the “real” world. Dr. Shirley gives Tony a few lessons in aesthetics and sensitivity, dictating the love letters Nick writes to his wife, nicely played by Linda Cardellini.

Based on a true story, Green Book was adapted from a book written by Vallelgona's son, Nick, and you're bound to hear the movie's many enthusiasts speak of it in glowing terms. Sure it’s encouraging to watch two men fight through their preconceptions about each other, and Farrelly's no slouch when it comes to comedy. But Green Book struck me as a movie more anxious to warm hearts than risk getting under anyone's skin.

A feverish movie about van Gogh

Yes, there have been many movies about Vincent Van Gogh, but At Eternity's Gate is one made by a painter, Julian Schnabel.
No artist seems to have inspired more filmmakers than Vincent van Gogh, not only because van Gogh survives as a painter of obvious art-historical importance but because his life helped to create the classic portrait of the suffering artist, the unrecognized genius who searches for spiritual exultation but also crashes back to earth. In van Gogh's case that meant cutting off his left ear and serving time in a mental asylum.

Julian Schnabel, a well-known contemporary artist and filmmaker, now joins the van Gogh fray with At Eternity's Gate, a movie focusing mostly on van Gogh's life in Arles, which serves as a kind of preface to his untimely and still somewhat mysterious death. He was shot in the stomach but there's disagreement about whether van Gogh was murdered or killed himself. He was 37 when he died in 1890.

Schnabel uses van Gogh's letters to his brother Theo, invented dialogue and some of the actual locations where van Gogh painted to bolster what amounts to an interpretive plunge into van Gogh's alternately soaring, alternately troubled mind, conveyed with disturbing authenticity by actor Willem Dafoe.

Schnabel, who wrote the screenplay with Louise Kugelberg and Jean-Claude Carriere, presents a view of the artist as a visionary who saw through to the essence of reality in nature but, ironically, began to lose touch with reality in his own life, often failing to remember important events.

The movie's most impressive support comes from Oscar Isaac as Paul Gaugin, a far more self-assured artist than van Gogh whose lack of prominence during his lifetime continually caused him to question his own ability.

Rupert Friend portrays Theo, van Gogh's tender, accepting brother and patron. Mads Mikkelsen plays a priest who's assigned the task of judging van Gogh's mental state before he's released from an asylum and turned back into the world.

Mathieu Amalric, who appeared in Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, portrays Dr. Gachet, the physician who cared for van Gogh and became the subject of one his most famous portraits. Emmanuelle Seigner plays Marie Ginoux, another subject of a van Gogh portrait and owner of a cafe in Arles, the town where van Gogh drank -- often too much. French actor Niels Arestrup has a brief but compelling turn as a fellow patient at the asylum where van Gogh commits himself.

Schnabel spends time showing van Gogh developing his relationship with nature -- at first simply observing, then sketching and finally painting.

Van Gogh heads to Arles for sunlight but arrives at a moment when the land remains under the grip of winter's chill. A desolate image of a field of lifeless sunflowers suggests that moribund nature awaits van Gogh's reviving eye.

At one point, Gaugin tells van Gogh that he paints too fast and overpaints; i.e., he uses so much paint his art tends to look like sculpture, presumably a conversation that Schnabel imagined van Gogh and Gaugin might have had.

I had a roughly similar feeling about cinematographer Benoit Delhomme's hand-held work. At best, Delhomme uses his camera to simulate the rapid strokes of a palette knife or the darting of the painter's eyes. But an unsteady camera also proves disorienting. And some of the visual tricks of focus and non-focus push too hard to give us a view of what van Gogh might have seen during episodes in which he's losing his grip.

Then, there's the question of age. Dafoe is 63 years old. Amazingly, casting him as van Gogh in his 30s doesn't prove distracting because we're witnessing an intensely subjective account of van Gogh's final years. Think of Dafoe as the embodiment of van Gogh's old soul.

For the most part, Schnabel tries to keep his work contemporaneous with van Gogh's exploratory intellect. In an early picture episode, van Gogh approaches a young woman who's herding sheep.

"Look at me," he implores, saying he wants to sketch her.

Van Gogh yearned to be seen -- not as an act of an unsatisfied ego but as the fulfillment of what he saw as a calling. Van Gogh's desire to share his vision underlies nearly everything that happens as Schnabel moves from one part of the story to the next, allowing the screen to sink into blackness between each of the movie's vignettes.

Not one for creative timidity, Schnabel even begins the movie daringly. We see a darkened screen and hear van Gogh talking about his very simple desire for acceptance and comfort. There aren't many directors who'd begin a movie about one of the world's most famous artist with words rather than with an image.

At Eternity's Gate marks the second film Schnabel has made about a painter. His first feature -- 1996's Basquiat -- looked at another painter whose life ended early. Jean-Michel Basquiat was 28 when a heroin overdose cut his life short.

If you're interested in understanding the mood Schnabel creates in his second movie about someone who can be viewed as an art-world casualty, you might want to take a look at the painting for which the movie is named. That painting was made by van Gogh in 1890, the year of his death. It shows a balding man sitting on a wooden chair in front of a sketchily drawn fire. The man's elbows rest on his thighs. His head is buried in his clenched fists. Presumably, he's thinking about his death, which may be imminent.

Can van Gogh's subject find something redeeming in this moment of sorrowful apprehension? You may want to think about that question as you watch Dafoe become van Gogh in Schnabel's boldly conceived, if somewhat jagged, interpretation.*

My favorite movie about artist Vincent van Gogh remains director Paul Cox's Vincent, a documentary that made its way into theaters in 1987. To make his movie, Cox used van Gogh's paintings, the locations in which the painter worked and excerpts from letters van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo. The combination allowed Cox to capture van Gogh's search for transcendence, a spiritual journey anchored in the earthy realities of the landscapes that compelled him.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

An overstuffed 'Fantastic Beasts' movie

There are pleasures in the second Beasts movie, but it spends too much time running in place.
Back in the Pleistocene days of my youth, vendors at ballparks had a standard cry, "Get your scorecard here. Can't tell the players without a scorecard." We're talking about the days before mammoth scoreboards boasted screens the size of buildings. In my youth, the assumption was that if you arrived at the ballpark, you most likely came to watch the game.

I begin my review of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of the Grindelwald this way because I wish someone had handed me a character roster before I saw the movie. Not only did I have to remember characters from the first movie in the series, but I had to track new additions.

All this by way of saying that this edition of Fantastic Beasts is a bit of a muddle that advances the series' overarching story only by a couple of inches -- and takes 134 minutes to do it. Obviously, a planned five-part series can't deliver its biggest bang in episode two, but a little more end-of-picture satisfaction would have been welcome. At the end of Beasts, I felt as if the story had worked up lots of sweat but mostly had been running in place.

Director David Yates, working from a screenplay by J.K Rowling -- she of the sacred word -- is asked to juggle a variety of plot points that revolve in a dizzying orbit around Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), the series' ostensible main character, a wizard devoted to studying magical zoology. Some of Scamander's creatures live in a magical suitcase that the diffident wizard carries with him at all times.

Grindelwald, you'll learn, is an evil wizard played by a Johnny Depp, whose normal complexion has been augmented with enough white make-up to create the impression that pallor and villainy have become synonymous. Grindelwald seems to be a fairy tale Hitler, a fascist who wants to save the world with wizard pure blood before muggles (humans) screw things up entirely. The movie is set in the 1920s.

The movie opens with Grindelwald escaping from prison and moving to Paris. Among other pursuits, Grindelwald is trying to find Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), a baffled young man who's eager to find out who his parents were. Another returning figure from the first installment, Credence seems morbidly depressed.

Then there are our old friends Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudo). She reads minds. He doesn't mind. The couple provides much of the comedy you'll find in The Crimes of Grindelwald, aside from some of the better visual flourishes.

Redmayne, who seems to be wandering through the movie, eventually encounters a middle-aged Dumbledore (Jude Law) who asks him to confront Grindelwald, something Dumbledore himself can't do because he and Grindelmore once were more than brothers and friends -- or some such. Hmm.

Law, by the way, comes closest to calming the movie down to tolerable levels. His Dumbledore seems a welcome pillar of simplicity in a screenful of visual over-abundance.

Other participants in this pre-Potter farrago are Katherine Waterston as Tina, a former Auror; i.e., a wizard chosen to fight crime. Zoe Kravitz turns up as one of Newt's former classmate's at Hogwarts; the fabled school makes a rather brief but welcome appearance in what I'm choosing to call Beasts II, following on the heels of 2016's Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

Crimes of Grindelwald probably qualifies as one of those critic-proof movies that fans will support, even if they quibble with some of its choices and there are pleasures to be had from Philippe Rousselot's cinematography, from the scale of some of the movie's more elaborate settings and from some of its visual invention.

Somewhere in all this Rowling bric-a-brac, a serious confrontation between good and evil lurks. If I had a magic wand, I'd wave it and order all concerned to please get on with it.

Too embattled to wallow in grief

Viola Davis leads a strong cast in Widows, a caper movie with plenty of cynical undertow.
In Widows, director Steve McQueen flirts with high-concept formula but never allows it to overwhelm the movie's gritty undertow.

Written by McQueen (Hunger, Shame, and 12 Years A Slave) and Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl), Widows wraps pungent characterizations around a caper-film spine. If the plot strains at times, a fine cast and McQueen's scaldingly cynical view of life in Chicago keep the proceedings percolating.

Viola Davis stars as Veronica Rawlings, a woman whose criminal husband (Liam Neeson) dies in the film's barreling, violent prologue. Neeson's Harry and four colleagues are the in the midst of a robbery when they're killed.

Harry leaves Veronica with a pile of trouble. A local gangster (Brian Tyree Henry) claims that Harry owed him $2 million. He's holding Veronica responsible for the debt.

Henry's Jamal Manning also wants to shift to a new kind of crime. He's running for alderman because he believes it's time that he had the opportunity to dip his crust of bread into the municipal gravy that the Irish too long have sopped up. Manning's brother (Daniel Kaluuya) serves as his happily brutal enforcer.

In a related plot thread, Colin Farrell plays Jack Mulligan, the incumbent who's running against Manning. Mulligan is the son of a corrupt former Chicago alderman (Robert Duvall) with a sour disposition and a strong commitment to holding political turf his family has dominated for years.

So how is Veronica going to pay off Harry's debt? As it turns out, Harry left Veronica plans for a major heist that could yield as much as $5 million. Because all of Harry's henchmen were killed in the movie's explosive opening, it falls to Veronica to gather the surviving widows into an impromptu gang, pull off the heist, settle Harry's debt and divide the remaining spoils.

Everyone in Veronica's crew suffers from need. Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) signs on because she's lost her store to rapacious creditors. Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) is one step away from becoming a full-time escort, saved only by the largess of a wealthy financier (Lukas Haas) who makes her his mistress. Amanda (Carrie Coon) has been left with an infant.

Jacki Weaver shows up as Alice's unapologetically sleazy mother, and Cynthia Erivo adds last-minute energy as a woman recruited to drive the getaway car.

A women's perspective gives the movie's crime and political theater a considerable boost. Think of Widows as feminism without speeches, a genre piece featuring female characters with real agency.

It's hardly surprising that Davis proves impressively steely as a woman who misses her husband's tender embraces but proves tough enough to lead her cronies through dangerous terrain. Displaying iron-willed resolve, Veronica takes charge of her gang of widows, no easy task with this group of independent-minded women.

Widows has enough on its mind to keep from becoming one more helping of multiplex fodder. McQueen wisely lets Davis lead the way as a widow who shouldn't be messed with -- even in a world in which felons and politicians often are indistinguishable.*

*I want to reiterate that I welcome comments, particularly those that expand our knowledge about particular films or films in general. But -- and this is the point of this footnote -- I don't publish anonymous comments. Over the years, I've found that many readers have worthwhile things to say and should in no way be reluctant to take credit for their comments. So, sign your name and chime in.