About omnivorous cinephile

I am a life-long lover of movies of all descriptions and most all genres. Rarely does a week go by without me sitting in a darkened theater, watching the magic image on the screen. This blog will be eclectic, dealing both with current movies as well as old favorites and classics. As well as loving movies, I am a writer (working in the mystery genre) and a playwright. I also spent several years working as an itinerant actor and director, which took me throughout the US, Canada, and to Europe and Africa.

They Live On

Too often if we think about the First World War, we view the participants as jerky, silent figures divorced from reality. Part of the reason is that’s how we’ve always seen them, in silent, black-and-white films that are scratched and faded, with strange movements as the film plays at a different speed than movies from even a few years later. Those were the days when film cameras were hand-cranked by the camera operator and could vary in how many frames/second were shot. The standard speed for the earliest motorized cameras was 16 frames/second but the hand-cranked could go down to 12 or 13, or up to 18 or 19. The sprockets in the film often deformed with age so the film jerked, and multiple printings left the footage either faded or so dark the footage looked black.

In honor of the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI, the Imperial War Museum in London asked Peter Jackson, creator of the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy and one of the most technically-gifted directors of today, to make a documentary. They had no requirements other than using original footage, of which they had over 100 hours available. They’d also collected over 600 hours of interviews with veterans that could be used.

Trying to tell the whole story of the war, including the first extensive use of airplanes, the sea war with the U-boats, and the four years of battles, would have been impossible in a single documentary film. Instead Jackson chose to focus on the trench warfare of the Western Front with the British Imperial forces, to give the audience a feel for what the average soldier of any nationality went through. At the same time, he not only restored the footage in the film, he used all the technical skills available today – colorization, computerized focus on detail, dubbing sound, 3-D – to make the footage as perfect as if it were filmed using today’s cameras. The result is They Shall Not Grow Old, a tour de force of filmmaking.

At the beginning of the film, Jackson plays off of a technique used in The Wizard of Oz. While we hear soldiers describe how they learned the war had started, and the time from their enlistment to their arrival at the front, Jackson keeps the 4:3 aspect of film from those days, in black and white and with the jerky movements. But when the men reach the front, the film opens up to today’s standard screen ratio, the color appears, and the speed is corrected. It’s a stunning moment, drawing you back in time.

Throughout its 99 minute running time, there’s constant narration provided by snippets of conversation from thirty or forty soldiers who actually were there – all of whom would be dead by now. Many of them were under the legal age of nineteen required to volunteer. Some were as young as fifteen, but if they looked old enough the recruiting officials would turn a blind eye. Their matter-of-fact tone is endearing as they describe the first adjustments to Army life. As they come into battle, living in the trenches, the tone remains but conveys the inhuman conditions they faced – surviving a gas attack, artillery barrages, rats that infested the trenches and grew fat feeding off the dead.

Jackson went to incredible lengths to ensure the film’s veracity. To dub in when soldiers speak in the original footage, he used lip readers to decipher the words, then researched the uniforms to discover what area of England the soldier came from. He’d match actors from those areas with the soldiers so when they recorded the words, they did so with the proper accent. One clip had an officer reading from a piece of paper. Jackson and his team scoured the regimental archives until they found a statement from the time of the filming that, when read, matched the lip movement in the film. For the sounds of a bombardment, the recording technicians set up microphones where the New Zealand Army was doing live fire artillery practice, using guns of similar size to the WWI era weapons. When you hear shells whistle over you then explode on the screen, they were actual battle sounds.

Following the credits, Jackson has added a half-hour documentary on the making of the film. In it, he tells about one of his inspirations in making the film. His grandfather was a veteran who survived the full four years of the conflict. However, he’d been injured often and his health failed. By the time he died at age fifty, twenty years later, he was a bedridden invalid. Not all of the casualties of that war fell in battle.

While that generation has passed, the next generation who knew them the best, their sons and daughters, are now passing away themselves. This was a true world war, and if people look back they’ll likely find a relative who served. (For myself, I had a grand-uncle in the merchant marine during the war, dodging U-boats.) Film has been a way to bridge the gap of years. When Saving Private Ryan twenty years ago, it helped vets finally share with their families what they went through in battle, after decades of stoically remaining silent. With They Shall Not Grow Old, we discover the generation prior to the one we call The Greatest had their own amazing story. The story of those young men shouldn’t be lost to history.

Here in the United States, They Shall Not Grow Old is being released through Fathom Events, so it only shows up in theaters on certain days. I’d missed the two days it was shown in December, but then it came out on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and I got the chance to see it. If you get the chance, make sure you see this stunning film.

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Something to See

2018 was a good year for the horror genre as filmmakers returned to thrilling moviegoers rather than simply grossing them out. The Halloween franchise essentially wiped away forty years of bad sequels and attempted reboots to remake the original John Carpenter thriller. The return-to-form racked up $250 million at the box office. John Krasinski made A Quiet Place, where making a simple sound was enough to set hearts beating loudly. It did even better at the box office, braking through $300 million worldwide. Then late in the year Netflix released Bird Box. While it has had a theatrical run, its main platform is the streaming service, where it has been viewed 45 million times. If that many viewings were translated into tickets sold, its gross would be around $400 million.

While Bird Box seems to have at least a spiritual thread with A Quiet Place – sight rather than sound – it’s actually based on a 2014 novel. The adaptation was done by Eric Heisserer, who’d cut his teeth on horror genre films when he started out before doing the screenplay for Arrival, for which he received an Oscar nomination. Susanne Bier took on the directing duties; she did the outstanding miniseries adaptation of John LeCarre’s “The Night Manager” two years ago.

Set in the Pacific Northwest, the movie pursues two story tracks 5 years apart. It begins in the later time, with a voice speaking over a radio: “We have a place, a compound. We have a community. It’s safe here. How many of you are there? Are any of them children? Because, the fastest way to get here is by the river, and I don’t think you could make it with kids.” But the warning about the river is ignored, underlining the desperate conditions facing Malorie (Sandra Bullock) and two young children, known only as Boy (Julian Edwards) and Girl (Vivien Lyra Blair). As she prepares them for a rowboat trip down the river, she harshly tells them that they can’t remove their blindfolds.

The story then jumps back five years as the pregnant Malorie, who works as an artist, prepares for a prenatal appointment, accompanied by her sister, Jessica (Sarah Paulson). On the television is a report of strange outbreaks of mass suicide in Siberia, moving towards Europe, but they mute the sound before seeing that the happenings have also jumped to North America. As they enter the hospital, they see a young woman talking on her cell phone in a glassed-in walkway. When they exit, the woman is beating her face against the glass. Everything rapidly goes crazy, with people seeing “something” so shocking they’re compelled to immediately commit suicide. Jessica sees it and crashes the car. Malorie manages to make it into a nearby house that becomes a refuge for the home owner (John Malkovich), a veteran (Trevante Rhodes), an architect (BD Wong), and several others, including another pregnant woman.

The action flips back and forth between the house, with the disparate group fighting for survival, and the trip down the river five years later. As if whatever is causing people to commit suicide isn’t frightening enough, not everyone reacts that way. Some become proselytizers, forcing those who have survived to look and die. The audience, however, never gets to see what’s causing the mass hysteria. Bier and Heisserer know that the unknown and unseen is much more frightening. All we get to see are the reactions of those who do see, who go into a sort of trance as their eyes change color, and then they find someway to kill themselves.

Bullock’s Malorie is another sharp characterization added to her resumé of fine performances. She has the grit to do whatever is necessary to survive, but as she travels downstream with the children, she morphs into being their mother. A mother bear, to be sure, ready to fight for her children’s survival, but a mother none the less.

Bier’s direction is tightly focused so the film’s two-hour run time flies by. One set piece in particular has had unintended consequences. The group in the house has few supplies, but one of them worked as a security guard at a grocery store a few blocks away. When things went crazy, he’d locked the store and left. The group paints over the windows of an SUV in the garage then uses the vehicle’s GPS and proximity warning feature to slowly make their way to the store. Now some reality-challenged people have tried to redo the trick, driving blind. You’d think by now filmmakers wouldn’t have to slap a “Don’t Try This at Home” warning at the beginning of the film to prevent such stupidity.

Or maybe the warning should be, “You only get to drive like this during an actual apocalypse.”

The Quiet Man

Adam McKay has a strong pedigree in comedy, having worked with the Second City Improv Company in Chicago and made short films for Saturday Night Live in the 1990s. He helped found the “Upright Citizen’s Brigade” along with the webcast “Funny or Die.” In partnership with Will Ferrell, he wrote and directed Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Stepbrothers and The Other Guys, producing the last three as well. In 2012, he continued his work with Ferrell by producing and collaborating on the story for The Campaign, directed by Jay Roach, which fit Ferrell’s slapstick style but also had a true edge of political commentary. Three years later, he won the Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay) Oscar and was nominated for Best Director for “The Big Short.” You usually don’t think of comedy and financial crisis together, but McKay tapped into the true outlandishness of the sub-prime mortgage debacle.

Now McKay has brought his off-kilter view to the bio-pic. Vice tells the story of Dick Cheney, a man for whom the exercise of power was more thrilling than fame, and who has had a huge impact on this country from essentially behind the scenes. Vice shines a spotlight on a man who preferred the shadows, and it gives Christian Bale the chance to shine in an absolutely stunning portrayal.

The film begins at the nadir of Cheney’s life, after he was kicked out of Yale for poor grades aggravated by drunkenness and brawling. Back home in Wyoming, he continued his profligate ways, running afoul of the law until his fiancée, Lynne (Amy Adams), told him he could either clean himself up or she’d wash her hands of him. He made the change in his behavior, but what set him on the path to success was an internship at the US Capitol, where he went to work for a young congressman from Illinois named Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell).

Essentially Cheney’s life breaks down into two acts, with the first act working with Rumsfeld in the Nixon White House (where he meets an operative named Roger Ailes who has the idea of creating a conservative TV news network to counter the big three broadcast networks), a brief time in exile that saved both Rumsfeld and Cheney from involvement in Watergate, followed by being Chief of Staff for Ford. With Carter’s win, he returned to Wyoming and became its lone congressman for ten years, through the Reagan presidency, before returning to the executive branch as Defense Secretary for Bush 41. Following the loss to Clinton, Cheney became CEO of Halliburton. His story could have ended there, except for a call from George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) offering him the Vice President slot.

That would be a suitable summation for a regular biopic, but McKay looks beneath the surface and highlights how Cheney’s actions changed the course of the country. There’s a telling scene early in the film where Cheney asks Rumsfeld, “What do we believe?” Rumsfeld’s response is to laugh uproariously at his aide’s naivete. Cheney soon learns his way to personal power in Washington, working with people like Antonin Scalia, lawyer David Addington (Don McManus), and John Yoo to put into practice the theory that the president, as the chief executive, can do no crime. Cheney’s tight-knit family life is also examined, including the moment his daughter Mary (Allison Pill) comes out to her parents – something that causes a riff when their older daughter Liz (Lily Rabe) runs for the Senate in Wyoming.

McKay’s style is sharp and quick, with narration provided by a regular joe (played by Jesse Plemons) who has a close relationship to Cheney that’s revealed later. You don’t have the bizarre but brilliant set pieces McKay used in The Big Short, like Margot Robbie in a bath explaining sub-prime mortgages, but he manages to give a basic primer of GOP politics over the past 40 years, and brings back to the fore items that were forgotten in the crush of ongoing history, such as the millions of emails “lost” by the Bush 43 Administration because of using a Republican National Committee server to circumvent archiving laws.

Central to the movie is Christian Bale sliding into the skin of Cheney so he becomes the heavy-set gray man from Wyoming rather than a svelte, dark-haired lad from Wales. McKay would often have his actors ad-lib scenes, requiring Bale to dig deeper and deeper into Cheney’s history and character to be ready on the set. It is a brilliant performance, and one that puts him ahead in the Best Actor Oscar race thanks to his win in the Golden Globes. Just as powerful is Amy Adams’ performance as Lynne. Carell shines as Rumsfeld, and Sam Rockwell notches another memorable performance as George W. Bush.

Filmmakers will sometimes begin their movies with a quote, using a device that authors often employ. Rather than find a quote, McKay created his own: “Beware the quiet man. For while others speak, he watches. And while others act, he plans. And when they finally rest…he strikes.” I doubt he could have found a quote that better sums up the man he reveals on the screen.

There is a tag after the initial credits, that essentially brings us up to the present day. Don’t miss it.

Possibly Impossible

When Mary Poppins was released 55 years ago, it was both a cultural and a box office phenomenon. Blessed with a score filled with memorable songs – “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” “Supercalifragiliousexpialidotious,” “Once in Love with Mary,” and more – and a delightfully whimsical story, it won five Oscars, including a satisfying Best Actress win for Julie Andrews over Audrey Hepburn’s Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, the role Andrews originated on Broadway. At the box office, it made over a hundred million dollars at a time when tickets were less than a dollar each. Given the number of tickets sold – over 110 million – it would have made nearly a billion dollars with the average cost of a ticket today. (My Fair Lady lagged $30 million behind Poppins in its box office that year.) Poppins was by far the most successful movie of Walt Disney’s career.

Mary’s creator, P.L. Travers, wrote several books in the series, so the idea of a sequel on the screen isn’t outlandish, but given the beloved status of the original, it’s an assignment fraught with pitfalls from the outset. It’s as likely to succeed as adding an extension onto the Taj Mahal or a 5th movement to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. That said, Mary Poppins Returns comes decently close.

It helps that Rob Marshall is the rare director active these days who has successfully pulled off a Hollywood musical, with his production of Chicago. His other venture into the genre, Into The Woods, was less successful, but then the source material was essentially a poison apple aimed at deconstructing the genre. The downside with Mary Poppins Returns is that he appears constrained by the structure of the original, though he manages to push its walls out a bit.

Part of the push comes from his lead actress. Emily Blunt was a brilliant choice to play Mary, and it likely helped that she and Marshall had already worked together on Woods. Rather than go to the original movie for the character, Blunt went back to the books. The Mary in the books is a sharper, edgier character, and Blunt carries off the role with an imperiousness that infuses energy into the movie.

She’s ably assisted by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the biggest Broadway star at this moment thanks to his mega-hit “Hamilton.” Miranda plays Jack, a lamplighter in Depression-era London who’d been a boy when Mary Poppins first appeared at the Banks house decades earlier. He’s retained his child-like sense of wonder and optimism, which makes him a perfect accomplice tor Mary.

The children from the original movie, Michael and Jane Banks (Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer) are now grown. Michael lives in the original Banks house with his three children (Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, and Joel Dawson) and the housekeeper, Ellen (Julie Waters). They’ve had a hard time since Michael’s wife passed away the previous year, and he’d taken out a loan from the bank where his father worked (and where he works part-time) to manage. Now the loan’s due for repayment in full, and unless they can find a way to pay it off, they’ll lose the house. Into the chaos of their lives comes Mary Poppins once again, this time riding on the tail of a kite out of the clouds.

For the animated sequences, Marshall kept the 2D style of the first movie, and even has the penguins make a cameo appearance. Technology has progressed so much in the past five decades that the animation is far beyond the original with the incorporation of live-action characters, and these sequences are where Mary Poppins Returns truly outshines the original. Also, the dance choreography is far more involved that the original, especially a lamp lighter sequence – the spirit child of the chimney sweep dance – that utilizes bicycles and ladders.

Overall the cast is stellar. Colin Firth plays the bank manager Wilkins, a wolf in sheepish clothing, and David Warner takes over the role of the admiral next door. Chris O’Dowd lends his voice to a character while Angela Lansbury shows up near the end. Meryl Streep’s appearance as Mary’s Cousin Topsy feels strained and awkward, like they got her for the movie but then had to figure out some way to use her. Better is Dick Van Dyke’s return in a role he (sort of) did in the original, the elderly head of the bank. Less makeup was needed this time, but he can still cut the rug even in his 90s. There’s also a cameo (as an Elegant Woman) by Karen Dotrice, who originated the role of Jane Banks in Mary Poppins. Sadly, Matthew Garber, who played Michael, died from pancreatitis at age 22 in 1977.

The biggest hamstring to the production, though, is the music, and for a musical that’s a critical problem. Veteran composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Whitman have created a score and songs that could be outtakes from the original film, and in the context of the scenes they’re okay. But you won’t be singing any of them when you leave the theater. They’re not memorable, or even catchy.

Another challenge with revisiting Mary Poppins is Saving Mr. Banks, the 2013 Emma Thompson/Tom Hanks flick that looked both at the creation of the original movie as well as the family tragedy that led P.L. Travers to create Mary Poppins in the first place. If I may be permitted to mix in another childhood classic, once you’ve looked behind the curtain, it’s hare to believe in wizardry anymore.

Overall Mary Poppins Returns is an enjoyable movie, but the possibility of recapturing the wonder of the original is in the end impossible.

Well Versed

Along with the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man helped Marvel Comics overtake DC in the superhero genre and begin their Silver Age of comics. Where DC emphasized the super, Marvel took a more classic Greek spin on hero – flawed, acquainted with tragedy, bound by duty. Rather than being aliens (Superman) or fabulously wealthy (Batman), Spider-Man was a teenager from Queens who had to sell photos to J. Jonah Jameson at the Daily Bugle to pay his bills. And yet, thanks to a bite from a radioactive (or later, genetically-altered) spider, he becomes a superhero. The spider could have bit anyone and imbued them with superpowers, allowing the comic book reader to imagine themselves as Peter. For the last couple of decades, Marvel writers have also played with different versions of Spider-Man, creating a multi-verse of different worlds and different times, and different Spider-people for each. It’s that multi-verse that Marvel and Sony had mined to create the animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

The central character is Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), who’s also multicultural with a black father and a Hispanic mother. Because of his intelligence, the teenaged Miles has been uprooted from his neighborhood high school and transferred to a boarding school for gifted students. His father, Jefferson Davis (Brian Tyree Henry), an NYPD officer, just sees the great opportunity for his son and doesn’t recognize the qualms Miles is having over the change. Miles sneaks out of his dorm to visit his uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), the polar opposite of his straight-arrow father, and Aaron lets Miles indulge in his love, graffiti art, in an abandoned building’s basement. While there, Miles is bit by a “special” spider.

There already is a Spider-Man in the city, of whom Jefferson doesn’t approve. When he starts to exhibit special gifts, Miles returns to the cellar to look for the spider, which he had naturally swatted when it bit him. While there, sounds draw him deeper underground to a different area, and Miles meets the original Spider-Man (Jake Johnson). Spidey realizes Miles is like him and offers to tutor the teen, but first Spidey must stop a plan by Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) to open a bridge between different realities. Things go horribly wrong, leading to Spider-Man’s death at Kingpin’s hands as Miles watches. In death, Spidey’s revealed to be Peter Parker, and the city mourns his loss. Later at Parker’s gravesite, Miles is interrupted by – Peter Parker (Chris Pine). This is an older, worn-down Peter who’s been pulled from his own reality to this different New York. Before long, Miles is joined by Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfield), who in her reality was Gwen Stacey, Peter’s girlfriend, who got bit instead of Peter. There’s also Spider-Man Noir (Nicholas Cage), Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), who fights crime in with her robot powered by an atomic spider, and Spider-Ham/Peter Porker (John Mulaney). The crowd of Spider-people is needed, since Kingpin has plenty of henchmen of his own.

The script was written by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the team who did Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and The Lego Movie, and they bring a view to the story that’s both slightly off-kilter and right on target. The story hums along with high energy and surprising twists, yet it also doesn’t take itself completely seriously and pokes fun at the previous Spider-Man movies, most notably the dreaded disco scene from Tobey McGuire’s final turn in the role. (Lord and Miller are also producers for the film.) Direction was handled by the triumvirate of Bob Presichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman, who’ve mostly worked in other aspects of film – respectively, animation, art department, and writing. Their collaboration creates a stunning piece of animation that incorporates realistic cityscapes with the color dots of classic comic books and even dialog boxes.

The vocal casting is exceptional. Along with those already noted, there’s Zoe Kravitz as Mary Jane, Kathryn Hahn as a scientist, and a delightful turn by Lily Tomlin as a very energetic Aunt May. The film features a cameo by an animated Stan Lee, possibly the last one unless he’d filmed them for Captain Marvel and Avengers: End Game before his death this past November. (The film is also dedicated to Lee.)

Spider-Man has already gone through so many versions as live action films (Tobey McGuire, Andrew Garfield, and Tom Holland), that even for the casual fan who’s never read the multi-verse comics the different versions aren’t jarring. Spider-Man: Homecoming even lifted the character of Ned, Peter’s nerdy best friend, out of the Miles Morales version. But in Spider-Verse, everything comes together to create a thoroughly enjoyable story for both aficionados of the character(s) and those who may have caught one of the movies on TV once.

Not only can everyone be Spider-Man, with this film everyone can enjoy him.

Real News, Real Casualties

With a certain occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue constantly claiming that the news is fake – especially anything disputing his view of the world – it’s important to remember that news is often written in the blood of those doing the reporting. In 2017, 48 journalists were killed worldwide, and 262 were imprisoned (73 in Turkey alone). This gives an immediacy to the new movie A Private War, which tells the story of Marie Colvin, the celebrated war correspondent for the London Sunday Times who died during the siege of Homs in Syria in 2012.

The movie begins – and ends – with a view of battle-torn Homs and a voice over provided by the real Colvin. In between the camera follows her from Sri Lanka, covering the Tamil rebellion, through Iraq, Libya, and finally to Syria. Wherever there was a hotspot, Colvin would be there. In her life she also covered Kosovo, Zimbabwe, and the Ivory Coast, though the Middle East was her specialty. The screenplay by Arash Amel is based on Marie Brenner’s Vanity Fair article, “Marie Colvin’s Private War,” and it both looks at the conflicts and their affect on Colvin herself. Physically she lost an eye, leading to her wearing an eye patch through much of her career, but the psychological costs were even higher. You can’t cover the discovery of a mass tomb of Saddam Hussein’s victims or a hospital purposefully targeted for attack without wearing out a bit of your soul.

The film does an excellent job of recreating the conflicts Colvin covered, though it misses what led her from her birth in Queens, New York, and her childhood in Oyster Bay on Long Island to her working for the Sunday Times. She’d been an exchange student in Brazil during her junior year of high school and attended Yale to get an anthropology degree. However, while there she took a class from John Hersey, one of the first practitioners of “New Journalism” which combined storytelling with non-fiction reporting to bring an emotional element to the story. A war correspondent during WWII, Hersey won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the aftermath of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Colvin did graduate with her anthropology degree but following the course with Hersey she was set on a course to be a globe-trotting reporter, first for United Press International, and then for Sunday Times.

Director Matthew Heineman is known for his documentaries – he received an Oscar nomination for Cartel Land in 2015 – and he brings a straightforward realism to the filming of Colvin’s story. But what gives the film its fire is a riveting performance by Rosamund Pike. Her voice tells the story of cigarettes and booze, all consumed in extreme quantities. While on assignment, she’s a juggernaut, doing everything she can to get the story. (One scene has her talking her way past a roadblock in Iraq by telling the guards she’s a nurse, using her gym membership card as her documentation.) Back in England, without the tension of war, the cracks kept together under pressure break open, leaving her vulnerable, even as she hides behind a prickly exterior.

Pike’s ably supported by Jamie Dornan as Paul Conroy, Colvin’s long-time photographer. A former soldier, Conroy knew the danger of war zones but still went back, this time armed only with a camera. There’s also an interlude in the piece where Colvin become romantically involved with a man played by Stanley Tucci.

When Colvin was killed, the Syrian government put out the story that she died from an IED explosion, to blame anti-government rebels in Homs for her death. However, that was disputed by Conroy, who survived and testified it was an artillery attack from the government forces that likely used the signal from the broadcast Colvin had just finished in order to target her location. Colvin had had to sneak into Syria via off-road motorcycle as the government tried to cut off any independent reports of what was happening. They wanted the story to be that they were fighting violent rebels, not blasting away at citizens who didn’t support Assad’s repressive regime. For the government, Marie Colvin was dangerous, for she was an independent witness to the war crimes they wanted to hide from the world. It cost Colvin her life.

Whether they’re throwing bombs or throwing insults, tyrants and would-be dictators know that an independent press is a threat to them, and they’ll do whatever they can to keep reporters from doing their job. Thank God for people like Marie Colvin, who speak the truth to power.

Necessity is a Mother

The new movie Widows is based on a BBC series from the early 1980s. It was one of the first writing projects of Lynda La Plante, who would later write (and produce) “Prime Suspect,” which was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic. The six-part “Widows” TV series captured the imagination of a 12-year-old boy named Steve McQueen. Almost four decades later, the boy is now a writer/director/producer himself, and an Oscar-winner for his last film, 12 Years A Slave. The win gave him the chance to do any project he’d like, and he decided to return to the story that mesmerized him as a child. Sometimes the loves of our childhood are best left in the past, but thankfully that’s not the case here.

McQueen and his co-screenwriter, Gillian Flynn of Gone Girl fame, have set the updated story in Flynn’s hometown of Chicago. In many ways, the rough and tumble gangster heritage of the Second City is a good mirror for London in the early days of the Thatcher administration, with its balkanized neighborhoods, underworld of crime, and urban rot. It predated the gentrified version of London that was created in the mid-1980s thanks to an infusion of market money.

We’re introduced to the women of the title and their husbands with short, illuminative scenes interspersed with a robbery that ends very, very badly. Veronica (Viola Davis) is married to Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson), someone for whom crime has definitely paid well. They have a high-end apartment, a chauffeur to drive their SUV, and a passionate marriage. Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) is an entrepreneur selling fashionable women’s clothes, but her husband is a drag on her dream as well as her pocketbook through his gambling. Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) is a willowy beauty, but she’s been a punching bag for both her husband (Jon Bernthal) and her mother (Jacki Weaver).

Worse than their men dying, the caper Rawlings and his men pulled was the theft of two million dollars of campaign funds from Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), who’s locked in a special election for a city council seat caused by the failing health of its long-time occupant Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall). Instead, Mulligan’s son Jack (Colin Farrell) is trying to continue the family dynasty, which has paid off handsomely through the dispersal of patronage and kickbacks from those blessed. While Jamal, a gang leader from his youth, is threatening, his brother and lieutenant Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) is a pure sociopath,

Jamal wants his money back, even though the cash was destroyed in the fiery explosion that kill the men. The only item of value that might cover that high a bill is the detailed plans left by Harry for his next caper. Rather than try to sell it, Veronica brings Linda and Alice into the plan to carry out the robbery. The final member of the team is Belle (Cynthia Erivo), who starts out as Linda’s babysitter but joins the conspiracy to help a friend.

McQueen and Flynn have essentially squeezed a full novel with all of its subplots and ancillary characters into a two-and-a-quarter hour movie. The plot twists and turns as the woman figure out how to implement Harry’s plan, and even the actual caper doesn’t end the twists. But it is also a story of empowerment, of the women playing against the assumptions of the men who think they’re in charge. In one brilliant scene, Debicki’s Alice uses the reality of what her life was like to enlist help getting a supply of guns. Just before the heist, Rodriguez’s Linda sums up why she’s doing it – she wants her children to know that she stood tall against those who thought they could smack her down.

If you like mysteries and crime dramas, and you don’t mind focusing on a densely plotted story, Widows will reward you with a satisfying tale well told.