Widows review

Steve McQueen adapts Lynda LaPlante’s iconic mini-series Widows, leaving behind London for inner city Chicago, tackling race, capitalism and contemporary America along the way.

Steve McQueen is a director who, through a handful of exceptional films tackling tough subjects, has cemented himself as one of the best filmmakers working today. From Hunger and Shame to 12 Years a Slave and, now, Widows – perhaps his most Hollywood effort to date – when news hits that McQueen is working on something new, there is a collective buzz among film critics and fans. So, with the release of Widows, an Americanised version of a very British 80’s drama series, we expect big things.

In Widows, Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and his crew make money stealing from gangsters but their latest job goes wrong leaving their wives to pick up the pieces. Viola Davis is Rawling’s wife Veronica; a wealthy woman who, upon losing her husband, is left with nothing. Threatened by gangster-turned-politician Jamal, she recruits the other lost wives to pull off a heist laid out by Harry. McQueen unites a cast of superb actresses, supported by a handful of acclaimed actors, for a reimagining of Lynda LaPlante’s much-loved heist story. It’s a simple premise which delivers a fantastic twist, but something is slightly amiss.

The treat of the film comes with the cast. Oscar winner Viola Davis is exceptional as Veronica; a woman whose experiences with loss have left her cold and, ultimately, alone. Daniel Kaluuya is excellent as Jatemme, Jamal’s psychotic brother with a penchant for violence. It’s great to see him flex his acting muscles, playing a character who is truly awful, and believably so. The youngest of the esteemed cast, his role leaves a memorable mark, alongside Elizabeth Debicki whose character transforms her emotional vulnerability into a surprising strength. Michelle Rodriguez is cast against type; frequently known as a bad-ass heroine, here she is seemingly out of her depth as a young mother fighting for economic survival. The film establishes McQueen as a director fascinated with people, one who directs with such a fierce virtuosity and understanding of human nature.

Gillian Flynn’s screenplay is paired back and refreshingly realistic; there isn’t a trace of unnecessary dramatics, with the characters reacting to events in a wholly relatable fashion. Every aspect of the film comes together to make it a complete movie that is really rather excellent, but the genre detailing isn’t as fast-paced or exciting as expected and this ultimately leaves us with a sense of dissatisfaction come the end scene.

Carefully, considerately shot – with an ensemble cast of dreams – Widows is, as expected, a fantastic film, but when the final job comes it doesn’t quite deliver the genre punch we came for.

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri review

In Martin McDonagh’s newest film Mildred (Frances McDormand), a mother grieving the murder of her teenage daughter, pays for three messages to be painted on deserted billboards. The messages question local Police Chief Willoughby’s ability to find the culprit and rile the small town, setting off a chain of bizarre and violent events.

McDonagh’s third film is a pitch-black comedy that hits you like a punch in the chest with shocking violence and dark wit. Three Billboards is certainly not for everyone, but those who do get it will simply adore it.

Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes.

The director and writer follows up indie-hit Seven Psychopaths with a feature of the same vein. Three Billboards is similarly blood-soaked and comedic, yet different in the unsuspecting warmth that creeps in among the dark cracks. Another star-studded affair, the film utilises its starry talent well and introduces the audience to some brilliant young new actors (Lucas Hedges is again spectacular).

The hype is real, folks. Frances McDormand is heart-achingly sensational as Mildred, a character whose former life is over and whose current life is ruled by grief, anger and quiet despair. McDormand is given free reign with this role as McDonagh allows her to explore her range, showing herself a true character actress. The results are nowhere short of magnificent. Giving an eye-watering performance that will go down as one of the best in history, McDormand is simply one of the greatest thespians to have walked this earth.

Three Billboards is a film of memorable performances. Every scene offers something to remember from another of Hollywood’s finest. Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell are both on top-form, the latter flexing his muscles as a racist cop with a true penchant for violence. Rockwell is often memorable, but here he’s something else, giving such complexity to a character who could otherwise be totally one-dimensional. Although the final scene feels initially abrupt and unfulfilling, the importance of the film as a whole creeps up after watching and banishes any initial disappointment.

Three Billboards is completely challenging but completely worth the watch. Wholly uncomfortable in moments yet giggle-inducing and downright silly in others, McDonagh has somehow created his own sub-genre, and may his spellbinding work as auteur continue on.

Sing Street Review

John Carney has shown himself to be a director of sheer, charismatic artistry. Creating feel-good comedy dramas that feature relatable characters and charming narratives, Sing Street is just the latest in a string of unmissable stories from Carney.

Reminiscent of The Commitments – and starring Maria Doyle Kennedy from Alan Parker’s cult hit – Sing Street is the lively, yet gently sentimental, story of Cosmo and his pals who put together a band to emulate their favourite 1980’s artists in order to escape the every day struggles of a Dublin in the grasp of economic strife. Queue fantastic musical elements, inspirational train rides and slow-mo walks – for the expected genre conventions are all present -, but with a sprinkling of originality.

Sing Street hits you in the face with witty comedy and heartfelt emotion, you’ll laugh and cry, and you’ll relish in the representation of adolescent relationships, from brotherhood to romance. John Carney directs with a whimsical eye, taking his viewers on a fun-fueled adventure through finding your feet in the tricky landscape of high school. His layered screenplay is lifted further by an ensemble cast of exceptional young actors, supported by some of the countries most-loved talent including Aidan Gillen, Don Wycherley, Lucy Boynton and Jack Reynor.

Walsh-Peelo and Boynton in Sing Street

Walsh-Peelo and Boynton in Sing Street

Ferdida Walsh-Peelo is brilliantly complex in the lead role as young musician Cosmo, falling in love with Boynton’s Raphina in a beautifully innocent plot thread that very nearly steals the whole film. Reynor is similarly outstanding as Cosmo‘s brother Brandon, a young adult who has lost his way in life. The relationship the two brothers share lends to several memorable moments in which Sing Street stands out as not just another teen drama, but an innovative story of navigating life with the support of those around you. All of this is wrapped in an Irish wit that is amiss in many similar titles, and features a number of toe-tapping original songs that capture the spirit of the time well.

A tale of the tribulations of family and friendship, a celebration of the bonkers style and diverse music of the 1980’s, and a sheer riot to watch, Sing Street is very simply unmissable cinema.

 

Southpaw – This Gritty Boxing Drama Just Misses The Mark

Director Antonie Fuqua has displayed diversity in his work as a filmmaker. That diversity hasn’t always hit the mark, but one constant trait is a narrative full of grit and a visual that hits you straight in the jugular. Fuqua became a name to remember with his hard-hitting cop drama Training Day, since that effort he has flirted with various other feature films and with Southpaw the director returns to genre filmmaking. The 2015 movie is not a completely rewarding effort but it tackles the sport well and will leave you satisfied.

Southpaw has the story, the leading man – and even the theme song – to please any hardcore boxing fan. Jake Gyllenhaal is an absolute triumph as 4-time lightweight world champion Billy Hope. The protagonist is hungry for the win and loyal to his family, made up of wife Maureen (Rachael McAdams in a short but poignant role) and daughter Leila (Oona Laurence). Hope grew up in the system and stands as a kind of poster child for rebellious youth made good, he rides that wave as one of the most famous sportsmen in the world. If you’ve seen the trailer you’ll know the rest for, unfortunately, there isn’t much touched upon in the full feature that goes amiss in the promotional teaser.

jake gyllenhaal and rachel mcadams in southpaw

jake gyllenhaal and rachel mcadams in southpaw

The film follows the formula of most boxing features but when done right this structure is an instant win. As an audience we see Hope go from having it all, to losing it all, to fighting (literally) to attain the former once more. The issue is the slow pace of the first half which eventually picks up once Forest Whitaker’s Tick Wills is introduced. You guessed it, Whittaker is the owner of a gym and he reluctantly becomes Hope‘s trainer. Gyllenhaal shares a touching chemistry with his co-star as together they embark on the boxers journey to emotional recovery. The leading man embodies his character appropriately and while he’s not entirely likeable his charectarisation is real and gritty as hell.

Fuqua knows how to direct his actors and because of this he prompts the best performance possible from all involved, with Laurence and McAdams both putting in stand-out supporting roles. While the ensemble is one of complete strength (and Hollywood appeal) – and a star might even have born in the shape of Oona Laurence – the story by Kurt Sutter lacks in all areas. There are several themes that could have been successfully explored, but the narrative becomes cliched and side-stories are never fully realised. The pacing is all wrong and there’s too much time spent studying a gym, rather than the people inside of it.

This is a good effort but it hasn’t got a patch on recent success story Creed.

6 Years, review

Hannah Fidell’s adolescent romantic drama 6 Years is an emotive, realistic depiction of a relationship on the brink of despair. That despair, is constant. And that continuity verges on boring. But with strong performances from the leads Taissa Farmiga and Ben Rosenfield, Fidell’s budget flick achieves something, even if that something is only minute.

Remember the days of straight to VHS? Yeah, me too. It usually meant the film had a terrible cast, an even worse narrative, and a budget to match. In the contemporary film market today, it doesn’t. There are an array of stellar independent films that don’t meet the audience they deserve due to a window release system that favors blockbusters and star-power over underplayed quality. While Fidell’s 6 Years doesn’t quite match up to similar movies The Spectacular Now, Adventureland and Short Term 12, it does warrant an appreciative audience. Thanks to Netflix, the film should receive it, with AHS fans chomping at the bit to see an on-screen return from Farmiga.

Director and writer Fidell tells the story of Mel (Farmiga) and Dan (Rosenfield), a young couple reaching adulthood who have been in a relationship for six years. As they embark on different journeys their romance becomes entangled in bitterness, jealously and violence as we watch this sad couple attempt to make things work. Supporting performances come from Friday Night Lights actress Dana Wheeler-Nicholson and Bates Motel‘s Joshua Leonard and the ensemble are strong. The performances from this somewhat unappreciated (and perhaps, relatively unknown) cast are what keeps the feature together and the plot moving along. The biggest issue is what you gain as a viewer. Apart from feeling genuinely moved at the strength of Farmiga’s role as Mel, it’s hard to take away anything much from this 80 minute drama that, simply put, is incredibly glum. With lots of alcohol, self-destructive behaviour, and one or two uncomfortable scenes, 6 Years will sit comfortably amongst 16-25 year old’s but will struggle to find a wider demographic.

farmiga and rosenfield in 6 years

farmiga and rosenfield in 6 years

It’s not all bad, though. There’s an interesting exploration of underlying violence in relationships that isn’t pin-pointed often enough in popular culture, and the bravery of Fidell to include this as a theme – as well as be sure not to over-play or under-play that – is intelligently done. This in itself is thought-provoking and creates a divide between the two leads, forcing us to choose a side and stick to it. Although, thanks to the complexity of long-term relationships and the strength of the script, you will find yourself swapping from Ben to Mel and back again. The visuals are great, too. Lot’s of visceral colours make for a truly contemporary movie, and it’s an attractive feature. The repetition of house-parties and flashing lights becomes predictable though and as a viewer we just want to see this bleak story move forward. It doesn’t happen and therefore never fully engages its audience.

6 Years is an authentic – if somewhat under-whelming – story of a young couple and their tribulations. Farmiga and Rosenfield have a genuine chemistry that is electric and toxic at all of the right moments. These performances alone save the film from the dark depths of melodramatic indie territory and propels Hannah Fidell’s second feature into positive territory. It won’t blow you away, but it’ll make you think.

Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station

With nothing planned this evening and Netflix at my disposal, I decided to sit down for a little movie night. Usually, I’d go for a film I have already seen and enjoyed with want for a quick decision. Tonight, I chose something different. Having heard of Fruitvale Station through the grapevine I chose to give it a go, knowing little about the film apart from it being based on a true-story that involved police brutality. At only one hour and twenty-five minutes long, I can safely announce that this film will never be forgotten. Not by me, nor by anyone who has taken the time to sit and experience Oscar Grant 111’s last hours.

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ariana neale and michael b. jordan in coogler’s feature

On New Years Eve 2008 Oscar Grant spent the day like he perhaps usually would; he dropped his daughter Tatiana to school, he spent the evening with his mother, girlfriend and family, and he celebrated the New Year with friends in San Fransisco, watching as the fireworks took flight. Returning home, Grant was involved in an altercation on the train. The train stops, police arrive, and Grant – and his friends – are all picked out and sat down. From that moment, whatever happened before becomes irrelevant. The police act on a basis that can only be described as racial prejudice, and Grant is shot in the back. On January 1st 2009, Oscar Grant lost his life. His daughter, Tatiana lost her daddy. His girlfriend Sophina Mesa, lost the father of her child. His mother, Wanda Johnson, lost her son. The police officer that committed homicide? Well, he was sentenced to two years in prison and received eleven months. Fruitvale Station is a kettle boiling steadily, quietly waiting to openly, boldly, bravely, confront the misjustice of the corrupt police officers, and the racial stigma in contemporary America. Many know it still exists, only few are brave enough to address it – Ryan Coogler does it here with empathy and authority.

Michael B. Jordan portrays Grant, and it’s impossible for any critic or audience member to comment on whether the actor has done him justice. That is for Grant’s family to decide, but I get the feeling that had they disagreed with the performance, Fruitvale Station wouldn’t of met its audience. Coogler’s film isn’t an exploitation piece, it a pivotal – and poignant – look at an unfathomable crime. A crime that was acted out by someone citizens of America, no matter what race, or social background, should be able to depend on – and more importantly, trust. The crime itself is just a small scene within the film, the feature is dominated by moments of Grant with his family, the love that they shared together. Coupled with this, are asides of a pensive man, looking back on his time in prison as he decides to once and for all turn away from his life of crime. Coogler doesn’t portray Grant as a perfect 22 year old guy – that would of been so easy. Instead, Grant is seen to be there for his family, desperately trying to attain financial stability. He has a temper, he’s done time, but he’s human. Grant isn’t made out to be a heroic figure, but someone trying to be there for those around him. A positive and upbeat character, a man who shouldn’t of had his life stolen from him so early.

michael b. jordan in fruitvale station

michael b. jordan in fruitvale station

Director Coogler is just 29 years old himself, and was a graduate student when Grant was shot and killed. Coogler knew instantly that he needed to tell the story of what happened at Fruitvale to the rest of the world, and that he successfully did. Going on to win two awards at Sundance, Coogler’s first directorial feature is as powerful and moving as anything from a helmer who’s been in the business for years. Ludwig Goransson composed the films score, which the musician himself describes as “Haunting.” – that, it is. Quiet and instrumental, the score plays an important role in reminding the audience of what is to come, which doesn’t lend to a feeling of impending doom, rather a sense of urgency that Grant see’s his family. Acts of prayer, intimate yet never intrusive, witty scenes of Jordan as Grant brushing his teeth with his daughter (portrayed here by young talent Ariana Neale) for the last time – these are so straightforward, yet they take on a new importance here. Octavia Spencer as Wanda is a treasure, she possesses the faith and hope of a mother. She is as natural as any parent, who all channel so much love to those around them. Spencer’s final moments in the film are so special, full of depth and respect – no overacting in sight here.

There is so much powerful emotion in Fruitvale Station. This emotion might come from the total obscenity of what took place on January 1st. It might also come from the careful and thoughtful manner in which Coogler and team went about adapting such an event for a mass audience. Beyond this, it could be based on the tragedy of the realization that America is still a divided nation. Whatever it is, it’s an accomplishment from the cast and crew who so tentatively put together this crucial feature.

Magic Magic, review

In 2013 director Sebastian Silva gave us pensive drama Magic Magic. Boasting a kind of who’s who of young contemporary indie actors – Juno Temple, Michael Cera and Emily Browning – the film stands as a portrait of the varying stages of mental illness as Temple’s Alicia suffers a breakdown while away on holiday in Chile. It all sounds rather morbid on paper, and it’s pretty damn morbid on screen, too. But, Silva’s film is a pivotal exploration of the paranoia, loneliness and most importantly – danger – of unrecognised psychological problems.

Temple has built up her career since her St Trinian days in a number of independent flicks that can definitely come under the out-there status of a lot of art-house productions. She has had central roles in Killer Joe (alongside the veteran of kookiness Matthew McConaughey) and Horns and smaller, but no less impressive, turns in blockbuster fare such as Atonement and The Dark Knight Rises. In Magic Magic as Alicia Temple takes front, back and centre as she leads us through her journey from semi-normality into the unhinged realm of her mind as her health deteriorates. Interestingly – and rather boldly – Alicia is not particularly likeable, but Silva and Temple are sure to entice sympathy from viewers as her state worsens. What we view over 98 minutes is Alicia’s loss of her ‘self’ as she becomes a stranger to those around her. This element to the film holds a genuine sense of foreboding for we ask ‘Who is the threat?’, the last 30 minutes follows a kind of ticking time bomb structure as we await to find out the terrifying outcome we all know is coming.

juno temple as alicia in magic magic

juno temple as alicia in magic magic

Temple is certainly triumphant as a young woman encapsulated by paranoia and mental health issues. She balances moments of true joy and normality with sudden outbursts, which lends to a realistic depiction of a girl on the brink of desperation. For, depression has areas of light and dark and the actress is sure to represent both. Supporting her is the always wonderful, always kooky, and always downright eccentric, Michael Cera. A key name in the world of quirky dramas Cera is often recognised as the adorable underdog who rises up victoriously and steals the hearts of everyone involved. Here, he is far removed from that stereotype and instead plays a traveler who is, yes, both kooky and eccentric, but laddish and unthoughtful. He also portrays this youthful belief that he is immune to the troubles of the world. The latter is not an unlikeable quality, but it does lend to an unexpected naivety as Cera portrays Brink. Temple and Cera share an uncomfortable scene together which in many respects could be seen as sexual assault from a female to a male. Silva does not linger on this and the scene is not uncomfortably long, with no harsh camera angles. Instead Cera – Brink‘s – reaction is pondered upon and this signals the change in Alicia as she finally becomes a danger. Beyond this, the sudden and shocking act is a reminder of why mental health should be pin-pointed sooner, and never ignored. Silva should be congratulated on tackling the subject, despite the morbidity that comes with it here.

At only 98 minutes Silva’s somewhat daring feature still feels too long. Eeery and silent for the majority, Magic Magic is reminiscent of indie thrillers such as Preservation – which while far removed narrative wise, rely on silence and non-diegetic scores for effect. Effective? Yes. At times a little overbearing? Most definitely. Silva also appears to lose sense of what his film is about and the latter scenes become a miss-mash of confusing events which are not given enough explanation and are too surreal to be taken seriously. Like with a genuine reaction of ‘C,mon, really?’. That’s never the response you want from your audience.

Brimming with young and exciting talent and boldly exploring an often ‘taboo’ topic, Magic Magic is worth your time – but not necessarily worth repeat watching.