“What I’ve Learnt From Men Like Your Late Husband And My Father Is That You Reap What You Sow…”
For a director who already holds widespread acclaim and critical pedigree with so few releases, even with only his fourth release, Oscar winning director, Steve McQueen, unfortunately already bears the pressure of making sure every release is made with the similar style and pedigree of the multi Academy award winning, 12 Years a Slave, back in 2013, following on from the equally impressive one-two of the Michael Fassbender led, Hunger and Shame. With Fassbender surprisingly not on the guest list for McQueen’s latest, the Brit teams up with the brilliant Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl and the recently adapted Sharp Objects, for a contemporary adaptation of Lynda La Plante’s Widows, a subverted crime thriller first brought to the small screen on ITV during the mid 1980’s and now transferred to modern day Chicago which sees Viola Davis (Fences) as the mournful Veronica Rawlins, who after the death of her husband and his thieving band of criminals, orchestrates a heist of her own alongside the widowing wives of her husband’s deceased gang in order to pay back the seething crime boss who her husband had previously ripped off. Boasting one of the most impressive ensemble casts of the year, McQueen’s latest is a expertly crafted, if slightly conventional, heist thriller, one which blends a top notch screenplay with top of their game performers and a movie proves that even when hitting particular genre conventions, some filmmakers just have the natural knack to create brilliant pieces of cinema.
As per pretty much all of McQueen’s previous work, the focus of Widows is undoubtedly on the individual players which carry Flynn’s words from paper to screen, and with a healthy abundance of depth and substance given to the film’s primarily female leading force, the storytelling begins at a perfect, precise pace, using the early dramatic set piece in which we see the criminal gang led by Liam Neeson’s (The Commuter) Harry Rawlins both enter and exit the story in dramatic fashion as a opening into the world of the wives left behind. Supported by the likes of the excellent double act of Elizabeth Debicki (The Great Gatsby) and Michelle Rodriguez (The Fast and the Furious), the plot is primarily seen through the eyes of the simply magnanimous Viola Davis as the headstrong and independently ferocious widower who is caught in the crossfires of Brian Tyree Henry’s (Hotel Artemis) crime boss turned political aspirer and the ominous presence of Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) as the merciless gang enforcer. Whilst McQueen understands the nature of the genre in which Widows ultimately sits, the Heat-esque crime procedural feel of the film takes cues from the work of Michael Mann by portraying the landscape of a city with obvious purpose, summed up particularly in one superb one-take tracking shot in which we see Colin Farrell’s (The Beguiled) slippery politician be driven from an area riddled with poverty and famine to another plated in excess and wealth in the space of a few, short minutes, a take which reminds everyone of the one-shot conversation between Michael Fassbender and Liam Cunningham in McQueen’s first feature, Hunger. Whilst the concluding act does feature a rather anticlimactic central heist and an alarming sense of rushness as the credits begin to roll, Widows is stylish cinema made by people who understand how film’s should be made for audiences after something more than your average blockbuster, and when you have this much talent on just one film set, the outcome was always going to be something rather special.
Overall Score: 8/10
“Keep Your Eyes Open. Every Cop In The Country Is Going To Be Looking For Us…”
Being an avid hater of most things which bear the name Gerard Butler in the closing credits, the release of Den of Thieves unsurprisingly accompanied a heavy sense of sadness at potentially spending yet another two hours sat in a screening which results in time ultimately being well and truly wasted, and with London Has Fallen screenwriter, Christian Gudegast, on directorial duties for the very first time in his career, it’s not exactly hard to imagine why on entering the auditorium in preparation for Gudegast’s movie, my heart became just a tiny bit heavier. Whilst I’m more than adjusted through years of movie-going experiences to sometimes accepting and devouring a slice of humble pie, Den of Thieves is unebelieavably the sort of movie which raises above the sordid expectations set upon it in a somewhat miraculous fashion and leaves you shamelessly declaring out loud how wrong you were in the first place, a movie which presents itself as a slick, if sometimes silly and overly cliched, action romp which although is nothing entirely original or groundbreaking, still manages to be a worthwhile trip of high octane guilty pleasure. Praise the lord, we have a miracle.
Focusing on two teams either side of the law, each with their own questionable moral compasses and a penchant for steroid infused workouts, Den of Thieves undeniably pays a significant homage to Michael Mann’s 1995 crime masterpiece, Heat, in more ways than none, with the narrative essentially switching Al Pacino for Gerard Butler (300) and Robert De Niro for Pablo Schreiber (Orange Is The New Black), and whilst on paper such a switch seems similar to swapping Ferrari for Nissan, Gudegast’s penchant for style and solid eye for action set pieces and well orchestrated heist scenes means that within a overly similar tale of cops and robbers, the debutante’s movie packs a significantly entertaining punch and manages to hold your attention throughout its’ bulky two and a half hour runtime. With Butler actually managing to not be entirely god awful, with even the staggeringly underplayed bad boy lifestyle in which his character partakes failing to undermine his performance, and the rest of the high profile cast including O’Shea Jackson Jr. (Straight Outta Compton) and Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson (Southpaw) all giving a solid case for their inclusion, Den of Thieves is undoubtedly one of the surprises of the year, and even with a “I gotcha!” style ending which wouldn’t have gone amiss in Hustle, Gudegast’s movie is actually pretty darn good, and for someone who was sharpening their knife going into it, that’s damn fine praise indeed.
Overall Score: 7/10
“You Logan’s Must Be As Simple Minded As People Say…”
With the release of Logan Lucky this week, the most welcome return of director Steven Soderbergh after his self-imposed, but wholly brief, filmmaking hiatus, couldn’t be better timed, particularly after a summer period in which, let’s face it, Hollywood decided to throw more turds in the general direction of audiences than golden tickets, and whilst there is always a Nolan out there to save the day, Soderbergh is more often than not a director who always hits the mark when it comes to cinema, with Logan Lucky conforming to the formula audiences have come to expect from a man famous for being behind the camera of movies such as Oceans Eleven and the Hitchcock-infused Side Effects. With an extensive, impressive cast which includes the likes of Channing Tatum, Adam Driver and a peroxide-addicted Daniel Craig, Soderbergh’s latest would be sloppy to mark solely as Oceans with a mighty Southern twang, and whilst the mark of Soderbergh’s previous ventures does ultimately have its’ DNA solely planted within his latest release, Logan Lucky is a mighty fine piece of work for a man who has had four years to mull over his returning project.
After being fired from his job and attempting to combat the risk of custody battles and a supposed family curse, Jimmy Logan (Tatum) approaches brother Clyde (Driver) and sister Mellie (Riley Keough) for help in his attempt to pull off a heist at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. Adding to the makeshift merry band of amateur criminals is Joe Bang (Craig), an incarcerated explosives expert who along with his own members of family, begin to craft the perfect hillbilly. With Soderbergh’s traditional coolness in terms of cinematic sensibility trickling throughout the narrative, Logan Lucky is the type of film which is just enviously easy to enjoy, and whilst the overall picture isn’t the most original or groundbreaking, the top-end cast are all on top-form and so obviously enjoying themselves that the pleasure is reciprocated onto an audience which run away into a world of dodgy accents and effective comedic characters for just under two hours. Whilst the film does have issues, such as the unnecessary inclusion of Hilary Swank’s character and Seth MacFarlane running away with the worst British accent since Don Cheadle, Logan Lucky is a welcome return for a director who seemingly always has something different to offer.
Overall Score: 8/10
“We Ain’t Stealing From You. We’re Stealing From The Bank…”
Much like Bone Tomahawk, which reaffirmed the cult status of the legend that is Kurt Russell, Hell or High Water, the latest from Sicario writer Taylor Sheridan and Starred Up director David Mackenzie, above all, highlights the power of the cinematic pro, those that have been in the game for so long, that you know, if given a decent script, are going to bring their A-game to the floor and pull it out of the bag. In the case of Hell or High Water, that pro is Jeff Bridges who brings his most True Grit performance since, well, True Grit, as rugged police chief Marcus Hamilton, unsure of the notion of his impending retirement when news of numerous bank robberies bring him swiftly back into the action alongside trusted colleague, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). Flip on to the other side of the coin however and we thrown into the lives of Toby and Tanner Howard, portrayed majestically by Chris Pine and Ben Foster, who are the cause of such crimes in order to align their families’ financial difficulties amongst a seemingly despaired and depressing West Texas. Like Sicario last year, scriptwriter Taylor Sheridan has once again pulled off an intelligent and thought-provoking crime thriller, one which understands the impact of subtlety and the power of effective characterisation.
Where many of this years’ summer blockbusters have simply failed due to a sublime lack of any sort of residual quality, intelligence or fundamental originality, Hell or High Water is the perfect film to combat the pains of the past two months or so with it being a well-scripted, flawlessly acted work of drama which attempts to portray each side of the law, each with their own necessities and issues, with each given equal screen time to build up an efficient level of depth in order to sympathise and care for these characters in the space of only 100 minutes. Where Sicario was a film seeped in ambiguity and became a much darker entity for it, Hell or High Water is for the most part, a laid-back western bromance, with humorous banter and jet-black humour not only adding to the characterisation but to the audiences’ perception of a plausible, true-crime drama which could perhaps be regarded as some sort of realism within the financial uncertainty of the 21st century. Of course, when the violence ensues, it is observed with sheen and calculative efficiency, something of which was sorely missing from the whirlwind-editing of the recent summer blockbusters. Hell or High Water is the type of movie which puts its’ larger and bigger hyped Hollywood cash-cows to shame; it’s a proper, hard-edged drama with top-end acting and a superb script, showcasing the ever-increasing talents of writer Taylor Sheridan. Ironically, Hell or High Water is this year’s Sicario, just with a lighter touch.
Overall Score: 8/10
“To Survive Out Here You Gotta Out-Monster The Monster…”
Of all the epic crime dramas to have graced our screens over the course of the past few decades or so, Michael Mann’s Heat is the top drawer example, a film in which many, including Mann himself, have taken note from and subsequently strived to duplicate in usually unspectacular fashion with only a few breaking the mould and stepping out from the shadow of the perfect combination of style and substance Mann’s masterpiece undoubtedly revels in. In the case of Triple 9 therefore, although not the perfect companion piece to Heat, John Hillcoat, director of the desolate survival thriller The Road, and the violent crime drama Lawless, has at least attempted to create something that adheres to the stylistic nature of Mann’s classic albeit with a dark, twisted and overly gritty core, calling in a A-List cast as it goes. Although Triple 9 carries much more substance than that of the many generic action films released recently, it is a film that plays inevitably and undeniably second fiddle to the mastery of Mann’s tour de force, whilst having a much darker and depressing feel, one which may leave viewers with a sense of unwitting desperation.
The storyline, focusing on deception and blackmail between a group of experienced thieves and the Russian Mafia, headed up in sheer scene-chewing fashion by Kate Winslet, is one that is primarily left slightly to the sidelines, with the undercurrent of the groups plan to engage a “Triple 9”, a scenario of a downed officer, in order to successfully complete a heist and in turn. release them from their dealings with the Mafia, a secondary outfit, providing a support and a reason for the main aim of the movie; to create the most intense action sequences possible. Although the supposed lack of substance leads to an array of questioning after sitting down and actually thinking about it. Triple 9 can be excused for effectively managing to do what it really desires, with the action set-piece in the film being directed and shot in a grit-filled sense of realism that harks back to the bank heist in Heat, a scene that has been regarded by many as the most realistic action set-piece ever captured on film. Indeed not for everyone, with on-screen violence being ramped up rather unnecessarily, Triple 9 benefits from a fantastic ensemble cast, featuring Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Aaron Paul and straight from The Walking Dead, Norman Reedus, all of whom impress, yet the film falls short of the sense of mastery others before it have managed to create resulting in a film that is solely for the set pieces, not for the bigger picture.