Film Review: Widows

Steve McQueen’s Widows is a brilliant thriller, and a testament to the director’s cinematic mastery. The film is a tour de force. 

After a robbery goes wrong, the wives of criminals find themselves in debt to the wrong people. The women decide to take their fate into their own hands with an audacious plan…

There is so much to love about Widows that is pretty much impossible to find fault. With a screenplay by McQueen and Gillian Flynn, based on the Lynda La Plante novel, Widows offers a gripping narrative, multi-dimensional characters, and superlative filmmaking. 

From the startling jump cut opening (brilliantly edited Joe Walker), Widows is a film that grabs viewers and refuses to let go. The plot is fairly straightforward, yet there are so many elements which elevates the film way above a standard thriller. The pacing works well, rather than simply build tension towards a big heist, McQueen creates multiple strands, each with a sufficiently rich narrative. The characters are finely tuned; the protagonists have depth and feel realistic. The film is tense and captivating, and the finale almost breathtaking. Widows is a rare film in that the dialogue heavy and the action packed scenes work equally well. 

On the surface, Widows may be a heist thriller, but in reality it is so much more. The film has multiple layers. It is interested in what happens to women who aren’t the main breadwinner, and how they pick up the pieces in an unexpected circumstance. It considers political climate in the US through the local election battle. Political dynasty, the entitlement of a certain demographic, and the pursuit of power are all touched upon. McQueen also turns his lens to the divide between rich and poor, and the realities for black people in America. None of these elements are overplayed, instead they are enveloped by a well-crafted narrative.

McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt do some really interesting and effective things with the camera. The scene in which Jatemme and his crew confront the two young men is finely executed. The circling camera heightens the tension immensely. Likewise, later shots following the heist and the startling opening sequence show the talent behind the camera. Hans Zimmer’s score is great, and the sound design immensely effective.

The ensemble cast are all on form. Viola Davis is as convincing as ever as Veronica; she perfectly conveys the grief, anger and fear of the character. Elizabeth Debicki and Robert Duvall are also great. Daniel Kaluuya stands out in particular. Kaluuya is incredibly menacing as Jatemme; his believability is testament to the actor’s versatility.

Widows is Steve McQueen’s most accessible film to date. Yet it loses none of the artistry that we have come to expect from the filmmaker. Undoubtedly, Widows is one of the best films of the year.

Widows opens the BFI London Film Festival on 10th October 2018.

Film Review: Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan once again proves himself the master filmmaker with the astounding Dunkirk. The film is unmissable. 

In 1940, Allied soldiers have been pushed back to Dunkirk by the German army. As British soldiers wait on the beaches to be evacuated, time is running out to get thousands of men to safety…

Christopher Nolan has proved himself adept at working in a number of genres, so there were no major concerns with him tackling the war film. The result of this endeavour is a tense, enthralling movie. It is one that respects the historical reality of its subject, yet does not fail to deliver spectacle. 

Dunkirk does not give the audience even a minute to settle, with tension immediately in the air. This is unrelenting through almost the entire duration of the movie. There is little reprieve, as the film focuses on a number of situations, all entering the thick of the action. The momentum builds in the uneasiest of manners, there is a sense of foreboding that emerges early on.

The film offers a few characters for the audience to get behind; it is clear that survival is the name of the game. There are not the clear heroes and villains we so often see; Nolan is more subtle than this. The film is most nerve wracking, but audiences will not want to miss a second of the film. Dunkirk lays bare the horrors of war, in particular the brutality facing soldiers. Similar to Hacksaw Ridge‘s visceral depiction of the battlefield, Nolan depicts the tension and terror of simply trying to survive. It is a depiction well worthy of acclaim. 

Dunkirk should be seen on IMAX 70mm screens if at all possible, to do the film full justice. Nolan’s direction is masterful; action is portrayed in a highly realistic fashion. He really situates the viewer at the heart of action. The sound design adds immensely to the visual spectacle. Hans Zimmer proves his incredible talent with another powerful score. There is little dialogue in the film. The narrative does not really require much talking when the visuals and sound are so impactful. Performances are good throughout; Fionn Whitehead and Mark Rylance stand out in particular. 

Dunkirk will stay with viewers long after they leave the cinema. It will be fascinating to see what Nolan tackles next. 

Film Review: Hidden Figures

Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures is a feel-good film with great performances from its ensemble cast.

In 1961, the United States are in a race with Russia to see who can put a man in space. NASA finds untapped potential in a group of African-American female mathematicians working as human computers. Three of these women play a vital role in the space race…

Hidden Figures tells an important story about the achievements of three women with the odds stacked against them. Based on Margot Lee Sheerly’s book, the film gives worthy recognition to these women and their story. What makes Hidden Figures special is that it is incredibly entertaining, as well as informative.

Melfi’s storytelling makes the film a joy to watch. Hidden Figures first contemporary scene does a succinct job of making viewers aware of the social condition of the era, as well as giving a quick insight in the three main character’s personalities. As the film progresses, Melfi explores each of these characters with sufficient depth, taking place in the overarching narrative of NASA’s mission to put a man in space.

The film combines drama with comedy in a seemingly effortless way. Melfi offers humour throughout, although the film is punctuated by moments of drama and a tense climax. The romance strand is explored just enough, giving an insight into a home life for the extraordinary women. Katherine, Dorothy and Mary are portrayed as talented women who manage to break through an almost overwhelming hierarchy. However, they are each portrayed as characters in their own right, and with enough personal detail. There is an element of the benign father figure to Al Harrison, however this does not detract from the entertainment of the film.

Tara P. Henson delivers strong performance as Katherine Jackson. Octavia Spencer, Kevin Costner, and Kirsten Dunst are also good. It is Janelle Monáe, however, who stands out as Mary. Music by Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Williams (who also produces), and Benjamin Wallfisch ably sets the tone. Costumes and styling in the film are polished and appealing.

Hidden Figures gives rightful attention to the overlooked contribution of three African-American trailblazers of the 1960s. It tells their stories in a very engaging and warm manner.

Film Review: Interstellar

Interstellar

Christopher Nolan’s science fiction epic is spectacular and engaging. Interstellar is a visual feast that demands to be viewed in IMAX.

Cooper is a pilot turned farmer who lives with his young family. With human kind under threat from climate change, an exploration mission to space could be the key to saving the species…

Director and co-writer Christopher Nolan harks back to classic science fiction with Interstellar. The film explores notions of sci-fi on a large scale, combining drama, action adventure and spectacle. Nolan’s direction is strong. He carefully builds tension for some gripping moments. There are definite shades of 2001: A Space Odyssey in the progression of the film.

Interstellar‘s narrative is carefully crafted. The slow burn first quarter of the film pays dividends later on. Science in Interstellar is never overly complicated, yet is a meaty enough hook. The film explores ideas that will capture the imagination of most viewers.

The worlds that Interstellar explores are great, What is interesting about the first quarter of the film is that it gently reveals the world, giving the audience time to absorb it. What is presented is familiar, yet different. The film does not require a specific environment or time to be explicitly stated; the measured reveal is a more effective tool.

The main characters in Interstellar are well developed, with their individual motivations depicted clearly. As the protagonist, Cooper has a simple motivation, but this is rendered authentic during the course of the film. Performances are strong from the whole cast. Matthew McConaughey is well cast as Cooper, whilst Jessica Chastain and Mackenzie Foy are equally convincing.

Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography in Interstellar is sublime. Nathan Crowley’s production design is also spectacular. Interstellar really is a film that needs to be seen in Imax, thanks to some amazing IMAX camera scenes. Hans Zimmer’s score is as good as ever, although the sound mixing in some scenes is not great.

Interstellar is an enriching addition to the science fiction cannon, and proof that large-scale genre efforts can be appealing to a wide audience.

Film Review: A New York Winter’s Tale

A New York Winter's Tale

A New York Winter’s Tale is a bemusing fantasy drama. There are flashes of what writer-director Akiva Goldsman appears to be aiming for, but overall the film is a stupefying mess.

Former mechanic and current thief Peter Lake is on the run from his former boss. Breaking into a house, Peter stumbles across Beverley, a beautiful but sick young woman. This meeting changes the course of his life…

An adaptation of Mark Helprin’s novel, A New York Winter’s Tale features an interesting enough premise. The execution, however, leaves a lot to be desired. The intention of Goldsman is clear; he has aimed to create a romantic drama infused with fantasy and strong religious overtones. Nevertheless, the plotting is muddled and the characters are weak.

Rather than offering a measured introduction to the protagonists, action (and fantasy action at that) occurs early in proceedings. This serves to bemuse viewers more than anything else. Characters are developed slightly later in the film as relationships form. There is little to them behind the initial bluster. Peter and Beverly supposed to fall in love from their initial meeting. However this scene belies any intensity in feelings.

The problems that arise in A New York Winter’s Tale are both large and small. Pearly Soames is too caricature a villain to be taken seriously. His desire to track Peter requires a motivation which is absent in the film at least. Later in the film the audience is implored to root for a recently introduced characters without being given any real indication why they should care. On the lower end of the scale, it is inexplicable that the editor of a major newspaper would be over a hundred years old. There is no explanation for this.

Cinematography in the film is lush. Hans Zimmer’s score offers a quality that is severely lacking from the narrative and direction. Russell Crowe’s poor accent is distracting. Colin Farrell is adequate, but he and others have to contend with a poor script that elevates tired sentimentality above everything else.

A New York Winter’s Tale is amusing for the fact that it gets so much wrong. It is hard to believe that producers and actors would read the screenplay and think that it was a good idea.

Film Review: 12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave is a masterpiece. Steve McQueen’s film is powerful, brutal, and endlessly compelling.

In the 1940s, Solomon Northup is a free black musician from upstate New York. His comfortable lifestyle and loving family are ripped from him when Solomon is abducted and sold into slavery…

12 Years a Slave is a definitive film on the subject of slavery. Based on Solomon Northup’s memoir, McQueen’s film certainly packs a punch. The narrative works to pull viewers in. The use of flashbacks are effective in drawing a strong contrast in Solomon’s life pre and during slavery.

Steve McQueen’s direction is sublime. He does not shy away from presenting the brutality of Solomon’s story. The film is violent, in a realistic and disturbing manner. This is never gratuitous, but simply highlighting realities of the time.

Characters in 12 Years a Slave are depicted in a three-dimensional way. Screenwriter John Ridley carves a solid protagonist in Solomon, one that viewers will fully engage with. It is not difficult to feel immensely involved with the character, such is the injustice suffered. Other characters are equally well drawn; there are shades of grey among the good and bad.

12 Years a Slave is wonderfully shot by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt. The sunsets are key in marking the passing of time. Hans Zimmer’s score is gorgeous. There is a a striking juxtaposition between the beauty of the film and the horrific nature of what is depicted.

Chiwetel Ejiofor delivers a powerhouse performance that is sure to receive numerous accolades. Michael Fassbender is also excellent plantation owner Epps, while Lupita Nyong’o is superb as Patsey. There is a melancholia to her performance which is affecting.

The skill of McQueen, the cast and the crew is that they have taken a true story and made it cinematic without ever losing its potency. 12 Years a Slave is an unmissable film.

12 Years a Slave is being screened at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2013.

Film Review: Man of Steel

MAN OF STEEL

Man of Steel is a very entertaining blockbuster. Nevertheless, it does not quite reach the zenith of superhero movies set by The Dark Knight trilogy.

As a young boy, Clark realises that he is not like everyone else. As an adult, he drifts, helping people along the way. Clark is determined to find out where he came from and what his purpose is on Earth…

Man of Steel is an ambitious project, considering the success of the first series of Superman films and the lukewarm reception to Superman Returns. Zack Snyder’s film is a success, but not a masterpiece.

Man of Steel is very much a coming of age story, writ large and fantastic. The narrative concerns itself with the past of the title character, and the present of being on the cusp of discovery. The origins tale is told partly through flashbacks. The dialogue is occasionally cheesy, but this perhaps fits in with Superman as the ultra-American hero.

The two dominant themes in Man of Steel are morality and otherness. The emphasis on choosing the right path and so forth was a strain that ran through the earlier series of films. The focus on Clark as an alien however, seems specific to this film. This is dealt with in as natural way as possible, given the topic.

Hallmarks of director Zack Snyder are present throughout the film. His style is particularly noticeable in the frequent action sequences, which are mostly on a grand scale. The very last action scene is a little overlong, but for the most part these sequences are well executed. There is a heavy use of CGI in the film, but this should not come as a great shock to those familiar with the director’s earlier work. 3D works well in Man of Steel as it is not too overt.

Henry Cavill delivers a solid performance in the title role, and Michael Shannon is as strong as ever. Amy Adams, Diane Lane and Kevin Costner provide good support. Hans Zimmer’s score is a highlight.

Man of Steel is a big improvement on Superman Returns. Snyder’s film entertains for its 143-minute running time, although it is not exactly a peerless blockbuster.