Widows review

WIDOWS

Director : Steve McQueen
Cast : Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Liam Neeson, Colin Farrell, Robert Duvall, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Garrett Dillahunt, Carrie Coon, Lukas Haas, Jon Bernthal, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Coburn Goss
Genre : Drama/Thriller
Run Time : 129 mins
Opens : 6 December 2018
Rating : M18

This summer movie season brought us the glittery fun of Ocean’s Eight, but now it’s time for a much more serious take on the female-led heist movie concept in the form of Widows.

Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) is a thief who has never put a foot wrong, until one fateful night when he and his crew comprising Florek (Jon Bernthal), Carlos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and Jimmy (Coburn Goss) are killed during a botched job. Harry and his team were stealing $2 million from crime boss Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), who is running for alderman of the 18th precinct of Chicago. Jamal’s opponent is Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), who hails from a political dynasty including his father, former alderman Tom (Robert Duvall), with whom he has a contentious relationship.

Harry’s widow Veronica (Viola Davis) is threatened by Jamal and his enforcer brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), who want Harry’s debt to them repaid. Veronica decides to undertake Harry’s next job, for which he kept detailed plans in his notebook. Veronica ropes in Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), leaving the fourth widow Amanda (Carrie Coon) out of the plan because she has a new-born child. Belle (Cynthia Erivo), a hairstylist and part-time babysitter hired by Linda, steps in. Together, the four women must pull off a high-stakes heist that finds them embroiled in a dicey conspiracy involving the city’s powerful politicians and mobsters.

Widows is based on the 1983 ITV miniseries of the same name, and marks Steve McQueen’s first film as director since 2013’s 12 Years a Slave. McQueen co-wrote the screenplay with Gillian Flynn of Gone Girl fame. Widows has plenty of pedigree in front of and behind the camera and is a bit of an odd beast because at first glance, it sounds like the kind of plot one might find in a direct-to-DVD action movie. One could imagine a much cheaper, more sloppily-made version of Widows being something to watch on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

For better and worse, Widows is not that movie. The story is layered with political commentary and does have the sometimes-odd feel of a crime thriller imbued with prestige movie filmmaking. There is a meticulousness to the world-building and how each character’s specific circumstances are established, but this is also a movie that seems to want to tell a story beyond the confines of the genre. That’s not to say that an action thriller can’t be deep or tackle topical issues, but Widows’ approach sometimes calls attention to itself, pulling the viewer out of what could’ve been an intensely engaging story. It’s not the most obvious comparison, but this reviewer was reminded of Ben Affleck’s The Town, also a crime thriller in which the protagonists are thieves, and also a movie about the desperation brought on by socioeconomic inequality in American cities.

The performances are strong across the board, with Viola Davis showcasing the strength and no-nonsense demeanour seen in many of her characters. We see Veronica in her vulnerable moments, but we also witness the full effect of her steely resolve. She is not out to befriend her co-conspirators and is business-like and harsh in her interactions with the other widows, who all need comfort and a listening ear to varying degrees.

Debicki is the standout among the rest of the cast, portraying a character who comes off as just a dumb blonde at first, but who is to be underestimated at one’s peril. A subplot involves Alice’s reluctant ‘sugar daddy’ arrangement with real estate developer David (Lukas Haas). There’s a lot more going on with the character than one realises at first, which gives Debicki quite a bit to play with.

Erivo is an entertaining badass and Rodriguez gets to play a few more notes than the typical ‘tough chick’ she gets typecast as. Colin Farrell and Brian Tyree Henry play warring politicians, both crooked in their own ways. When the film wades into political thriller territory, it loses a bit of the intimacy and urgency that it has when we’re with the widows themselves.

Kaluuya is a brilliant actor, but cast against type as a heavy, he can’t quite muster up what it takes to be truly intimidating. The always-dependable Neeson is used judiciously, making the most of his limited screen time.

Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell make for an entertaining double act as father-and-son politicians at each other’s throats, but their subplots mostly feel like a distraction from the main plot.

There’s also the most adorable dog, a West Highland Terrier named Olivia whom moviegoers might recognise from Game Night. Olivia is up against Academy Award winners and nominees, but handily steals the show.

The violence depicted in the film has impact, and there are many moments that jolt the viewer out of sitting too comfortably in their cinema seat. There are smatterings of comedy which give the audience a reprieve from the overall seriousness of the film, but some of these moments are a little awkward. There is a strategy to how information and back-story details are parcelled out to the audience, and there is merit in McQueen’s approach of a crime movie that offers more than just mindless action. However, the film’s centre often threatens to buckle, and Widows adds up to slightly less than the sum of its parts.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Murder on the Orient Express (2017) movie review

For inSing

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017)

Director : Kenneth Branagh
Cast : Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Tom Bateman, Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton, Marwan Kenzari, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Sergei Polunin
Genre : Drama/Mystery
Run Time : 116 mins
Opens : 30 November 2017
Rating : PG

Murder-on-the-Orient-Express-posterIn western literature, three characters vie for the title of ‘the world’s greatest detective’: Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and Batman (yes, comics are literature too). This film sees the return of the middle character to the big screen.

It is winter, 1934. Renowned Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) has just solved a case in Israel, and is looking forward to a holiday in Istanbul. His break is abruptly cut short when he’s summoned back to London on assignment, and must board the Orient Express. Poirot is invited on the luxurious train as a guest of the train’s director Bouc (Tom Bateman), Poirot’s friend.

The train is derailed due to an avalanche, and a passenger, shady businessman Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp) is found dead. Poirot gathers the other passengers, who are all suspects in the murder. They include: Ratchett’s butler Masterman (Derek Jacobi), Ratchett’s accountant Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad), Austrian professor Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe), Russian Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench), the Princess’ personal attendant Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman), missionary Pilar Estravados (Penélope Cruz), Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.), governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley), widow Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), car dealer Binamiano Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), Count Rudolph Andrenyi (Sergei Polunin) and his wife, Countess Helena Andrenyi (Lucy Boynton). As the passengers are trapped in a snowy mountain range, awaiting their rescue, Poirot faces what just might be his most difficult case yet.

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Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel Murder on the Orient Express is one of the great whodunits, and has been adapted for film and TV several times. The best-known adaptation is Sidney Lumet’s 1974 version starring Albert Finney as Poirot. Making another big screen adaptation of the venerated novel seems like a tall order, and most of the negative reviews of this film have deemed it “unnecessary”. While it’s hard to say for certain that the world needed a new Murder on the Orient Express movie, this reviewer was mostly entertained.

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There’s an old-fashioned charm and grandeur to the film, which is sumptuously, handsomely photographed in glorious 65 mm film by cinematographer Harris Zambarloukos – some of the cameras had just been used to shoot Dunkirk, in which Branagh had a supporting role. There’s a painterly quality to the computer-generated backgrounds, and everything looks luxe and inviting.

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Branagh pulls double duty as director and star. This is a vanity project, and while it teeters on self-indulgence, Branagh is a delight as Poirot. Sporting that magnificent moustache, this looks like the most fun the thespian has had since playing Gilderoy Lockhart in the Harry Potter movies. He is always the centre of attention, relishing every moment he’s onscreen – of which there are many.

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The supporting cast is exceedingly impressive, stacked with an assortment of talented actors. They characters don’t come off as characters, so much as ornaments that Branagh arranges around himself. However, there is an art to said arrangement, and the casting is uniformly strong.

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Depp is appropriately sleazy and unlikeable, while many of the other actors play on popular perceptions of them based on most of their roles. Pfeiffer’s turn is deliciously witty, while Cruz is almost comically stern as a buttoned-down missionary. While Josh Gad tones down his usual comedic schtick, he still sticks out among the cast.

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Ridley brings English proper-ness and a fresh-faced quality to the Mary role. Dench’s Russian accent is a mite too subtle, but it’s clear that she too is enjoying the affair. Odom, best known for originating the role of Aaron Burr in the hit musical Hamilton, is a serious and taciturn Dr. Arbuthnot, who is a composite of Col. Arbuthnot and Dr. Constantine in the source material. It’s super easy to be suspicious of Dafoe, because he is, well, Dafoe.

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As far as celebrity cameos go, Polunin’s appearance as Count Andrenyi isn’t as out of place as it could’ve been. The renowned ballet dancer cuts a slim, severe figure as the haughty count. Lucy Boynton, breakout star of Sing Street, doesn’t get too much to do as the Countess.

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It’s difficult to put a fresh spin on a story as established as Murder on the Orient Express, and there are times when Branagh’s struggle in assembling the film is evident: there is little genuine suspense to be generated, and some moments, especially during the big reveal, are unintentionally funny. However, there is so much talent involved, with said talent looking to be having great fun, and the film looks so splendid that one can readily overlook some of the bumpiness experienced on this ride.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

The Magnificent Seven (2016)

For F*** Magazine

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016)

Director : Antoine Fuqua
Cast : Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Peter Sarsgaard, Haley Bennett, Matt Bomer
Genre : Action/Western
Run Time : 2 hrs 13 mins
Opens : 22 September 2016
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)

the-magnificent-seven-posterDirector Antoine Fuqua is heeding the Village People’s sage advice: “go west”. In this western, the townspeople of Rose Creek are threatened by the avaricious land robber baron Bartholomew Bogue (Sarsgaard), who plans on intimidating them into giving up their settlement. Emma Cullen (Bennett), whose husband Matthew (Bomer) was killed by Bogue, desperately engages the services of bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Washington) to take on Bogue. Chisolm assembles a team of men to take on Bogue and his army. They include gambler Joshua Faraday (Pratt), sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Hawke), tracker Jack Horne (D’Onofrio), knife-throwing assassin Billy Rocks (Lee), Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Garcia-Rulfo) and Comanche warrior Red Harvest (Sensmeier). Chisolm and his team have to get the Rose Creek residents into fighting shape so they can defend their home from Bogue’s forces.

A remake of 1960’s John Sturges-directed The Magnificent Seven has been in the works for a while, with Tom Cruise, Matt Damon, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Costner attached at one point. The Magnificent Seven is itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 classic Seven Samurai. Working from a screenplay by True Detective creator Nick Pizzolatto and The Equalizer scribe Richard Wenk, Fuqua strives to create a film that’s true to the spirit of its revered forebears, while also having enough vim and verve to attract todays audiences. The ethnically-diverse cast might seem like a politically correct update, but Fuqua maintains that the reality of the old west was “more modern than the movies have been”, with black cowboys, Asian railroad workers and Native Americans all around. With ethnic minorities still not getting the representation in Hollywood productions that they desire, this is a nice step forward.

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While it is significantly faster in pace than the 1960 film, there are times when this Magnificent Seven drags its hoofs. At 133 minutes, it’s longer than it strictly needs to be. There is the feeling that the film never quite hits its stride, even by the time the protracted climactic battle takes place. That said, it’s still sufficiently entertaining, thanks to the dynamics of the appropriately stellar cast. Mauro Fiore’s cinematography has an old-fashioned sweep to it, the Rose Creek set is reasonably authentic and the action scenes are thankfully light on the shaky-cam. The fight choreography can get pretty elaborate, with lots of trick shots and fancy knife-flinging on show.

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For a film that celebrates old-school machismo, there isn’t too much obnoxious posturing to be found. Washington’s subdued authority makes him the ideal team leader, and he does have a similar quality to Yul Brynner in the 1960 version. He cuts a striking figure astride a horse, and projects manliness without resorting to chest-thumping bravado.

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One can tell that Pratt is having the greatest time here, stepping into the Steve McQueen role. He turns the roguish charm up to 11 and is absolutely irresistible as the wily card sharp, in no small part because he’s enjoying himself that much. There are snarky quips aplenty, and Pratt makes them work without coming off as annoyingly glib. Hawke’s Goodnight probably has the most depth out of all the characters. He’s the tormented veteran stricken with PTSD, and Hawke ably conveys that Goodnight is attempting to conceal his trauma beneath a cool veneer. There is some emotional resonance to the buddy pairing of Goodnight and Billy, who are established as being inseparable. While Lee, being the cool cat he is, fits right in with the others, the character still feels like the designated Asian martial arts guy on the team.

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Both Garcia-Rulfo and Sensmeier don’t have a lot to do, but if this were a boyband, Sensmeier definitely would be ‘the cute one’. D’Onofrio is delightful as Horne, who’s pretty much Chewbacca if he were a human being. He may be able to kill with his bare hands, but he’s still reasonably endearing. Bennett’s character is given a satisfying amount of agency, and is neither extreme of wailing damsel in distress or gun-slinging, rooting-tooting Annie Oakley type.

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The biggest difference between this and the 1960 Magnificent Seven is the primary antagonist. While the predecessor had a Mexican bandit played by Eli Wallach, Sarsgaard’s Bartholomew Bogue seems like a deliberate invoking of present-day Wall Street wolves. It’s not a subtle turn by any means and the character’s intimidation factor comes from the fact that he has an army at his disposal, not because he’s actually all that scary. Sarsgaard is an apt choice to play a snivelling, weaselly one-percenter, though we would’ve appreciated it if he could also throw down with the heroes.

This film features the final work of composer James Horner, who died in a plane crash two years ago. He had composed the score as a surprise for Fuqua; Simon Franglen wrote the additional music. It’s not a patch on the iconic Elmer Bernstein music from the 1960 version, but it gets the job done. While most film music connoisseurs have grown tired of Horner’s repeated use of the four note ‘danger motif’, which is very present in this score, we have to say we’ll miss hearing it.

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The Magnificent Seven is not the breathlessly entertaining romp we hoped it would be, but it isn’t a shameless desecration of the classics on which it is based either. Its political allegories and inclusive casting justify its existence somewhat, and it manages to be nigh-riotously funny and pretty darn intense at the right moments.

Summary: It’s ungainly at times, but an extremely fun cast make The Magnificent Seven ’16 a decently entertaining diversion, even if it won’t be viewed as a classic.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong