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Posts Tagged ‘Steve McQueen (the other one)’

Olinka and I settled into our seats, opened a bag of chocolate eggs, and prepared to enjoy the trailers. ‘And, of course, the good thing is,’ I said, ‘that these should all be trailers for thrillers.’

‘Aren’t they always?’ said Olinka, crunching an egg.

Yes, as regular readers will be aware, Olinka’s fondness for going to the cinema is considerable, as is her nigh-on miraculous ability to watch a movie and yet not actually be aware of what genre it is. This is the woman who thought Kray twin biopic Legend was a black comedy, and that properly spooky horror movie Ghost Stories was a thriller. (She also thought that going to watch Hereditary was actually a good idea, but it would be unchivalrous to dwell on that too much.) When I suggest we go and see a film, Olinka’s first question is nearly always ‘is it a thriller?’ And the pleasant thing is that I can always answer ‘yes’, safe in the knowledge that, as far she’s concerned, it probably will be.

This time we got the previews for The Favourite, Glass, Robin Hood, and The Girl in the Lucrative Franchise, only the last of which I would honestly describe as a proper thriller, but there you go, you can never be sure these days. I think I’ve observed in the past that films that don’t fit easily into genre categories tend to have more diverse trailers running in front of them, and the fact is that the film we had gone to see is a curious mixture of genre movie and very serious drama: I speak of Widows, directed by Steve McQueen (no, the other one). It was the thriller element that I expected Olinka to enjoy, but this is also a female-led movie and I felt sure she’d appreciate that bit, too.

widows

The film is set in present-day Chicago. Viola Davis plays Veronica Rawlins, a former teacher married to Harry (Liam Neeson), who is a professional criminal (this might seem like a rather unlikely relationship for all sorts of reasons, but the actors and script are good enough to sell it to the viewer). However, no sooner has the movie got underway than we are plunged into the midst of Harry’s latest enterprise, which is going horribly awry. The robbery at least is quite successful, but then the crew are pursued by the police, there is a hail of bullets, an explosion, and a fireball. Veronica and the wives of the other robbers are now, well, widows.

This would be stressful enough in the normal way of things, but it gets worse: it turned out that in the fateful job-gone-wrong, Harry and the others stole two million dollars from another criminal, Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). Manning has decided to go legit, or at least become a better class of criminal, by going into politics, and is currently locked in a bad-tempered electoral race with establishment candidate Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell). Manning needs the money back in order to fund his campaign, and is not about to let the fact it all got incinerated incline him to let Veronica off the hook. She has a month to raise the cash or it will go very much the worse for her.

However, Veronica finds herself the recipient of a rather unusual bequest from her late husband: a notebook containing the plans for his next heist, which would have netted him five million dollars. Rather than just selling the plans to Manning, Veronica decides that on this occasion, sisters are going to do it for themselves, and recruits two of her fellow widows (Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki) to help her execute the job…

This is, I would argue, the other Steve McQueen’s most accessible film to date, and looks every inch the slick Hollywood thriller. Nevertheless, this started life as a six-part drama on British TV thirty-five years ago: just goes to show that sometimes these things spend a while coming to fruition, I suppose (I’m sure I heard somewhere that Ann Mitchell, star of the TV version, has a walk-on part at one point in the movie, but I didn’t spot her).

Original writer Lynda La Plante gets a credit but you could be forgiven for assuming this had been written for the American screen by McQueen and collaborator Gillian Flynn (yup, the one from Gone Girl). La Plante’s plot survives essentially intact, but the idiom is wholly American, as are the social issues McQueen chooses to explore in the course of the film.

Given that McQueen’s last film was essentially 134 minutes of factually-inspired historical misery, you may not be totally surprised to learn that his version of Widows does not shy away from the darker side of life. Quite the opposite: this is a film set in a thoroughly, horribly corrupt and nihilistic world where virtually everyone seems to have given up hope and abandoned any principles they ever held. It is all about getting ahead and staying there: at one point, the mother of one of the widows basically encourages her daughter to become a call girl, as this is apparently a fairly agreeable way of earning a living. Racism, political corruption, and police brutality all feature in the plot to some degree or other.

That said, this is still a very absorbing film, helped by the fact it has a smart, intelligent script and an excellent cast – quite apart from the people I’ve already mentioned, it has Robert Duvall as Farrell’s repugnant father and Daniel Kaluuya as Manning’s brother, both of whom are very good (Kaluuya is kind of playing the unpredictable-psycho-killer-brother stock character, but manages to find some new things to do with it). And it’s not even as if it’s totally bereft of lighter moments – at one point the widows realise they’re going to need an extra pair of hands to complete the robbery, and (in the absence of anyone else remotely qualified), end up recruiting Rodriguez’s babysitter (Cynthia Erivo) to complete the team.

On the other hand, it does almost feel as if the film itself gets rather absorbed in the world of its story, rather than the heist narrative. There are a lot of characters, and the plot is inclined to sprawl somewhat (even so, not all of the widows are developed as individuals to anything like the same extent, with Michelle Rodriguez being notably less well served than Elizabeth Debicki).

I was slightly surprised when Olinka, a couple of hours in, emitted a great sigh and asked (of no-one in particular) ‘Is this film ever going to end?’ – but in retrospect I can kind of see where she was coming from. If there is a flaw in Widows, it is that this is a film with an awful lot of middle, most of which seems to have been taken as an advance on the end: the actual climactic heist does eventually materialise, but it feels like a bit of an afterthought – curiously under-developed and not really as tightly written or directed as you would expect. It is as if the more dramatic, social-commentary elements of the movie have staged a sort of coup against the heist plotline which it started with.

I am slightly saddened to have to report that, despite it still more-or-less functioning as a thriller, Olinka was less than fulsome in her praise for Widows as we left the cinema. Personally, I enjoyed the performances and the script enough for the issues with the central plotline not to be a particular issue for me. This is the kind of grown-up, quality movie which usually does very well with both critics and audiences – I’m virtually certain it will be more of a popular success than the other Steve McQueen’s last film; the question is whether it can achieve the same kind of critical triumph as well. Whatever the answer proves to be, this is a solid, intelligent movie.

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Okay, so it’s January, and that means a certain class of film occupying all the theatres. It’s part of the turning of the year, and I really shouldn’t be surprised, but the current succession of ostentatiously awards-hunting factually-based dramas is starting to get to me a bit. Sorry about that, but it’s true.

Making the latest pitch for Oscar glory, and an admittedly strong one, is 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen (the other one). McQueen (the other one)’s first film was a searing account of a man on hunger strike. His second film was a searing account of a man suffering as a martyr to sex addiction. It should probably come as no surprise, therefore, to learn that this latest offering is not a searing account of a lovely little old lady who raises fluffy bunny rabbits, but – and I hope I am not overstating the case here – an extended travelogue through a horrific world of violence, pain, and misery.

slave

The ever-reliable Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, an affluent professional violinist living in New York in the early 1840s. Solomon’s happy life with his wife and children is torn to shreds when he takes an engagement to perform in a series of cities further south in the United States. All initially goes well, but then he is plied with drink and awakens to find himself in irons, in a slave pen.

Yes, someone has realised there is a tidy profit to be made in kidnapping free-born black men from the north, shipping them to the slave states of the south, and then selling them at auction. And this is the fate that befalls Solomon, a fate which the film depicts in some detail.

This is Ejiofor’s film, for he appears in practically every scene and delivers the kind of performance which has Oscar-winner written all over it, but he is supported by a succession of big-name white actors who turn up to play his various persecutors and tormentors – Paul Giamatti (who, funnily enough, played another slave trader in the first film I ever reviewed online), Cumbersome Bandersnatch, Paul Dano, Michael Fassbender; all of them turn up and none of their characters is wholly sympathetic – indeed, almost all of them are complete monsters. The only decent white man with any real presence in the film is played by Brad Pitt, who – to be fair – gives a very creditable performance.

However, neither the quality of the performances, nor the measured direction of McQueen (the other one), nor John Ridley’s thoughtful script, nor Hans Zimmer’s powerful score (much of which admittedly sounds like bits of the Inception soundtrack, reused) can disguise the fact that watching 12 Years a Slave is a grim and deeply uncomfortable experience from start to finish. There are numerous beatings, stabbings, lynchings, and rapes, most of them pretty graphically depicted. The ending of the film is not entirely downbeat, but the fact remains that this film is almost totally bereft of traditional entertainment value.

In this respect it reminded me of the similarly-depressing Grave of the Fireflies, which I finally saw last year. I concluded that this sort of factually-inspired historical gloom-a-thon is almost always made with a view to pushing a particular political or moral point. In the case of 12 Years a Slave, the point that Steve McQueen (the other one) is making is that slavery was an awful thing. But does this really need saying? Does anyone sane still seriously deny this fact?

I mean, you could make a film about one of the great plagues which  devastated Europe in the middle ages, and meticulously portray the entire cast dying in bubo-encrusted agony after lives of squalid misery, and it would be a faithful depiction of an actual historical happening, but why would any audience pay to watch something like that? What would be the value to it?

I suppose McQueen would argue that so many of the injustices and social problems which beset modern western culture are a consequence of its former complicity in the slave trade that a film like this is still of immediate contemporary relevance, but I’m not sure – nor do I think that 12 Years a Slave‘s unflinching succession of horrors is the most accessible way of handling this subject.

I might even go further and suggest that there’s something slightly skewiff about the very focus of the film. It clearly aspires to be an uncompromising account of total authenticity – but the fact that the central character comes from the northern US and lives a lifestyle recognisable to a modern audience, rather than being someone captured from another culture or born into the condition, seems to me to be indicative. It’s as if the director is aware of the need to keep the story accessible to a non-black audience, even if this results in it appearing to suggest that being enslaved is somehow more noteworthy and abhorrent when it happens to someone from a western cultural background.

(Personally I was struck by the (admittedly broad) parallels between Ejiofor’s tribulations in the first act of this film and those visited upon Charlton Heston in the original Planet of the Apes: provocative though I know this suggestion is going to be, I think you could profitably interpret Planet of the Apes as a post-slavery allegory.)

But anyway. This is a well-made, serious, and not entirely unaffecting movie, but it’s still bloody depressing for the vast majority of its running time. You can obviously argue that this necessarily goes with the territory, but I’m not completely sure that I’d agree. I can’t quite shake the impression that McQueen is more interested in cursing the darkness than in lighting candles. I’ve had it with the January detox: give me something first and foremost intended to entertain, please.

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