Monday 23 September 2019

Film of the week: Widows

Cert: 16; Now showing

Viola Davis and Liam Neeson in the Lydia La Plante remake
Viola Davis and Liam Neeson in the Lydia La Plante remake
Mackenzie Foy and Keira Knightley in 'The Nutcracker'

Heist movies are not traditionally based in realism, they're about people beating reality. But Steve McQueen's first film in five years, co-written with Gillian Flynn and based on a 1983 Lynda La Plante TV series, breaks that heist movie rule.

It is about reality. It's a busy film, one which I expected to like a bit more than I did - oddly I felt the heist part almost didn't fit in - and although it felt bitty and disjointed at times it did keep coming back, thanks to some great characters, wonderful acting and some great plot work.

Political correctness notwithstanding you do realise how rare it is to see an interracial couple when a film opens with one kissing. Veronica (Viola Davis) and Harry (Liam Neeson) are in bed but their happiness is short-lived for their scene is intercut with a chase scene, criminals being pursued by cops, a pursuit that ends in an explosion and Veronica becoming one of the widows. She discovers that not only is her husband dead, but she is broke and Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) the man from whom Harry stole $2m, gives her a month to pay it back. Her only asset is a notebook of Harry's in which he has the details of his next heist. Rather than sell the plans she decides to team up with the other widows Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) to do the robbery, despite zero criminal experience.

Manning needs the money to win an election against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), son of Tom (Robert Duvall) and Manning's psychotic brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) does the enforcing so there are lots of stars, lots of plot and it mostly works. The cast is fab, but Davis and Debicki really shine. ★★★★ Aine O'Connor


Cert: 12A; Now showing

Mike Leigh's latest film feels in some ways rather unMike Leigh like. The scale for a start is different, it's a sprawling historical drama as opposed to his usual more intimate, domestic studies, and this in turn brings other changes, not all of them effective.

It is well-made, well-acted and often interesting, it maintains the political sensibilities we have come to expect from Leigh and certainly has relevance today. But it might have made a better three-part series than film because it ends up feeling too long; worthy but a bit turgid.

The film is set in 1819 in Leigh's native Manchester and opens with a young, traumatised soldier returning there after Waterloo. The family he returns to is poor and getting poorer and divided about how to see this through - his mother Nellie (Maxine Peake) believes no good comes of complaining, his father (Pearce Quigley) believes there might be something to the peaceful protest planned for St Peter's Field. The people want the right to vote (for men), the ruling classes are horrified.

Each layer of the story, from worker to royalty, is portrayed but the sheer size of the cast of characters means that each one is a symbol as opposed to the rich individual Leigh is so good at creating and delivering. The only character who comes close is orator Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear.)

A lot of the detail is interesting, but there is too much for a film and it takes too long to get to the main action.

★★★ Aine O'Connor

Juliet, Naked

Cert: 15A; Now showing

There are things we've come to expect from functioning rom-com dramas in the Richard Curtis mould. These include zany friends, decisive nudges from cute children, grand public gestures of love, and quaint British backdrops.

Based on the novel by Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About A Boy) and directed by ex-Lemonheads bassist Jesse Peretz, Juliet, Naked delivers on all these counts. And while it is never in danger of making a sharp left-hand turn away from its cuddly remit, it does feel a little more sophisticated than your average first-date flick.

A delightful three-way cast gel seamlessly. Rose Byrne (Bridesmaids) is Annie, a museum manager in the cosy seaside town of Sandcliff. Her partner is Duncan (fellow Bridesmaids alumnus Chris O'Dowd), a culture bore obsessed with lost singer-songwriter Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke). After years of rolling her eyes as Duncan bangs on about Crowe, an encounter out of the blue finds her corresponding online with growing intimacy with the obscure musician. Just as her relationship with Duncan is faltering, it turns out that Crowe is coming to London and would she like to meet?

With O'Dowd providing the goon factor, Byrne and Hawke make for a charming on-screen partnership. A compelling dynamic opens up as their characters converge at the last-chance saloon from opposite angles. Expect a sweet but beguiling aftertaste. ★★★★ Hilary A White

Black Mother

Club Cert; Now showing, IFI

Khalik Allah's second documentary is an impressionistic portrait of Jamaica, where his parents  were born.

Like his first film it takes a little mind tweak to adjust to the mix of styles and images, everything overlaid with out-of synch recordings of all kinds of people talking about all kinds of things. Yet, although there is no real formal structure, it all coalesces to give a remarkable sense of complex culture.

The sort of structure that Allah puts on his film is that of a pregnancy. The first trimester is about getting used to the images and voices, from old to young talking about everything from religion to negotiating location and price with prostitutes.

At times it is a little hard to understand but as people discuss Maroons, the original runaway slaves who settled the island, religion and spirituality - Jamaica has more churches per square mile than any other country in the world - what the film gives birth to is a dreamy and fascinating picture of Jamaica, how it began and what it has become to and through the people who live there.

★★★★ Aine O'Connor

The Nutcracker

Cert PG; Now showing

Mackenzie Foy and Keira Knightley in 'The Nutcracker'

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (to give Disney's latest its full title) is a strange and busy mix that, to my mind, does not particularly work. But the small boy in the audience loved it - and that perhaps is all that counts.

Teenager Clara (Mackenzie Foy) is restless in her Victorian London comfort and via her godfather (Morgan Freeman) ends up finding a Narnia-esque world where her late and much-lamented mother had been queen. But the four realms are at war - three, including the one run by Sugar Plum (Keira Knightley), are at war with the one run by Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren).

It's a huge, CGI-heavy spectacle which wants to be so much but ends up diluting itself terribly. Younger kids should enjoy it - the first Christmassy movie of the year. ★★ Aine O'Connor

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