Cynthia Erivo

Widows

07/11/18

If I’d ever been asked to predict what Steve McQueen, director of 12 Years a Slave, might choose as his next project, there’s no way I’d have come up with the suggestion that a reboot of a Lynda La Plante TV series from the 1980s might be the perfect fit. But nevertheless, here it is: a big, brash, swaggering crime drama, bearing scant resemblance to the original series, other than its initial set up. For one thing, the story, adapted by McQueen and bestselling author Gillian Flynn, has been ripped from its English roots and relocated to the city of Chicago. For another, this is rather more than just a criminal potboiler  – it’s a nuanced, amoral tale that incorporates a whole bevy of dazzling twists and turns.

McQueen sets out his stall with incredible chutzpah, whizzing us through the opening sequence at an almost breathless pace. We meet Veronica (Viola Davis), loving wife of hyper-successful career criminal, Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson). We encounter Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), rather less happily married to a gambling-addicted member of Harry’s gang; and we glimpse Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), struggling through an abusive relationship with yet another of these charmers. We also witness Harry’s attempt to steal five million dollars from rival criminal, Jamal Manning (Bryan Tyree Henry), watching agog as it all goes spectacularly tits-up, transforming Harry, the stolen money and his gang into a pile of ashes – and the three women we’ve just met into the widows of the title. And that’s just the opening ten minutes. Phew!

No sooner is the funeral out of the way than Veronica gets a visit from Jamal, who tells her, in no uncertain terms, that he wants his money back and she has just a week to get it for him. Veronica is understandably terrified. She’s not a criminal, she’s a former representative of the Teacher’s Union. How is she going to find the necessary funds? And then she discovers that locked away in his regular hideout, Harry has left detailed plans for yet another audacious robbery…

As the story stretches out, more characters enter the scenario. There’s Colin Farrell as dodgy politician Jack Mulligan, running against Jamal for re-election as a local alderman and trying to shrug free of the embrace of his racist father and political predecessor, Tom (Robert Duvall). There’s Jamal’s terrifyingly brutal henchman, Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), tasked with the job of retrieving the stolen money that his boss was planning to use to finance his own political ambitions. And then there’s Belle (rising star, Cynthia Erivo), Linda’s muscular babysitter who is drawn into the ensuing heist when Veronica, Linda and Alice realise they need somebody to drive a getaway vehicle.

It’s all so confidently woven together that there’s barely time to appreciate McQueen’s storytelling skills – though a scene where Mulligan and his assistant drive several blocks in a car is a particular stand-out. The two characters talk off-camera whilst the audience’s gaze remains resolutely fixed on the scenery, making us appreciate what a short drive it is from the poverty stricken community that Mulligan represents to his palatial residence, just a few blocks away.

But this is only one sequence in a film that fairly bristles with invention and one where every character – politician, priest or passing person – comes complete with a hidden agenda and where nothing can be taken at face value. The action sequences are compellingly handled, and there’s a shock reveal half way through proceedings that actually makes me gasp out loud. With so much happening, the running time of two hours and nine minutes fairly gallops by, leaving me vaguely surprised when the closing credits roll.

Okay, you might argue, let’s not get carried away. After all, at the end of the day, it’s still just a crime drama, but one thing’s for certain: if other films in the genre were as assured as this one, chances are I’d be watching a whole lot more of them.

Go see.

4.7 stars

Philip Caveney

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Bad Times at the El Royale

22/10/18

Drew Goddard has made his name mostly as a writer on various projects over the years with only 2012’s The Cabin in the Woods under his directorial hand. With Bad Times at the El Royale, he finally goes the full Orson Welles: writing, producing, directing – and no doubt making the tea whenever he has a spare moment.

It’s clear from the get go that this is a true labour of love and, what’s more, a considerable cinematic achievement. The film looks absolutely stunning and its multilayered characterisations and linking narratives recall Paul Thomas Anderson’s work on the equally labyrinthine Magnolia. Praise indeed.

The story opens in 1959 in a room of the titular hotel, where something mysterious and very film noir kicks off the proceedings with a loud gunshot. We then cut to the same location, ten years later. The El Royale is situated slap bang on the border between sunny California and dusty Nevada – indeed, a red line runs through the lobby and guests can choose to stay in their preferred state, so long as they agree to abide by its rules. A disparate group of travellers book themselves in for the night. They comprise shambolic priest, Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges), angel-voiced pop singer, Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), loud-mouthed vacuum cleaner salesman, Laramie Seymour (John Hamm), and the mysterious and sullen Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson). They are greeted by the hotel’s lone employee, Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), who, after delivering a well-rehearsed introduction, assigns them to their various rooms.

It soon becomes clear that hardly any of the guests are quite what they seem – and that the hotel too has many dark secrets to be uncovered. Indeed, the story has so many fascinating twists and turns, it makes it difficult to relate much in the way of plot without risking major spoilers. Suffice to say that Goddard’s masterful script is packed full of genuine surprises. Just when I think I know where I am, he gleefully pulls the rug from under me, again and again. And each time I fall for it. Every occupied room number is assigned a title header – think of them, if you will, as chapters – and there is much about this film that makes me think of great books rather than films.

At two hours and twenty one minutes, Goddard is clearly happy to take his own sweet time to let his characters fully develop; indeed, it’s a good forty minutes before we even get so much as a glimpse of  the Charles Manson-esque, Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), and it’s only in the film’s final stretches that he comes swaggering into the action, dispensing violent retribution to whoever is unlucky enough to cross his path.

This is simply glorious filmmaking and if there’s a more intelligent thriller this year, I’d love to have it pointed out to me. Bridges is terrific (let’s face it, he always is) but it’s Erivo as the quietly determined Darlene who is the true revelation here, her presence absolutely illuminating every frame she’s in. There’s a superb soundtrack of Motown classics (with a little Deep Purple to emphasise Billy Lee’s satanic connections) and, despite the complexity of those interweaving stories, complete with various flashbacks to earlier days, I never have any questions left unanswered.

There aren’t many people in the viewing I attend and that’s a real shame. Sadly, films of this quality don’t come around too often.

My advice? See it now, before it’s gone. That gorgeous cinematography won’t look half as ravishing on the small screen.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney