Dollar Signs and Empty Promises

Widows

Director: Steve McQueen

Cast: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Liam Neeson, Colin Farrell, Jacki Weaver, Daniel Kaluuya, Robert Duvall, Jon Bernthal, Carrie Coon, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Brian Tyree Henry, Garrett Dillahunt, Cynthia Erivo

In a labyrinth tale which at times is difficult to follow, 12 Years a Slave and Shame director Steve McQueen weaves a tangled web in the contemporary Chicago crime drama Widows featuring an outstanding ensemble cast including a brilliant Viola Davis, Oscar winner for Fences, Oscar nominees Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) as a ruthless hitman, Jacki Weaver (Animal Kingdom) as a pushy Polish mother along with Oscar winner Robert Duvall (Tender Mercies) as Colin Farrell’s hectic father Tom Mulligan.

What sets Widows apart is that McQueen frames the film as a gritty more complex version of Oceans 8 with pivotal roles for Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki (The Tale) and Michelle Rodriguez as three widowed woman who decided to band together and conspire to do a heist to rob from alderman Mulligan played by Colin Farrell who is in a turf war with his contestant a rising African-American politician Jamal Manning played by Brian Tyree Henry (Hotel Artemis).

Daniel Kaluuya plays the insanely evil and vindictive younger brother Jatemme Manning who feels nothing as he tortures a snitch in a wheelchair or makes victims sing before executing them at point blank range.

Director Steve McQueen frames every shot with a keen eye for detail especially the excellent scenes with Viola Davis as she comes to terms with her husband and thief Harry Rawlings explosive demise, shot in a series of intimate flashbacks scenes made more poignant that action star Liam Neeson plays the street savvy thief Rawlings.

What Widows does offer is a sophisticated treatment of contemporary American race relations, inner city corruption, poverty and crime of which there is plenty in this film.

McQueen lets certain scenes linger too long while allowing others to be cut so short that their explosive nature is electrifying. Where he is excels is at is controlling this massive and diverse ensemble cast.

Veteran star Robert Duvall has a fairly major role as the paternal Trumpesque figure Tom Mulligan who is trying to retain his family’s supremacy in the political environment despite his son Jack’s dubious double dealing whose only achievement is offering dollar signs and empty promises.

Equally refreshing is to see Fast and Furious star Michelle Rodriguez in a more substantial role as she battles to keep her family together after her Latino husband Carlos, a briefly seen cameo by Manuel Garcia-Rulfo perishes in Rawling’s heist that goes terribly wrong.

Widows gets a film rating of 7.5 out of 10 and has a massive twist which should keep audiences riveted in a sprawling crime drama held together by superb acting. Highly recommended viewing.

The Ultimate Performer

Bohemian Rhapsody

Director: Bryan Singer

Cast: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Aiden Gillen, Mike Myers, Allen Leech, Tom Hollander, Aaron McCusker

What The Usual Suspects director Bryan Singer’s semi biopic about Freddie Mercury Bohemian Rhapsody lacks in shock value, rising star Egyptian American actor Rami Malek makes up for in sheer acting talent. Malek’s superb performance of Freddie Mercury holds the entire fantastical film about one of the 20th century’s greatest rock bands Queen together.

Bohemian Rhapsody taken from Queen’s six minute rock opera which catapulted them to international superstardom is a fascinating portrayal of the rise and decline of the most outrageous and notorious lead singers in music history – a sort of 1980’s version of Jim Morrison of The Doors fame.

Malek’s tour de force of a performance as the mercurial and super talented Freddie Mercury as he swiftly shrugs off his immigrant persona to embrace the counter culture which swept through British rock music in the 1970’s and 1980’s which originated in the lead singer antics of Sid Vicious of the Punk band The Sex Pistols.

As fame and fortune engulf Queen, the fellow band members are eclipsed by the flamboyant and androgynous performance of Freddie Mercury who is afraid to admit to the world publicly of his real sexuality yet is quite willing to risk all sorts of deviant pleasures under the decadent influence of Irish homosexual companion Paul Prenter wonderfully played  against type by Allen Leech last seen as the Chauffeur in Julian Fellowes hit TV series Downton Abbey.

What director Bryan Singer cleverly avoids is alienating the mainstream audience that will no doubt rush to watch Bohemian Rhapsody by making this rock biopic too risqué but he rather hints at Mercury’s off stage antics especially in London, Rio de Janeiro and Munich. Nothing is going to shock the audience beyond a couple of kissing scenes.

Fortunately, Malek’s performance is not the sort of disturbing viewing generated by the Emmy winning performance of Darren Criss as the gay serial killer Andrew Cunanan in the Ryan Murphy TV series The Assassination of Gianni Versace.

Instead, Rami Malek dazzles as Freddie Mercury in every frame of the film, convincing the audience that Mercury was the ultimate performer. Bohemian Rhapsody’s success belongs to Malek’s electrifying performance.

As Queen becomes phenomenally successful in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s to their tremendous difficulty in not only staying together as a band but also resolving differences with music executives and more significantly keeping the outrageous and utterly flamboyant Freddie Mercury in check.

Bohemian Rhapsody charts the course of a music sensation which broke all conventions and become the innovative chart topping British band. As the film’s narrative heads towards Queen’s sensational performance at the 1985 Live Aid Concert in Wembley Stadium, which broke all audience records, Singer points to the testament of Queen’s continuing popularity even after Mercury’s tragic diagnosis in the midst of the 1980’s AIDS epidemic.

Audiences should prepare for tears and enthusiasm for Queen’s music but most of all, come prepared to be blown away by the sensationally transformative performance of Rami Malek as Freddy Mercury.

Bohemian Rhapsody gets a film rating of 8 out 10 and will definitely score Golden Globe and Oscar nominations.

The French Ministry of Magic

Fantastic Beasts 2: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Director: David Yates

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Johnny Depp, Katherine Waterston, Zoe Kravitz, Jude Law, Dan Fogler, Ezra Miller, Kevin Guthrie (Dunkirk), Carmen Ejogo, Callum Turner (Assassin’s Creed, Victor Frankenstein), Alison Sudol, Poppy Corby-Teuch

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows director David Yates who was at the helm of the original stylish Oscar winning Fantastic Beasts film returns to direct the highly anticipated sequel Fantastic Beasts 2: The Crimes of Grindelwald featuring a star studded cast including Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne who reprises his role of the magical creature loving Newt Scamander and Oscar nominee Jude Law as a young and decidedly flamboyant Dumbledore, who makes an audacious cameo.

This time Scamander has to contend with the malignant and mysterious wizard Grindelwald wonderfully played by Oscar nominee Johnny Depp who is determined to upset the delicate balance between the real and magical realms.

Katherine Waterston returns as the elusive Tina Goldstein as does Dan Fogler as Scamander’s faithful American sidekick Jacob Kowalski. Other regulars include Zoe Kravitz as Leta Lestrange and Alison Sodol as Queenie Goldstein along with Ezra Miller as the troubled Credence Barebone who is on a quest to discover his parentage.

Whilst the plot of The Crimes of Grindelwald is as mystifying as Credence’s real identity, Fantastic Beasts 2 is visually impressive particularly in the second half of the film.

Some of the dialogue in the film was stilted, yet Fantastic Beasts like any Franchise film speaks mainly to its fans and those that have religiously followed all the Harry Potter films will be equally satisfied with this exotic sequel set mainly in Paris. The French Ministry of Magic sequence is spectacular and a cinematic highlight.

Whether Fantastic Beasts 2 will garner any attention in the 2019 awards season remains to be seen, although the production design is beautiful, I did find the first half of the film particularly dim or perhaps it was my limited understanding of this convoluted plot which made numerous references to the original Harry Potter films.

If viewers loved Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, then they will certainly cherish this magnificent sequel especially Johnny Depp as the villainous Grindelwald whose numerous crimes include recruiting Credence for more diabolical mischief…

For purely technical reasons, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald gets a film rating of 7.5 out of 10.

It’s a magical and visually dazzling fantasy film hinting at many sequels in the works. Highly recommending viewing for serious J. K. Rowling fans and those that loved the first Fantastic Beasts.

Twisted Sisters

The Girl in the Spiders Web

Director: Fede Alvarez

Cast: Claire Foy, Sylvia Hoeks (Blade Runner 2049), Lakeith Stanfield (Get Out), Stephen Merchant (Logan), Vicky Krieps (Phantom Thread), Sverrir Gudnasson (Borg McEnroe)

For some reason I find Scandinavian films particularly dark and bleak. Maybe it’s their weather.

Director Fede Alvarez’s brutal retelling of Lisbeth Salander’s twisted family in The Girl in the Spiders Web is more like a female Bourne film than something as disturbing as the original 2011 English version film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo featuring an outstanding performance by Rooney Mara opposite Daniel Craig.

This time The Crown star Claire Foy fresh from her brilliant performance in Damien Chazelle’s First Man takes up the diverse role of Lisbeth Salander the tattooed hacker with a penchant for being one step ahead of her evil adversaries.

Blade Runner 2049 star Sylvia Hoeks plays Lisbeth’s malicious sister Camilla who trots around Stockholm in a fabulous red outfit and feels nothing for slitting people’s throats.

Swedish star Sverrir Gudnasson plays the young Mikael Blomkvist, the Millennium investigative journalist who comes to Lisbeth’s aid. Phantom Thread star Vicky Krieps plays a younger version of Erika Berger whose screen time is unfortunately severely limited.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web is not as palatable or exciting as the 2011 film or the excellent Swedish versions of the original trilogy although Claire Foy demonstrates her range as Lisbeth Salander and her unquestionable ability to play an action star.

The violence is ruthless, the plot slightly confusing especially for audiences that have not seen The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but this updated film gives a fresh crop of young European and British actors a chance to tackle a nefarious Swedish thriller.

The Girl in the Spiders Web is really held together by Claire Foy and an exceptional Sylvia Hoeks aided by a superb performance by Christopher Convery as child prodigy and code breaker August Balder.

Given the excellent cast, The Girl in the Spiders Web could have been so brilliant, but Uruguayan director Fede Alvarez doesn’t quite held the intricate thematic strands of this web together.

The Girl in the Spiders Web gets a film rating of 6 out of 10 and is recommended for those that enjoy a murky Swedish thriller, which ultimately lacks panache and passion.

 

 

Marvel’s Malevolent Hero

Venom

Director: Ruben Fleischer

Cast: Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Jenny Slate, Scott Haze, Reid Scott, Melora Walters, Woody Harrelson

Marvel’s malevolent hero Venom comes to the big screen featuring Tom Hardy in the title role of investigative journalist Eddie Brock who unwillingly acquires the powers of a symbiote – a dark alien creature who allows him to be super-strong, constantly hungry and transform into Venom. Gangster Squad director Ruben Fleischer helms this San Francisco beast of a film.

Tom Hardy whose previous superhero work was as the villain Bane in Christopher Nolan’s electrifying The Dark Knight Rises makes the most of this anti-hero role which at times is thinly written but almost lovable as he battles the ruthless Silicon Valley tech billionaire Carlton Drake played by Riz Ahmed (The Reluctant Fundamentalist), whose alter ego is Riot – viewers can imagine the rest.

Michelle Williams plays Eddie Brock’s love interest Anne Weying and Hotel Artemis star Jenny Slate plays Dr Dora Smith who inadvertently turns against Drake after she discovers his true horrifying motivations for harbouring the symbiote.

If audiences don’t take Venom too seriously and if they are Marvel fans then Venom is an average likable superhero film featuring a wonderful performance by Hardy whose facial expressions change constantly between trustworthy and demonic. Knowing Marvel and Tom Hardy’s star power, I am sure there is a Venom sequel in development.

Venom is like the Gothic outcast of superheroes in the realm of Frankenstein, but Hardy makes his character so likeable that it’s difficult not to be on his side.

Venom gets a film rating of 7 out of 10 and is strictly for twisted Marvel fans who like their superheroes ugly and hungry!

Recommended viewing and personally I enjoyed Venom a lot more than I expected, mainly because of the superb casting of Oscar nominees Tom Hardy (The Revenant) and Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea, My Week with Marilyn) in the main roles, whose onscreen chemistry sizzles.

Be sure to stay after the credits to catch a glimpse of Cletus Kasady….

To the Moon and Back

First Man

Director: Damien Chazelle

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Corey Stoll, Ciaran Hinds, Kyle Chandler, Patrick Fugit, Christopher Abbott, Olivia Hamilton, Pablo Schreiber, Shea Whigham, Lukas Haas, Corey Michael Smith

Thanks to a preview screening organized by United International Pictures at Suncoast Cinecentre, Durban, I was fortunate enough to see director Damien Chazelle’s highly anticipated Neil Armstrong biopic First Man starring an excellent Ryan Gosling and Golden Globe winner Claire Foy as his wife Janet Armstrong.

First Man was based on an intelligently written screenplay by Josh Singer based upon the James R. Hansen book First Man: The Life of Neil Armstrong.

In the space race between America and the Soviets in the 1960’s, there was a desperate bid to successfully land a man on the moon, a pledge that iconic President John F. Kennedy made to the American public which in turn put pressure on NASA to not only train astronauts but successfully prepare them physically, psychologically and emotionally for a lunar trip.

What the Oscar winning director of La La Land Damien Chazelle does so beautifully is contrast the massive effort and technical implications of sending men to the moon with a complex family drama about Neil and Janet Armstrong as they desperate recover from the death of their young daughter Karen from a Brain Tumour.

Not only does this tragedy pull on the fabric of their marriage, but its Neil Armstrong’s absolute determination that he is going to be the first man on the moon and be the best astronaut America has ever seen. Oscar nominee Ryan Gosling (La La Land, Half Nelson) gives a nuanced performance as Neil Armstrong, a father continually haunted by the death of his young daughter while the moon taunts him every evening, as if to say when are you actually coming to visit me?

Janet Armstrong superbly played by Claire Foy who deserves an Oscar nomination for her performance grows increasingly frantic at the prospect that while she has to be a mother to two young boys, there is a real danger that her husband might not return from a dangerous mission to the moon because of the infinite dangers involved.

In contrast to the familial tension at home, the actual attempts to get to the moon are impressively captured onscreen with mesmerizing sound effects suitably accompanied by an incredible musical score by Oscar winner Justin Hurwitz (La La Land) which truly makes First Man a remarkable and utterly impressionable film – This is truly great cinema held together by cerebral images and perfect on point portrayals of Neil and Janet Armstrong by  Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy, who both brilliantly hold the film together emotionally and psychologically.

Audiences should watch out for a superb cameo by Corey Stoll as the outspoken Buzz Aldrin who feels nothing about remarking about an astronaut’s failure at his own funeral or how he was not a good pilot.

First Man is a complex, intelligently directed portrayals of one of the defining moments of the 20th century – Neil Armstrong’s historic walk on the Moon and the build up which preceded this significant event.

Highly recommended viewing, First Man receives a film rating of 9.5 out of 10 and is truly a cinematic achievement that will take audiences literally to the moon and back. Utterly superb.

 

 

You Will Never Be Alone

A Star is Born

 

Director: Bradley Cooper

Cast: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott, Andrew Dice Clay, Rafi Gavron, Anthony Ramos, Alec Baldwin, Ron Rifkin

Three time Oscar Nominee Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook, American Sniper, American Hustle) gives a superb no holds bar performance as the frequently inebriated singer Jackson Maine in the third remake of A Star is Born, which he also boldly directs.

The key to the 2018 version of A Star is Born is to fill the part played by Barbra Streisand in the 1976 version in which she starred opposite Kris Kristofferson who won a Golden Globe for Best actor Musical Comedy in the 1970’s version.

Enter pop icon and music superstar Lady Gaga who plays the significant role of aspiring singer Ally who is discovered by Jackson Maine in a Gay Bar (it’s not what audiences think!) as she enters on stage amidst a bevy of Drag Queens singing Edith Piaf.

The onscreen chemistry between Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper sizzles and it’s what makes the 2018 version of A Star is Born so palatable and such entertaining viewing.

Besides some fantastic cutting edge cinematography by Black Swan Oscar nominee Matthew Libatique, who really captures the chaotic energy of live music performances, the actual songs, the music and Bradley Cooper’s superb Oscar worthy acting makes this version of A Star is Born worth seeing.

As the awards season approaches, I am sure that both Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga will get Golden Globe nominations for Best Actor and Actress in a Musical or Comedy. As for the 2019 Oscars, it’s too early to predict, but this is without a doubt the best performance I have seen Bradley Cooper do onscreen as he inhabits the complicated role of Jackson Maine a singer whose addictive personality cannot handle the sudden and glittering fame bestowed upon his protégé Ally.

Ally is egged on at every turn in her rise to fame by a ruthless music manager Rez played by Rafi Gavron. Audiences should also watch out for a solid supporting performance by Sam Elliott as Jackson’s older brother and manager Bobby.

A Star is Born is superb viewing, fantastic singing and a brilliant film to watch ably assisted by Oscar worthy performances by its two main leads whose onscreen chemistry dazzles from the first musical number.

A Star is Born gets a film rating of 9 out of 10 and is a musical treat. Highly recommended viewing.

The Royal Courts of Justice

The Children Act

Director: Richard Eyre

Cast: Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, Fionn Whitehead, Ben Chaplin

Notes on a Scandal director Richard Eyre adapts an Ian McEwan novel The Children Act featuring another Oscar worthy performance by Emma Thompson who plays a British judge Fiona Maye who has to decide the complex case of Jehovah Witness teenager who has leukaemia and whose parents are refusing to allow the hospital to give him a blood transfusion which is against their religious beliefs.

Dunkirk star Fionn Whitehead plays the young seventeen year old boy Adam Henry who takes a shine to the supposedly impartial judge Maye after she visits him in hospital to determine how critical his medical condition really is.

The Children Act is masterfully directed by Richard Eyre and ably supported by an articulate screenplay by Ian McEwan who adapted it from his novel.

At the centre of The Children Act is a superb performance by Emma Thompson who is not only having to deal with legally and morally complex court cases but has to grapple with the failure of her marriage to English lecturer Jack Maye wonderfully played against type by American actor Stanley Tucci (The Devil Wears Prada).

Thompson who cut her teeth in some early Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespeare film adaptations including King Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing, has come into her own as a respected British actress.

She later blossomed under the artful direction of now Oscar winner James Ivory, who at age 88 adapted the screenplay for the superb 2017 film Call Me by Your Name. Emma Thompson starred in two major Merchant Ivory productions Howards End and Remains of The Day both opposite Anthony Hopkins. She won an Oscar in 1992 for Best Actress for portraying Margaret Schlegel in Howards End.

In later years, Thompson has not really featured in many complex roles but her turn as Fiona Maye in The Children Act has redeemed her star quality which peaked in Ang Lee’s handsome film adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel Sense and Sensibility opposite Kate Winslet, for which she picked up another Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.

The Children Act is a sophisticated British legal drama about the moral boundaries of the law and the psychological impact such judgements can make on those suffering from terminal diseases. An intelligent handling of a complex and deeply polarizing subject matter, held together by a flawless performance by Emma Thompson.

The Children Act gets a film rating of 8.5 out of 10 is highly recommended viewing for those that prefer substantial British dramas which are not easily weighed down by melancholy or prejudice.

 

 

 

Behind the Facade

The Wife

Director: Bjorn Runge

Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Glenn Close, Max Irons, Christian Slater, Elizabeth McGovern

Oscar nominee Glenn Close (Fatal Attraction, Dangerous Liaisons) gives a highly nuanced performance as The Wife opposite Carrington star Jonathan Pryce in a film directed by Bjorn Runge.

Pryce plays acclaimed Connecticut based novelist Joe Castleman who receives news that he is to be awarded the prestigious Nobel Prize for Literature for his life’s work. Castleman is egotistical, vain and still relishing in the literary glory which is about to be bestowed upon him in the Swedish capital Stockholm.

Glenn Close is utterly brilliant as his wife Joan, a subtle performance which is stylish and challenging and proves that she is more than capable of acting opposite men that assume they are much bigger stars than she is.

Close should have won an Oscar years ago and is an exceptionally talented actress especially for her dynamic roles in Stephen Frears’ acclaimed French period drama Dangerous Liaisons (1989) opposite John Malkovich and later in Rodrigo Garcia’s superb 2011 film Albert Nobbs.

Opposite Jonathan Pryce, Glenn Close revels in all the attention, particularly in the second half of The Wife, whereby the marital strains of a literary relationship unravel during a glittering European awards ceremony, revealing an extraordinary secret.

The Wife is a fascinating portrayal of glory bestowed upon a man that clearly does not deserve the accolade and a vengeful wife who is determined to expose her husband’s flaws without exposing the cracked marriage to their children, particularly their rebellious son David, wonderfully played by Max Irons, who is the son of Oscar winner Jeremy Irons.

Incidentally is quite ironic that Glenn Close who acted opposite Jeremy Irons when he portrayed Claus von Bulow in director Barbet Schroeder’s fabulous 1990 film Reversal of Fortune, a performance which won him an Oscar, is now acting opposite his son Max.

Audiences should look out for brief cameos by Oscar nominee Elizabeth McGovern (Ragtime), who more recently appeared in the hit BBC show Downton Abbey penned by Julian Fellowes and Christian Slater as a persistent journalist who is determined to uncover the truth about Joe Castleman’s literary legacy.

The Wife is a complex portrayal of a marriage unravelling at the critical point when the couple should be solidifying their lifetime achievements.

The Wife gets a film rating of 8 out of 10 and is highly recommended viewing.

Our Own Private World

The Guernsey Literary &

Potato Peel Pie Society

Director: Mike Newell

Cast: Lily James, Glen Powell, Matthew Goode, Tom Courtenay, Michiel Huisman, Penelope Wilton, Jessica Brown Findlay, Nicolo Pasetti

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society has to be one of the longest names for a film ever. Yet despite its convoluted title is a richly rewarding film directed by Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral).

At the centre of this extraordinary tale set during and immediately after World War II in London and in Guernsey is a remarkable performance by British star Lily James as writer Juliet Ashton who discovers that the population of Guernsey have so immensely courageous World War stories to tell during the German occupation of this island.

In fact, not only did they survive the war, the close knit community even formed a literary and potato peel pie society – a private world whereby a small group of book lovers could discuss English literature from Shakespeare to the Bronte sisters over an extraordinary dish a potato peel pie, made without butter or cream.

In the midst of the private literary society is a mystery which Juliet Ashton uncovers about one of Guernsey’s more infamous residents Elizabeth McKenna wonderfully played with daring bravado by Downton Abbey’s Jessica Brown Findlay (Victor Frankenstein).

Members of this private literary society include the dashing pig farmer Dawsey Adams played by Dutch heartthrob Michiel Huisman from Game of Thrones fame, Amelia Maugery played by Penelope Wilton (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) and Eben Ramsey played by Oscar nominee Tom Courtenay (The Golden Compass, Nicholas Nickleby, Doctor Zhivago, The Dresser).

Juliet’s extravagant and confident American boyfriend is played by Glen Powell (Hidden Figures, Expendables 3), by what really makes The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society so fascinating is the layered historical story it tells about the inhabitants of the Channel Islands during the German Occupation.

Without giving the story away, this is a richly rewarding British war film held together by a strong classically trained cast, superbly directed by Mike Newell.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society gets a film rating of 8 out of 10 and is highly recommended viewing for lovers of uniquely British historical war films.

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