Steve McQueen’s work has always been weighty and dour, but with a distinct sense of purpose. Viewers are probably most familiar with the Best Picture-winning 12 Years a Slave, but McQueen’s other features depict a sex addict (Shame) and the Irish hunger strikes during The Trouble (Hunger). Widows, McQueen’s newest feature shares some of the dour coloring of his previous work, but is much more suited for general audiences. McQueen draws potent performances from a rich ensemble that features Viola Davis, another Oscar winner. The story, penned by McQueen and Gillian Flynn of Gone Girl, is interesting from both the perspective of plot and its peculiar, non-linear structure. Eminently more approachable that the rest of Steve McQueen’s oeuvre, Widows is that rare concoction of pulpy action and piquant social commentary.
Very early in Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, as Doc (Kevin Spacey) sketches out the plans to a heist on a chalkboard, he explains to his crew that the driver “Baby” (Ansel Elgort) has tinnitus and chooses to drown out the constant hum by listening to music. Once he’s done with the obvious exposition, he puts down the chalk and exclaims, “Wow, I drew this entire map while explaining that. I’d say that’s pretty fucking impressive!” Thus Wright places his tongue firmly in-cheek, and we immediately understand the tone of the film: weird, energetic, and not taking itself too seriously.
Weird, exciting, and vibrant, Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden is an erotic tour through a world of subjugation, trickery, and betrayal framed by a bizarre love triangle. The story was inspired by the novel Fingersmith by Welsh writer Sarah Waters, with Park and his co-writer Chung Seo-kyung adjusting the setting from Victorian England to Japanese-occupied Korea during the 1930s. The structure of the film is cyclical, re-telling the story three times from different viewpoints and revealing new truths with each telling. There’s an unreliability to the narrative, as truth and facade alternate with each new perspective. But ultimately, The Handmaiden has an fervent romanticism about it, as the heart of the story is about love, sexual exploration, and self-discovery – all with a tinge of deviancy.
Stanley Kubrick described his heist film The Killing as his, “first mature work”, and the film boasts many of the director’s eventual hallmarks. Techniques that appear in Kubrick’s later masterpieces can be seen in a nascent form throughout the film, as if Kubrick is exploring the possibilities of his own voice and style. Specifically, The Killing purposely confuses the viewer through keen story structure choices and twists on the heist genre. The result is a disorientation that forwards a theme that trickery, thievery, and crime – even those which are meticulously planned, are doomed to failure.
David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water is a wonderful modern Western film with the added flavor of a noir-heist. It is also wildly funny in subtle and smart ways but isn’t above low-brow pot shots, either. The performances from all four leads are superb and myriad character actors flesh out the environment. Finally, the film sports a fantastic plot that unravels at a deliberate pace and has a lot of surprises up its sleeves. It is like a slice of West Texas on screen, from the cattle wranglers to the gun-toting vigilantes. Hell or High Water is a potent piece of cinema, and will likely end up as one of the strongest films of 2016.
Every new entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe has multiple obstacles to overcome. First, and most importantly, the film must fit into the rest of the MCU in a way that feels genuine and earned. Also, it must be careful not to retread old ideas and instead offer us something fresh. The latest offering, Ant-Man, ably navigates these potential pitfalls and presents a deftly told story full of humor and emotion that rivals some of the best moments in all of the MCU. All told, this is probably the funniest Marvel movie to date, with its most direct competition being last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Further, the theme of living up to the expectations of one’s family is probably the most human and relatable that we’ve seen. That being said, Ant-Man is not afraid to kick some serious ass and present some truly ground-breaking special effects-fueled action sequences in service of its greater story. That these scenes and effects are in service of telling a nuanced heist story instead of a grandiose world-saving kind of story is just one of the many strengths of Ant-Man, but the film is far from flawless.