KING OF THIEVES

Three and a half Star Rating

“Though it arguably lacks a little ‘oomph’, in certain places, King of Thieves is nevertheless tremendous fun…” – Wayward Wolf.

Compare and contrast, if you will, two 2018 cinematic releases that are based upon actual events.

Bart Layton’s American Animals, is a tale of young impressionable college students who, by way of an attempted heist at their own University library, aimed to get rich quick whilst simultaneously making a name for themselves, whereas James Marsh’s King of Thieves, chronicles the still relatively fresh-in-the-memory events of the jewellery heist that transpired down on London’s Hatton Garden, back in 2015.

Whilst both films are similar in their subject matter, it’s the manner in which the respective protagonists go about their nefarious deeds that couldn’t be any more different.

In Layton’s American Animals, a combination of anxiety, lack of experience and a general naivety ultimately prove to be the boys’ undoing, whereas Michael Caine and his grizzly cohorts couldn’t really have been any more lackadaisical in their approach if they’d tried.

At least that’s how they’re depicted.

Just how close to the truth such a depiction actually is, only Brian, Basil, Billy, Terry, Danny and John will know. And that is of course assuming that they’ve somehow managed to watch Marsh’s film from behind the bars of their respective prison cells.

One would suspect that they probably have.

Authentic depiction or not, one thing is certain, King of Thieves is high on entertainment, and in Michael Caine, Michael Gambon, Jim Broadbent, Ray Winstone and Tom Courtenay, Marsh’s film boasts a stella cast portraying masterfully this long-in-the-tooth gang of career criminals. Lock Stock and Six Smoking Pensioners…. And Charlie Cox… if you will.

Just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?

Admittedly it is possibly a little harsh to lump Paul Whitehouse into that pensioner bracket together with the rest of Dad’s Army. Mr Whitehouse, at a mere sixty tender years of age, is after all a good decade or so younger than the majority of his fellow cast members here. Then again, he does now officially qualify for a free bus pass. So, let’s just say he’s in on a technicality.

We digress…

Perhaps it’s down to the casting of so many recognisable ‘national treasures’ in Marsh’s film, but there’s definitely a generous sense of empathy that’s generated towards this ‘loveable’ gang of rogues as they go about their business with their collective carefree, bordering on languid approach to the task.

Been there, seen it, done it.

Oh, but how things change when the cracks begin to appear and the problems mount up, laying bare the rather ugly traits of greed, power and duplicity for all to see.

Indeed, it’s quite the transformation watching the likes of serial nice guy Jim Broadbent morph from a cuddly old bugger into something of a devious back stabber, though this is not exactly new territory for Broadbent if one casts one’s mind back far enough. His tremendous portrayal of uber-snide Detective Chief Inspector Roy Slater in John Sullivan‘s timeless sitcom, Only Fools and Horses, remains to this day one of his most convincing and memorable roles.

Though it arguably lacks a little ‘oomph’, in certain places, King of Thieves is nevertheless tremendous fun, with a strong emphasis on the comedic element of what, presumably, would have actually been a very serious undertaking for all involved.

What King of Thieves may lack in pace and energy it more than makes up for by way of the on-screen chemistry between the cast members who, it’s unimaginable to consider, weren’t having an absolute blast in making this film.

Not a classic by any means, but one that will probably sufficiently please both fans of the heist movie genre and nostalgia buffs, alike.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A SIMPLE FAVOUR

Two and a half Star Rating

“…it’s left to Blake Lively – portraying the mysterious Emily – to produce the one performance of any particular weight or substance.” – Wayward Wolf.

Stylistically very much of its time, Paul Feig’s A Simple Favour is an easily palatable glossy thriller which it could be argued would be far better suited to a Netflix serialisation, than any sort of major cinematic release.

And considering the vast popularity of the aforementioned streaming platform, that’s in no way as damning an indictment as once it might have been.

Anna Kendrick in particular is perfect for these sort of televisual films and roles. Wholesome, cutesy and borderline irritating in this instance, she portrays Stephanie Smothers, a young single mother whose path happens to cross that of the glamorous and rather ruthless, Emily. Their sons go to the same school, and through this everyday tenuous connection – and in spite of the girls’ very disparate personalities – they strike up an unlikely friendship based largely around play dates and strong Martinis, and plenty of them.

But when things suddenly take a rather mysterious turn, Stephanie is left holding the baby (almost literally), desperately scrambling around to make sense of an increasingly disturbing scenario. More disturbing than anything this well-meaning lifestyle-blogging mother could possibly have imagined, in fact.

All ‘made-for-TV’ jibes-aside, A Simple Favour is actually, in it’s own way, a perfectly watchable film, though one which one can feel reasonably assured will never spring anything too ghastly or distasteful upon its unsuspecting viewers.

Though based upon nefarious dark deeds and wrong-doings, Feig’s film is far more concerned with its sassy style and slick delivery than developing any sort of deep-seated menace or suspenseful atmosphere. And the entire thing plays out with just the sort of slightly superficial style and vacuous air that you’d probably associate with Sex In The City and the like.

That said, given the film’s deliberate stylistic approach it’s hard to fault any of the performances, but it’s left to Blake Lively – portraying the mysterious Emily – to produce the one performance of any particular weight or substance. This alone, however, is not enough to transform A Simple Favour from admittedly well devised Hollywood schtick into something altogether more memorable and affecting.

Not a bad offering, and as mentioned before, perfectly watchable. But if ever there was a film to keep one eye on in the background without ever needing to get too emotionally invested in its content, then this is probably it.

 

AMERICAN ANIMALS

Four Star Rating

“…what sets Bart Layton’s film apart from the plethora of heist movies that have made it to the big screen over the years, is the brutal honesty with which it is told.” – Wayward Wolf.

Spencer Reinhard was an art student at a Kentucky University, and it was there that he would meet the guy that would profoundly change his life, Warren Lipka; a free-spirit, and all-round loose cannon.

Predictable college-related shenanigans aside, the pair shared a deep-seated need to make a name for themselves in life away from the binds of convention and conformity.

Whilst Lipka was a hot-headed, disruptive influence, prone to making bad decisions, this in many ways appealed greatly to the impressionable Reinhard, who, like many of the great artists that he so admired, felt, himself, compelled to a life of sufferance.

On viewing an assortment of prized rare books in their University’s library, first Warren and then with minimal persuasion, Spencer, decided to hatch a far-fetched plan to steal the aforementioned valuables in what they believed would be the perfect heist.

And having, soon after, persuaded an additional two friends to join them, the conspiring quartet then went about piecing together the constituent parts of what appeared on the surface at least to be a suspiciously straight forward job.

And American Animals is the fascinating and unfortunate tale of how all of these best laid plans unravelled, spectacularly.

Essentially a quasi-documentary of sorts, what sets Bart Layton’s film apart from the plethora of heist movies that have made it to the big screen over the years, is the brutal honesty with which it is told. By frequently (and strategically) interjecting the main body of the film with the real life recollections of the heist’s actual perpetrators, we are constantly reminded that this is, as the film makes very clear from the outset, a true story. Not just one based loosely upon real events.

Unfortunately for them, what becomes abundantly clear is that the scheming foursome possessed next to none of the guile, nous or cojones required to pull off what would ultimately prove to be a very ambitious plan indeed. Far too ambitious for four college freshmen, it goes without saying. And it’s this element of inevitable failure when combined with the surprisingly large amounts of empathy that one feels for these mis-guided characters, that makes Layton’s film an at times excruciatingly tense experience. This was, after all, a plan as idiotic in its inception, as it proved to be shambolic in its execution.

Some fine, nuanced performances from Evan Peters (Warren) and Barry Keoghan (Spencer) in particular, ensure that American Animals is both an engaging and impactful experience, but it’s the cut-aways to the heist’s real-life perpetrators that provide the real soul and emotional depth to this story.

Considering none of them are actors by trade, the ‘performances’ and emotions conveyed to the camera by the real Spencer, Warren, Chas and Eric are refreshingly unstilted, and remarkably genuine and heartfelt in their delivery. Clearly to re-live these life-changing events has forced each of them into a very painful place in their souls in which guilt and shame seem both abundant and unrelenting.

American Animals is a film that on one hand may well wag a finger of disapproval, but on balance, it remains surprisingly non-judgemental in its outlook. Perhaps the fact that four fools who, effectively hung by their own petard, chose then to lay bare their crimes, on camera, to the wider world, is considered to be judgement enough.

And that’s probably fair enough.

Instead, Layton’s film offers out an olive branch and wraps a consoling arm around the wrong-doers, choosing to look forward to the future rather than to dwell on the unfortunate misdemeanours of the past.

 

 

 

 

LUCKY

 

Four Star Rating

“Suitably slow paced and considered in its approach, John Carroll Lynch’s directorial debut is a wonderfully poignant piece…” – Wayward Wolf.

Lucky is a man marking time.

An insular, yoga-practicing, game show-watching, diner and bar-frequenting grumpy old man, holding strong to the sort of routines, long-held opinions and unshakeable habits that one would expect of a man his age.

Watching this doddery old timer make his way methodically around the small town in which he lives is a somewhat sobering experience. One can’t help but ponder the fact that none of us are getting any younger, and that it all only ever ends one way.

And it’s Ed Begley Jr, portraying Dr. Christian Kneedler – invoking nostalgic memories of a much loved Begley character of yesteryear, the smart-mouthed Dr. Victor Ehrlich of St. Elsewhere fame – who hammers this point home.

Having fallen and hit his head following an uncharacteristic dizzy spell, Lucky undergoes a number of medical tests and is naturally curious to hear Dr. Kneedler’s diagnosis:

“You’re old and you’re getting older…”

“That’s it?”

“That’s all I’ve got.”

It’s quite a favourable diagnosis really considering both Lucky’s age and chain smoking habit.

This does however mark something of a turning point in the old man’s life. Suddenly confronted by his own mortality, through the interactions with those around him, Lucky begins to experience something of a late life spiritual awakening. Begrudgingly he loosens his grip on the things that have come to define him, and little by little, he begins to live again.

Essentially, Lucky is a tale of learning to let go, of dealing with our inner emotional pain and loneliness, and achieving some degree of inner peace in the process.

In David Lynch, Tom Skerritt, Barry Shabaka Henley, Ron Livingston and Beth Grant, there is a supporting cast of some note that not only produce perfectly understated performances fitting of the film’s unassuming small town setting, but additionally provide the perfect pillars of worldly experience and wisdom with whom Lucky will mentally and verbally spar on his own personal Road to Damascus.

Suitably slow paced and considered in its approach, John Carroll Lynch’s directorial debut is a wonderfully poignant piece, made doubly so considering of course it proved to be the very final outing for the late great Harry Dean Stanton, whose performance here it should be said is right up there with his very best work.

A fittingly fine way to bow out for one of the true greats of cinema.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

COLD WAR

Four and a half Star Rating

“Artistically creative and texturally sumptuous, Lukasz Zal’s cinematography is quite simply breathtaking…” – Wayward Wolf.

Reading a bit of the blurb surrounding Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War, it would seem that this is a film based loosely not on his own experiences, but on those of his mother and father.

Not only were they hopelessly in love, but they were, to all intents and purposes, a bit rubbish at it. Pawlikowski refers to the fact that they seemed all too able to create chaos out of order by way of their poor decision making and general impetuosity; thereby frequently courting romantic disaster.

Set to the backdrop of post-war Poland, Pawlikowski’s film traces the ups and downs of a highly passionate and volatile relationship between two somewhat mismatched lovers: musical impresario, Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), and the singer / dancer and all-round apple of his eye, Zula (Joanna Kulig).

Zula is one of the star turns of the Mazurek Ensemble, a musical collective created by Wiktor and his musical business partner, Irena (Agata Kulesza), which seeks, above everything, to preserve the purity of the traditional music of Poland.

This purity is however soon to be compromised by political forces and it’s not long before the ensemble is obliged to espouse all manner of Stalin-esque Soviet propaganda to the wider world, much to the chagrin of Wiktor whose own personal Western ideals and values are in direct opposition to this.

While on tour in East Germany, Wiktor sees an opportunity to escape this autocratic nightmare and conjures up a plan for he and Zula to flee across the border from East to West Berlin. This he believes will allow the couple the best possible opportunity to live a creative life free from the shackles of repressive Communism.

But while Zula is apparently receptive to Wiktor’s idea, to what extent exactly? And what place and role – she secretly ponders – could a young Polish country girl possibly have in such a brave new world?

Pawel Pawlikowski effortlessly combines elements of romance, politics and art here to form an absolutely mesmerising piece, helped in no small way by two wonderful lead performances of quite some stature from Kot and Kulig.

Artistically creative and texturally sumptuous, Lukasz Zal’s cinematography is quite simply breathtaking, and enhanced no end by the decision to shoot in monochrome. This is a choice which accentuates not only the dank unrelenting greyness of a Communist-era Poland, but the brooding smokey cool of the hip 1950’s Parisian jazz scene which Wiktor embraces following his ultimately lone defection from East to West.

Perhaps most impressive of all though is the film’s exquisite soundtrack. From a selection of luscious traditional and jazz arrangements of Polish folk tunes, to an expertly curated selection of classical pieces and rock and roll hits of the time, this is as overwhelming a cinematic sonic experience as I have had in many a year.

Pawlikowski’s film somehow creates the feel of a sprawling three hour epic yet at just 88 minutes in length, this is a lesson to all film makers in achieving maximum impact from what is almost bordering on short-form film making –  in the context of Oscar-nominated major motion pictures, that is.

Above all, Cold War is a wonderfully memorable and immersive tale of promised yet untenable, ill-fated love in unforgiving times, and undoubtedly an award-winner in the making.

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT

Three and a half Star Rating

“…in a larger-than-life tale of espionage and counter espionage, it’s once again our vertically-challenged shiny-toothed hero that steals the show.” – Wayward Wolf.

Unlike James Bond, the Mission Impossible films seem to have that uncanny habit of consistently getting their recipe just about right. You’ll doubtless have your own favourite from this long-running re-booted franchise, but it’s hard to deny the quality of each and every chapter that unfolds.

And according to many, Mission Impossible: Fallout is in fact the pick of the bunch.

Not that it’s in any way ground-breaking or indeed some sort of game changer. It’s evidently not. But through a few well-placed tweaks to a familiar, tried and trusted story line, Mission Impossible: Fallout succeeds in being both entertaining and suspenseful enough to keep the old grey matter sufficiently engaged over the film’s two-and-a-half hour duration.

Directed by Christopher McQuarrie, Mission Impossible:Fallout continues Hollywood’s current trend of acknowledging the ageing process in our big screen heroes, depicting them as getting a little long-in-the-tooth for the extra-ordinary feats that continue to be asked of them. They are of course, by and large, human after all.

This has been very evident in the closing chapters of Daniel Craig’s residency as James Bond, as well as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s increasingly arthritic attempts to keep up with the machines that threaten both him and those that he attempts to protect within the Terminator franchise. Granted, Schwarzenegger’s character is not exactly human, but the point still stands. Old age will eventually make us all obsolete.

Accordingly, there are one or two “Christ, not again… really?” withered looks of despair that flash across the face of our resident Mission Impossible hero, Ethan Hunt, during certain more physically demanding scenes. A small yet tell-tale sign of an action hero who is fast becoming aware that old man time is finally beginning to catch up with him.

Never is this more evident than when Ethan Hunt is paired up with a Government-appointed somewhat younger sidekick, August Walker (Henry Cavill), who, resplendent with 1980’s moustache could ably be passed off as being Freddie Mercury’s man-mountain Cyborg love child, were he to have had one.

I’d imagine.

The threat of terrorism-induced nuclear armageddon provides sufficient motivation for Cruise and his merry band of foe-foilers to dig deep, pull out all of the stops and once again achieve the truly extraordinary under nigh on impossible circumstances.

Some things never change.

Simon Pegg, whilst adopting his usual role of light-relief-bringer in otherwise super-intense circumstances, is however noticeably less jester-like during this particular outing. Ving Rhames once again portrays the dependably tech-savvy Luther. Rebecca Ferguson is all seductive glamour, beauty and know-how as agent Isla Faust, whilst Sean Harris is probably more weaselly than sinister portraying ideologue and all-round enemy of the state, Solomon Lane.

But in a larger-than-life tale of espionage and counter espionage, it’s once again our vertically-challenged shiny-toothed hero that steals the show.

As he always does.

Say what you will about Tom Cruise the high-ranking Scientologist and fully paid-up member of the Hollywood aristocracy. This is a man seemingly impervious to any and all attempts by media hacks to publicly assassinate his character by repeatedly calling into question his most private of private lives. But one thing remains undeniable:

He’s simply superb at playing these kinds of roles, in fact I’d go so far as to say that Tom Cruise is very possibly the finest exponent of our time of playing the Action Hero.

The cracks may well be just starting to appear, but whilst there’s still life in Tom Cruise, there’s still life in Ethan Hunt, and that can only be good news for the innumerable fans of this most unfailing of film franchises.