The Gentlemen 2020 *****

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As a critic, it’s always a surprise when the class clown turns good; Guy Ritchie has so far only troubled this blog in terms of the so-bad-it’s-good file of awful films, where King Arthur: Legend of the Sword sits proudly. Otherwise, there’s little to say about his dated brand of mockney gangster rubbish; Lock Stock and Snatch both had energy and style but haven’t stood the test of time since the Britpop era, while pastiches Rocknrolla and Revolver are beneath contempt. Otherwise, it’s anonymous journeyman stuff like Sherlock Holmes and Aladdin, so a new Guy Ritchie film is simply not an event for me.

Except The Gentlemen is Guy Ritchie’s best film by a long chalk. Perhaps the world has caught up with him; gentrification is very much a central theme here, and the flat-cap wearing new aristocrats featured are a far more convincing milieu that the jolly Dickensian street-urchins previously favoured. Crime, and knife-crime in particular, became part of British life as society has stratified along the fissures of class division, and The Gentleman manages to evoke both ghetto-ised council estates and posho country-house crims with some success.

Casting-wise, The Gentleman also sees Ritchie step up a few leagues. Mickey Pearson is the protagonist, attempting to sell off his cannabis-farming operation before it becomes legal under changing British law, and he’s played with genuine verve by Matthew McConaughey. As friends and enemies are drawn to Pearson’s attempted metamorphosis, his right-hand man Raymond (Charlie Hunnam) finds himself blackmailed by tabloid hack Fletcher (Hugh Grant, no fan of the tabloid himself). Fletcher presents his proposition in the form of a film-screenplay, and this elegant device provides Ritchie with prime real estate in terms of switching the narrative goal-posts in an amusingly meta way. Henry Golding also makes an impression as Dry-Eye, and Colin Farrell brings in 50 shades of Martin McDonagh as a boy’s club mentor with a violent side. These are big name turns, introduced with some neat soundtrack flourishes, and pretty much all of them hit the mark, especially Grant’s funny, funny riff on Pinter-esque threat.

The Gentleman has been derided as Guy-Ritchie-by-numbers, but it’s anything but. For the first time, Ritchie has convincingly evoked several different echelons in the class system, and his ear for vernacular doesn’t let him down. This is a mature, amusing, deftly plotted and politically subversive film that has the narrative nous to have its cake and eat it. There are a few moments where Ritchie pushes the outrageous tone too far, but such gambles can be forgiven when the film just works, and The Gentleman purrs long like a vintage Jag on a crisp, asphalt driveway.

 

 

Terror Train 1981 ***

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The Shining is such a one-off, a scary film that takes place largely in brightly lit interiors, that features few deaths and no explanation; there’s literally nothing quite like it. Kubrick’s cinematographer, John Alcott, was quite a talent, and his gifts were immediately put to good use in this unassuming little slasher movie which did no harm at all to the reputation of director Roger Spottiswoode (Under Fire, Tomorrow Never Dies) star (Jamie Lee Curtis) or even the budding career of a young magician named David Copperfield.

Terror Train also has a very clever idea that makes it somewhat unique. Yes, it’s Halloween on a train, in which a maniac boards a booze-cruise-on-rails full of partying medical students, including Curtis. The killer is wearing a disguise, and seeking revenge for a prank played many moons ago. But each victim he kills leads to a costume change, making it quite a tricky business to keep track of his movements; the audience is constantly looking for a man in a mask, but it’s the mask of the last victim you’re searching for.

Alcott goes to town on the train, framed by a beautiful exterior shot in the opening credits, and then with each compartment framed in very different light; Alcott’s use of colour certainly evokes memories of the Overlook’s past glories, and his use of diffuse lighting is very Eyes Wide Shut. And there’s lots of action on the train, including a very odd house band who conjure up a number of moods, and the novelty of several routines from Copperfield which derail the film’s momentum with their variety-show pacing.

Overall, Terror Train is something of a curiosity; back in 1981, it must have seemed like the slasher movie fad would never end, but Terror Train now appears to be one of the best of a rather tatty bunch. Cast, technical aspects and conception are all first rate; horror fans used to scraping the bottom of barrels may well find that Terror Train is worthy of a return ticket.

The Ghost Train 1941 ***

GHOST TRAIN (1941)

Rey (Daisy Ridley) and the identity of her grandfather has been the worldwide hot topic of the last month, so it comes as a relief to identify the star’s actual grandfather as Dad’s Army star Arnold Ridley, the author of the play that this 1941 comedy-chiller was based on. Ridley wrote his play in 1923, and took inspiration from his overnight stay in a now-defunct station, where the echoes of other trains created an eerie atmosphere. Many, many film versions followed, with this particular one forming a vehicle for the familiar talents of Arthur Askey.

Askey’s trademark catch-phrase ‘Ay Thank Yow’ was appropriated by Mike Meyers for his Austin Powers films, but there’s a fair range of Askey call-backs and references here, as well as a full-blown song and dance number. Askey plays Tommy Gander, a music-hall comic who provides a perfect chance to play himself. Gander is one of a merry band of travellers who miss their connection when he pulls the emergency cord on their train in order to retrieve his missing hat. Forced to spend the night as Fal Vel junction in Cornwall, the group are warned by a gloomy Great Western Railways employee of the ghost that inhabits the station, and the ghost train which passes through…

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Ridley himself (above) played the station master in his play, Herbert Lomas takes the role of Hodgin here, and there’s also a few substantial changes in the plot, with machine-gun smuggling communists replaced by Nazi Fifth-columnists as the villains. There’s jokes about Hitler, providing it’s really not too soon for JoJo Rabbit, and also some fun at the expense of such recent public figures as Napoleon. Ridley served in both world wars, so it’s fair to give him some extra lee-way when it comes to cultural sensitivity.

The Ghost Train actually stands up pretty well as a film seen from nearly eighty years later; the comedy is sharp, the mystery is neat and the suspense elements elaborate; there’s a long set-up involving how the ghost operates that actually does pay off. What a genuine war veteran like Arnold Ridley might have made of Star Wars and The Rise of Skywalker is anyone’s guess; expectations of a night at the flicks have changed somewhat since this quaint little film-of-a-play packed them in.

 

Marriage Story 2019 ****

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It’s always concerning when people are queuing up to tell you how good a movie is; despite the roar of the critics, a 137 minute analysis of a marriage breakdown really does need some pull quotes to sell it. ‘See the star of Avengers in a custody dispute with the star of Star Wars’ doesn’t sound like it’ll put bums on seats, but then again, this is a Netflix production, so the bums don’t have to be enticed from their sofas. Noah Baumbach’s semi-autobiographical film has genuine star power in the form of Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as functional click-bait, and although it’s a the kind of self-conscious art movie that uses to pack indie cinemas, it should find quite a few takers with a contentious he-said/she-said narrative that engages and chills at the same time.

Charlie (Adam Driver) is a NYC theatre director, Nicole (Johansson) is his wife, and they have a son to take care of. Their decade-long relationship seems to be fizzling out; she’s got work in LA that expands and contracts, he’s locked into the creative lottery of Broadway and off-Broadway. Both of them get to sing a song to illustrate their theatrical backgrounds, although his rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s Being Alive is far superior to her family pastiche. Indeed, Marriage Story isn’t as balanced as has been suggested; like Robert Benton’s Kramer vs Kramer, this is divorce from a man’s POV, with Nicole’s hard-nosed career aspirations making her an antagonist to Charlie’s soft-headed sentiment.

It soon becomes obvious that Charlie’s hang-dog charms have led him to infidelity, although Baumbach is more interested in the cold aftermath than the passion, and Nicole’s coldness is not without justification. But the weight of sympathetic set-pieces falls heavily in Charlie’s favour; there’s a sensational late scene involving a knife that’s so fiercely, blackly comic that it could only have come from real experience, and draws gasps and groans of empathy.

Marriage Story promises lots of shouting and angst, but the grounded, realistic expansion of Charlie and Nicole’s feud to include lawyers, families and passing strangers provides opportunities for weapons-grade acting from Driver and Johansson, neither of whom have bettered the performances they give here. Driver nails Charlie’s addiction to lost causes, and suggests a deep, lonely soul desperate to fulfil the coveted role of father. Johansson softens the bitter edge of Nicole’s desire for escape and reveals something more tender; her desire to be the best mother she can necessitates taking care of herself, and Nicole comes across far more genuine that Meryl Streep did in Kramer.

Perhaps 137 minutes is a run-time which lacks discipline, but there are long, compelling stretches of old-school drama here. And as a bonus, there’s a wealth of star-studded turns here, all highly enjoyable, from Ray Liotta and Laura Dern as expensive lawyers, to Alan Alda as a not so expensive lawyer. Marriage Story is the most mature work from Baumbach so far, a complex view of good people who find that goodness isn’t enough to immunise them against the insidious viruses of past-vanity and domestic over-reach. It’s a parable for our time; the blue skies and clear vistas of LA are contrasted with the cold and dirty feelings of the human heart, and there’s no winners here other than the audience, who should marvel at the strength of self-analysis contained in Marriage Story for years to come.

Seberg 2019 ****

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‘America is at war with black people,’ says activist Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie) in Benedict Andrews’s Seberg, but he’s in the wrong movie here; on the evidence presented here, American was, and probably still is, at war with women. Jean Seberg’s life was not a happy one, and it’s a career that’s been lacking in prominence until now. Jean Seberg decided to use her fame for political ends, and came a cropper of the intelligence services, a series of events which makes her story well worth exhuming in 2020.

And the big news here is Kristen Stewart, an excellent actress and full-blown movie star, who puts everything into making Seberg, the character, into a three-dimensional, complex being. A seemingly chance encounter with Jamal on a flight encourages Seberg to use some of her pin-money for financing the Black Panthers, something that the film equates rather too easily with building children’s playgrounds. To allow us to see the complications of her actions, we have two FRI men on her tail, one a sexist, misogynist lump (Vince Vaughn), then other a younger, more impressionable figure (Jack O’Connell). Through the schism between the two men, we see how the issues divided Seberg’s tormentors; bugging her, harassing her and generally gas-lighting the star, it’s clear that their efforts get under her skin, and some kind of break-down seems inevitable.

Seberg had a distinctive look, and Stewart captures that. But what Stewart also goes after is a sense of agency in Seberg’s action, a longing for meaning and a frustration that her actions precipitate public humiliation in a way that, say, Marlon Brando’s did not. Like Harry Caul in The Conversation, Seberg is driven to distraction, destroying her own life in order to uncover the manner in which she’s being interfered with by the authorities. Stewart nails all this effectively; it’s a great performance in a film that reins in potential histrionics.

The presence of Margaret Qualley links Seberg to Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood, another film dealing with an actress circa 1069. Those who squealed with disapproval at the lack of dialogue for Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate would so well to apply here; Seberg shows an actress full of complaint, and angry enough to articulate. The result, of course, is that the treatment of a hot topic means that Seberg will be one of the least seen of 2020’s awards hopefuls; Hollywood likes the idea of women more than it does the idea of listening to what they might have to say.

Uncut Gems 2019 ****

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We seem to be living through a surfeit of Scorsese right now. As if it’s not enough that he delivers a film longer than most tv shows at the three-and-a-half hour The Irishman, there’s also Joker, a film which he developed. Joker is a greatest hits of Scorsese covers, mimics plot lines and specific scenes from King of Comedy, Taxi Driver and more. So it’s with a weary heart that we turn to Uncut Gems, another Scorsese-produced slice of awards fodder from Netflix, entered into competition with The Irishman, Joker and any other Scorsese wannabes in the 2020 awards stakes.

And yet, Uncut Gems is the work of Josh and Benny Sadfie, whose blistering Good Time seemed to be a blast of fresh air in the urban thriller stakes. They coaxed a career best performance from Robert Pattinson for that film, and it’s no surprise that Adam Sandler would seem them as a way out of the comedy inanity that he’s found himself yoked into. Sandler is an accomplished comic, and his hand-dog charm has worked well in films like The Wedding Singer. Attempts to re-launch him in a more serious context (Spanglish, Reign Over Me) have been less successful, but Uncut Gems will be something of a revelation for fans and detractors alike. Sandler is electrifying as an amoral NYV gems hawker, pin-balling between clients, gangsters and marks as he attempts to steady his financial ship while exposing himself to potential dangers.

Howard Ratner (Sandler) is a family man, but he’s also a duplicitous scumbag who seems to be daring fate to take everything away from him. He imports a rare opal, lines up a buyer in the form of a rich basketball player, and borrows money against his own success; he’s constructing a house of cards with unstable foundations. Ratner’s home-life is equally turbulent, and it seems like only a matter of time before clients and family members will realise that he’s scamming them all.

Although Uncut Gems is a good-looking movie thanks to cinematographer Darius Khondji, it’s never in thrall to the environment in the way that the Irishman is, side-stepping clichés and coming up fresh; the way Ratner’s bluster is sidelined by the casual use of a security cordon feels real in the way that hit-men don’t. Like Good Time, the environments is drawn in a realistic way, and the way low-key story-elements are knitted together as the walls close in on Ratner, literally in the final scenes, is striking and impressive.

Downbeat and scuzzy, Uncut Gems may draw audiences keen to see more of Sandler, but this isn’t a feel-good movie in any way. It’s a character study of a man whose lies have been out of control for some time; a scene in which he fails to sweet-talk an auction house employee is particularly painful. Uncut Gems is a triumph for the Sadfies, and for Sandler, who should expect serious awards consideration for his transformative performance. Just don’t expect a good time here; Uncut Gems is as rough, uneven and tricky as the central character portrayed here.

1917 **** 2019

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Sam Mendes dedicates his Golden Globe-winning epic war movie to a relative who told him stories of life on the front line; it’s a tribute aimed to stoke the flames of credibility. 1917 is a big, expansive war epic that doesn’t always work, but the final effect is substantial, exhausting and pretty effective.

Two Lance Corporals are summoned for a debrief; they’re to be sent on a mission to call off a military advance at a key moment in the trench warfare of WWI. George MacKay is Schofield, Dean-Charles Chapman is Blake, and Colin Firth barks out he orders that they have to follow. Blake’s brother is amongst the men who will be heading to certain death if the message doesn’t get through; the stakes are higher still, with thousands of lives potentially lost. The two soldiers are determined to get through, but obstacles are many and varied, and the odds increase as conditions deteriorate.

1917 lifts the one-shot aesthetic from ground-breaking German film Victoria, where the story was enacted in front of an unblinking camera-lens. 1917’s complex set-ups, with crashing planes and changes of light, entails a wealth of trickery to achieve a less substantial effect; it’s easy to see where passing figures wipe the frame. There’s also an issue whereby the technique seems to detract from the content; at times, 1917 resembles a thrill-ride, or at least a Call of Duty-style video game, toggling between cut-scene exposition and action on a number of distinct planes. Freedom of movement, fast, dramatic action and epic panoramas are all cool visuals, but it’s hard to imagine that many of those who died in WWI will have their stories encapsulated by such cinematic flourishes.

Dunkirk this is not; the you-are-there intensity does not return. And yet, Roger Deakins is a world-class cinematographer, and some of the images are truly arresting; a village reduced to the shells of buildings, glistening trip-wires, deadly to touch, a plane falling from the sky. And the film’s final sequence packs an enormous punch, as time runs out in intense style, leading to a dreamlike confusion. Whatever it’s flaws, and the roll-call of big-name British actors works against the realism of the film rather than for it, 1917 does emerge as a great war movie on the scale of All Quiet on the Western Front or The Longest Day. At a time when acts of war are seen as politically expedient get-outs, it’s worth taking one more sobering look at the obscenity of war.