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.

 

 

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.

 

The Hound of the Baskervilles 1959 ****

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Any vaguely annoying dog still gets referred to as the Hound of the Baskervilles to this day; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel is a cultural touch-stone as popular as Sherlock Holmes himself. Film and tv version of this celebrated story are rarely up to snuff; this Hammer production, directed by Terence Fisher, plays down the hound itself in favour of a meticulous attempt to nail the original narrative; with strong atmosphere and a perfect cast, it’s a welcome addition to the Holmesian canon.

Who better to play the great detective that Peter Cushing? The length of Cushing’s career, and the number of films he made in old age, might blind us to what a vigorous and dashing figure he cuts here, quite literally bouncing of the scenery at some points. But there’s also method in his madness; Cushing nails the mood-changes in his first dialogue scene as he considers the request of Sir Hugo Baskerville (David Oxley), seeming to dismiss, then engage with his client. Holmes is a spikey wit here, while Watson (Andre Morell) is anything but a buffoon. Fisher even keeps with the source by having Holmes off-stage at key moments, but with Christopher Lee a saturnine Henry Baskerville, and John Le Mesurier as the butler, there’s no lack of good manners on show.

What really works here is the deductions; what Holmes sees, and how he puts it all together, perhaps because for once, this is not pastiche Conan Doyle, but a fair reworking of his actual plot-lines. Flickering lights on the moor, strange paintings, ravenous devil dogs; all the elements are in place, and although the final masked pooch effect is rather underwhelming, the conclusion still packs a punch.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is perhaps too violent to be a tv staple, and yet too cerebral to appeal to horror fans; either way, it’s a real genre classic that deserves to be exhumed and enjoyed. Cushing and Lee are both in strident form here, and Fisher displays the kind of barn-storming style that made him the pick of the Hammer House of directorial excellence.

 

The Good Liar 2019 ****

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It’s nice to see Helen Mirren and Ian McKellern back on screen; he’s 80, she’s in her 70’s, and at that age, wizards, crones, vampire queens and alien rulers are the kinds of parts that seem to land with a thud on their agent’s desks. So modest crime-drama The Good Liar marks something of a change of pace from the sillier Hollywood work, central roles in a two-hander con-job film that’s dialogue and character based; the source is a novel by Nicholas Searle, adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher.

Bill Condon is writer/producer here, always with a waspish sense of dark humour; Roy (McKellern) is a con-man, who creates elaborate financial scams with his partner (Jim Carter) in London over a decade ago; the mobile phones and occasional period cars get the idea across. Roy is romantic but alone, and gets involved in an online dating site, which puts him in contact with Betty (Mirren), a retired history professor. Her grandson Steven (Russell Tovey) is suspicious of Roy’s motives, but who is Roy, and what does he really want from Betty?

Any story about con men (and women) should have the audience searching for possible marks, and The Good Liar’s title suggests that none of the information we get should be taken as read; a neat opening shows Roy and Betty completing their dating profiles, ticking the boxes for no smoking or drinking while they enjoy their vices. But Condon’s film aims to go deeper that petty personal hypocrisies, with atrocities committed during the Nazi Germany regime relevant to the narrative plot twists.

The Good Liar has reputedly, made $30 million on a budget of a third of that; a little sleeper for Warner Brothers that could probably use some awards traction to cement success. The spy quality of the story doesn’t quite fit the traditionally turgid nature of awards-season dramas; The Good Liar aims to keep us guessing, and just about makes it to the conclusion without any let-up in tension. McKellern revels in a character who fakes ill-health, only to spring into action as he enters a sleazy strip-club. Mirren, meanwhile, appears to be a soft touch, but seems to physically change when she begins to realise the truth of her situation. And there’s an edge to proceedings, with a couple of shockingly violent scenes that keep the stakes high.

Entertainment isn’t usually high on the list of qualities that awards-voters seek, and The Good Liar risks getting swept away amongst more ballyhooed work. But it’s a smart, well performed drama that perhaps goes over the score in the final scene; nevertheless, fans will enjoy a couple of vintage performances for the most respected of actors.

Car Trouble 1986 NA (no award)

car troubleConnoisseurs of utter tat will be drawn to FlickVaults’s recent revival of David Green’s Car Trouble, a British film from 1986 which offers all the crudeness of a Confessions of a Window Cleaner film but without any of the voyeuristic attractions. This is an entire feature film based around one unfunny joke; how it got made, with a reputable cast, is anyone’s guess, but after a spotty history on VHS and DVD, Car Trouble pops up on YouTube to horrify the unwary.

Taking the key role of Gerald Spong, Ian Charleston of Chariots of Fire fame is matched up with Jacqueline Spong (a post Educating Rita Julie Walters) as a British couple who seem to be in the throes of a loveless marriage. He thumbs through copies of Razzle (50p each) and fantasises about owning an E-Type Jaguar, while she fancies the salesman who is keen to sell it to him. Spong has got a 2CV which he sells to a crooked mechanic (Stratford Johns); money isn’t really an issue, since Spong has a job as an air-traffic controller at the fictional Stanwick Airport, but he’s also something of a tight-fisted miser. To add insult to injury, Jacqueline borrows his prize Jag and gets stuck inside during the act of coitus with her foreign lover, and local police/ fire-fighters have to carve them out.

And that, indeed, is the action of Car Trouble, which seems to be an unwanted vehicle for John Cleese; Spong is all moustache and marital angst, while another scene sees a car attacked with a tree-branch as in Fawlty Towers. Such eighties ephemera such as Jacqueline’s Relax T-shirt and the use of Billy Idol’s Mony Mony on the soundtrack date the film specifically, as do barely single entendres such as ‘It’s only an old knob’, uttered when part of Spong’s car falls off.

A final scene in which, vague spoilers, Spong engineers for his wife’s holiday to be ruined by arranging for the jet to collide with another plane, with up to 1000 casualties, suggests that black humour was the intention here, but since practically none of the jokes land, it’s hard to tell. This is Michael Winner-level British comedy, where the entertainment value lies in viewing the whole topsy-turvy enterprise and wondering how this, or indeed any film could be this awful.

A Study in Terror 1965 ***

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It makes a certain kind of sense to mash up Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper; the greatest detective vs the greatest unsolved mystery of the same era. 1979’s Murder By Decree did so memorably, but 1965’s A Study in Terror plotted the same course, minus the various Masonic conspiracies featured in Bob Clark’s far more elaborate film.

Indeed James Hill’s original film for producer Tony Tenser is something of a novelty in that it’s got a slasher vibe; we open with the Ripper zeroing in on a hapless woman, and Carry On star Barbara Windsor has a notable bit of comic business before she meets a hasty demise. John Neville and Donald Houston make for an unusually serious Holmes and Watson, investigating a series of brutal murders in the Whitechapel area of London.

The mystery is pretty good, and things are kept fresh with a galaxy of suspects including Anthony Quayle as a surgeon with a penchant for helping the homeless via his soup kitchen, and Dame Judy Dench makes an impression as his daughter Sally. Robert Morley makes a bumptious Mycroft Holmes, while Frank Finlay a less-than-buffonish Lestrade. Indeed, this is a rather effective version of Holmes; even his penchant for disguises is rather effective when he pops up to confuse Watson in the guise of….you’ll have to see for yourself.

Uber-pornographer Derek Ford was a co-writer on the script, which makes it all the more surprising that this original story has a strong hint of Conan Doyle, with Holmes making some smart deductions from a set of medical instruments, and a sub-plot about a displaced aristocrat resolved in a satisfying way. A Study In Terror doesn’t sell out Holmes for cheap laughs or thrills; for fans of the great detective, it’s a genuine buried treasure. That poster is something else, though, better for a comic book pastiche than for the master of deduction.

The Internecine Project 1974 ***

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“Who will be alive when the hands stop?’ is the shrill question asked by the poster for The Internecine Project, an unusual British thriller from 1974. It’s about a US official who is promoted to a high-ranking government post; in order to cover his tracks, he arranges for a masterful cover-up, which almost works. Ken Hughes’s film is one that requires substantial concentration, but the depiction of black ops, corrupt officials and US interference in foreign affairs is one that time has been kind to.

With a who’s who of Bristish character actors employed here, it’s a welcome touch of class to have James Coburn take the lead here as Robert Elliot, who concocts the fiendish plan to free himself of the mechanism of his success. Coburn was a renaissance man, but his charisma and dynamism is tamped down for a John le Carre lite narrative; if you enjoy watching James Coburn ticking off a to-do list on typed paper, then you’re in luck, since that’s largely what The Internecine Project is mainly comprised of. Amongst those Elliot is hoping to dispose of are Harry Andrews as a cat-loving woman-hating hit-man, Ian Hendry as a bespectacled diabetic civil servant and a prostitute.

Sex and violence are largely kept off-screen, but attitudes to woman are consistently awful. ‘Look, you’re a beautiful lady, why don’t you find something to do that fits your talents, like write a cook-book?; says Elliot to Lee Grant’s journalist, who suspects him of all kinds of corporate malfeasance. This is a sophisticated film, and yet, like 1975’s The Eiger Sanction, it catches male-female relations at something of a low. Meanwhile, Michael Jayston plays a scientist experimenting with sound as a means of murder; Hughes’ film is prescient in a number of ways, not least in the depiction of inter-departmental espionage.

The Internecine Project has fallen into some kind of disrepair, but it’s a very original film that substitutes the most complex of plotting for action, and leads to a final, downbeat twist that takes some beating. This would be well worth a remake; there’s a clever idea that gets let down by some of the period detail, but the whole concept would work well in a 2020 setting.