Parasite 2019 *****

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The aging, white, male makeup of the Hollywood power elite is ably reflected in the lack of diversity in awards voting members; Bong Joon-Ho’s blackly comic Parasite seems to have mopped up most of the diversity vote in the 2019/20 race, but that’s no reason to hate it. While it’s unusual for subtitled films to get a Best Picture nomination, only a sainted few (Life Is Beautiful, Il Postino) actually get the honour, and they tend to be awash with sentiment.

That’s certainly not true of Parasite, which, despite all kinds of bores coming out of the woodwork to acclaim its virtues, is a pretty good film when the dust settles. Bong Joon-Ho’s ventures into international film-making have, in my unfashionable opinion, been overblown duds (The Host, Snowpiercer), but he’s on home ground here and it shows. The premise is simple; a young man wins a position as a tutor to an affluent household, and seeks to get his sister employed there as well. Before long, his whole family have formed a parasitical relationship with his employers, but there are still a good few reversals to come.

The final burst into OTT violence feels like a lurch, but otherwise this is an immaculately conceived and crafted drama, with secrets well worth keeping. Parasite is a reminder of the pleasures of real cinema, not franchises, not world-building, not tying to do anything but engage, intrigue and then wrong-foot the audience with a great narrative. Wider meanings, political and social, are possible, and there’s an Upstairs Downstairs/Downtown Abbey comparison that’s there for the making. Ultimately, it subscribes to the Orwellian notion that class conflict is largely the working and middle class swapping places, and that the power elite continue unscathed, but even that notion may be giving too much away.

A key part of what makes Parasite interesting is the take on poverty, physical, financial and emotional; the protagonists subscribe to the fake-it-till-you-make-it mentality so beloved in 2020, but the perfect picture they subscribe to turns into a nightmare. The way the family view wi-fi as their daily bread, and look to the father to provide, feels modern and genuine. It’s a great film for Korean cinema, for subtitled and arthouse film, and for film-making generally; don’t read another review until you can see it, and enjoy the twists and turns before they become pop-culture 101.

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.

 

 

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.

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.

The Irishman 2019 ***

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There was once a discipline and economy to making a feature film; directors complained, but cinema-owners could only show a film so many times a day, and even video-tape cost money. The digital age allows Netflix to give directors carte blanche to make films of any length, and last year’s bloated awards magnet Roma is followed by 219 long minutes of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. Perhaps there’s a good film in there trying to get out, but handicapped by a rubber-faced CGI cast and over-familiar material, The Irishman is a limp, late return to happy hunting grounds for Scorsese.

Scorsese has a reputation as a master of cinema; Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas are all electrifying movies. What they have in common in style is the glamorisation of real-life criminal behaviour, and striking busts of violence. As a result, Scorsese has a large following with imitations as brazen as Todd Phillips’ Joker. But when the director tackles other subjects, in comedies like After Hours, or reverent biographies like Kundun, or literary adaptation like The Age of Innocence, or religious drama like Silence, and one thing’s for sure; the audience won’t show up. Bullets through brains is what Scorsese’s audience want, and the Irishman has plenty of that.

Don’t expect the old-school killings of The Godfather here; in The Irishman, executions happen at Grand Theft Auto speed, a flash of a weapon and a fountain of blood. Indeed, Robert DeNiro even looks like a video-game character, his gait awkward at every age he portrays as hit-man Frank Sheeran. We start in the 1950’s, and finish up four decades later, with the changes marked by the roll of history on Frank’s tv screen. Sheeran works his way up to a position serving, and then betraying, his boss, Teamster Jimmy Hoffa, played energetically under melting candle make-up by Al Pacino. Business associates come and go, with Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Jesse Plemons, Jack Huston and others milling around the edges, and even old pals Joe Pesci and Hervey Keitel get in on the act.

As always with Scorsese, the editing is crisp, the cars and clothes are ideal, and there’s some absorbing scenes; a discussion about fish takes on great meaning. Robbie Robertson contributes an ideal score to compel the viewer through any lapses of conversation, while the needle-drops are always on point. But the length is hellish and self-defeating; this is a tv show, not a movie, and Frank’s story is lazily told without discipline. As with Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese seems happy to find a unreliable story-teller and credulously set everything the say down as gospel truth, offering a narrow view, and a woman or morality-free text. Every time Frank mentions an explosion, the film stops to show it, an effect that comes close to self-parody, although the sight of rows of yellow cabs being dumped in the river is an arresting one. Steven Zallian’s dialogue similarly suffers from clichés; to paraphrase, it’s all ‘Jimmy the Snake taught me one thing; you never wanna cross Blind Willie McF*ck…’ Reflections on family and justice are marginalised by forensic attention to fashion and music.

Those who ignore all Scorsese’s other work will lap up the sudden shootings and the macho badinage of The Irishman, which is based on a book by Charles Brant. But the rubbery faces will put off casual viewers; The Irishman often looks like cut-scenes for a video-game, with mottled skin-tones and slick hairstyles that distract from what the characters say. There would be no place for an expensive dud like The Irishman at the cinemas; even on streaming, it’s likely to vanish quickly as a bizarre footnote to Scorsese’s career.

A Good Woman is Hard to Find *** 2019

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There’s a trope in thrillers that should really have been retired, in which an inexperienced, physically weak person somehow triumphs against one, two or possibly three professional criminals. Even the likes of Quentin Tarantino, usually keen to turn a cliché inside out, isn’t averse to this unlikely scenario in films like True Romance. Maybe there’s a place for this kind of nonsense in a lightweight Jackie Chan action comedy, but it’s increasingly problematic when a film is deadly serious in intent, and it’s a frustrating flaw in Abnor Pastoll’s otherwise accomplished A Good Woman is Hard to Find.

Sarah Bolger is the big draw here, giving a big, empathetic performance as Sarah, a mother of two whose life in a Belfast housing estate has already been disrupted before the story begins; her husband has been killed, their son is rendered mute, and Sarah has a full time job just holding her family together. Callous criminal Tito (Andrew Simpson) bursts into her life when he attempts to hole up in her family home, complete with a package of drugs. But when one of Sarah’s kids opens the package, events spiral out of control in a violent way, leaving her with an increasingly difficult path to protect her family.

Ronan Blaney’s script manages to fashion a Loachian realism in the early stages, capturing a bleak, hard-scrabble existence that’s very much in line with Bolger’s grounded turn. But the plot mechanics are stretched to breaking point, with loquacious hoodlums circling and far, far too many deaths to avoid credulity going out the window. Having the bad guys discuss the connection between Tito’s name and the Yugoslavian dictator is the kind of indulgent, knowing dialogue that’s thankfully fallen out of fashion; the less we know about Sarah’s antagonists, the more frightening they are. Showing pond-life thugs engaging in writerly Alan Bennett wordplay throws the film’s gyroscope fatally out of whack.

But there’s a reason for reviewing, and for seeing a film like A Good Woman Is Hard to Find, and that’s Bolger. Increasingly the go-to girl for a strong performance, she burns up the screen as a protective, vulnerable mother, and she makes the film sing even when the clichés start to show. This is a tough, intermittently gripping thriller, but Bolger gives it a heart that makes A Good Woman is Hard to Find a cut above the norm.