Puppet on a Chain 1971 ****

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There’s a whole lot of puppets and a whole lot of chains in Puppet on a Chain, a tight little thriller based on a novel by Alistair MacLean. MacLean was the kind of writer who, like Ian Fleming, wrote about what he knew, and when that ran out, just about managed to write about more fanciful worlds he was less familiar with. Thus, MacLean became something of a magnet for zeitgeist, and this 1971 thriller has a whiff of The French Connection and other, more reactionary drug-fuelled dramas of the time.

Puppet on a Chain’s reputation is largely based on an extended chase sequence in which speedboats navigate the canals of Amsterdam in a deadly cat and mouse game; functioning much like the car chase in Friedkin’s film, it’s a late-in-the-game show-down between the hero Paul Sherman (Sven-Bertril Taube) and his quarry Meegeren (Vladek Sheybal, from From Russia With Love and The Apple). With his pure white suit and cowboy hat, Meegeren is anything but a low-key dealer, and it’s easy to see why large crowds of gawping spectators are visible as the action unfolds. This hugely impressive stunt-show led directly to the boat chase in Live and Let Die, and a general vogue for extended action that infused both Bond and 70’s cinema.

The always impressive Dan Sharp contributed the sequence to Geoffrey Reeve’s film, and while it’s a stand-out, the location work, atmosphere and generally attitude of Puppet on a Chain are all to be commended. The view of drugs in Amsterdam is somewhat alarmist, but backed up by a rather squalid plotline, complete with children’s dolls used to smuggle heroin, and the same dolls being symbolically hung with chains as a threat.

Sure, the leads are rather anonymous, although Patrick Allen does a nice supporting turn, but that anonymity works for the film; Puppet on a Chain feels both generic and authentic, written while MacLean still had a knack for story and theme, but hadn’t yet diluted his own experience with silly and extravagant plots. Even if you’re only there for the action, Puppet on A Chain delivers genuine thrills when it comes to the big aquatic showdown.

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.

 

 

A Clockwork Orange 1971 *****

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Amidst all the blather about Doctor Sleep, and Kubrick’s radical changes to Stephen King’s book, it’s worth noting that the esteemed writer/director was more than happy to treat all manner of literature as a selective buffet or movable feast, from William Thackery to Arthur C Clarke; it can’t have been a huge surprise to King that his ideas were handled in a piecemeal fashion. Anthony Burgess’s book A Clockwork Orange was similarly ransacked for ideas before being discarded; the result shocked audiences and critics in 1971, and still has the air of a text both sacred and profane.

As a kid, A Clockwork Orange was a film to be read about, but not seen; Kubrick withdrew it from the marketplace in the UK after some copycat violence. Those willing to stump up the cash could purchase fuzzy VHS dupes; today, it’s something of a shock to see modernist, brutalist vistas featured in such sharp focus. There’s a celebrated production design, plus innovative use of classical music; rather than the beautiful images of 2001, Kubrick features a much more muddy, garish aesthetic, in line with the vulgarity of his protagonist, Alex (Malcolm McDowell) and his band of white-suited, masked Droogs, but also with the sinister world around him. A world where the black-suited government aim to subjugate the masses via thought control, and where the spirit of the individual is considered something to be worth eliminating. In this context, Alex’s deliberately mindless rebellion makes more sense, which casts a baleful light to view the notorious ultra-violence of the film’s shocking opening scenes.

Burgess created a writerly character, played by Patrick Macgee here, that clearly offers a surrogate for his own instincts. Frank Alexander’s wife is raped by Alex and his band of brothers, but when Alex unwittingly returns to his house, lobotomised and de-fanged, the writer is unable to put aside his own supposed sophistication, and seeks revenge. The message seems to be that our baser instincts are part of what makes us human; the idea seems valid, even if unpalatable at the same time.

Whether one agrees with the sentiment, and it’s one of the trickiest, most controversial ever dared to be expressed in a major motion picture, there’s plenty of striking details, from the music arcade that Alex visits, with artists like The Humpers or Heaven Seventeen providing the sounds, or Dave Prowse in chunky specs and cut-off shorts as an oddly supine bodyguard. The seedy setting, with social worker Mr Deltoid (Aubery Morris) a more than casual observer, is peculiarly British and plays up the banality of high-minded social interference. Ultimately it’s a non-binary parable that works best for adults; A Clockwork Orange is a sensational story of youth both revolting and betrayed, and observes standards falling due to a depreciating shortage of genuine human warmth; a grim world methodically lobotomised, with as little agency as a clockwork orange is predicated. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that the film’s creator withdrew this misunderstood text from the public eye.

The Tingler 1959 ***

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William Castle is a somewhat neglected figure, perhaps because he staked his reputation on novelties, some would say gimmicks, which were dated from the moment they appeared. Such felicities as having a skeleton appear above a cinema screen seem rather old fashioned in the shadow of IMAX 4DX. So it’s rather nice to see The Tingler appear on Amazon Prime is a natty new print that makes it ripe for rediscovery.

What’s surprising here, given Castle’s reputation, is the ingenious nature of the whole conceit. The Tingler is a horror film, but one that operates in a specific and rather post-modern way. Vincent Price plays Warren Chapin, a scientist who has been working to isolate the Tingler, a creature that feeds on fear; it appears inside the human body, often at the instant of death, and Chapin is keen to isolate it. Many boffins might have been tempted to use illegal means to pursue this goal, but fortunately LSD was legal in the US at the time, and The Tingler features the spectacle of Price and other cast-members cheerfully blowing their own minds and (pretending to) trip on acid.

This in itself is odd enough, but things get weirder when Chapin meets a woman who is a deaf mute and is unable to express herself; she’s got a lifetime of fear bottled up inside her and is ready to blow like a bottle of champagne, releasing a mega-tingler. Her husband owns a silent-movie theatre which appears to be showing 1921’s Tol’able David in a permanent loop, and when The Tingler escapes, it escapes into the theatre and begins tingling the occupants of the seats.

This leads to a quite wonderful sequence in which you, the viewer, find yourself watching the same silent movie, with Vincent Price on the soundtrack warning you about dangerous creatures on the loose and potentially assaulting your backside. It places the audience in the movie in an absurd and yet ingenuous way; there’s also a brilliant scare involving a splash of blood-red in an otherwise black and white movie. With a frank view of drugs, plus some meta-narrative twists, The Tinger is a great way to waste 80 minutes, and shows that 1959’s cinema showmen had plenty of ingenuity as the on-going battle with tv hotted up.

Click the link below to see if this film can be seen in your country, and for what price.

Flashback 1990 ****

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“Wait till you see the 90’s, they’re going to make the 70’s look like the 50’s!’ says hippie Huey Walker (Dennis Hopper) in Flashback, a comedy-thriller that’s refreshing in the way it puts politics centre-stage. Walker is an Abbie Hoffman-style prankster who has been missing since he decoupled Spiro Agnew’s train as an anti-war protest; when he resurfaces in 1990, he anticipates that social norms about to get a lot stricter, and in hindsight, he was right.

Walker has a strong piece of evidence in his nemesis, FBI agent John Buckner, played by Kiefer Sutherland. Buckner wears a suit, carries a gun, and couldn’t be further from the ideals Walker espouses; ‘I wanted to be the opposite of what my parents wanted’ Bucker explains, and he’s delivered on that promise. Buckner is deputised to take Walker on a long cross-country journey by train in order to stand trial, but his captive escapes, and the two men end up going on the run together as dark forces close in on Huey.

Flashback was directed by Franco Amurri, who directed the original version of Big, and there’s a body swap element here too, even if it’s played without the magic. Walker convinces Buckner than he’s spiked his drink with acid, gets him drunk, then steals his gun and clothes; clean shaven, he becomes a fun-house mirror-image of himself, with the exact opposite in political ideals. Walker is also able to put Buckner back in contact with his own idealistic youth, via an ex girlfriend Maggie (Carol Kane) who still carries a torch for Walker and the flower-power movement. While both men seem entrenched in their own political views, they manage to reverse their instant judgements of each other and form some kind of alliance.

The plotting gets a little murky in the final act of Flashback, with the chase elements overwhelming the sharper observations of the script, although the climax is pretty sharp. Hopper, discussing the impact of Easy Rider, makes a number of post-modern jokes about his own reputation, with Born to Be Wild part of the eclectic soundtrack choices. The perennially underrated Sutherland does a great job of suggesting the spectrum of opinions possible within one man; the scene where Buckner cries to see his childhood self in a home movie is brilliantly played.

It would be untrue to suggest Flachback has a bad reputation; it’s got no reputation at all, and surfaces on Amazon Prime like a Flashback to when a populist American film might seek to create political unity. It’s no masterpiece, but it’s a good –humoured and knowing film that might just find a few new converts with a fresh new print and two great stars to pull them in.

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.

The Beach Bum 2019 ***

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Oscars tend to be followed by complete career suicide films; Matthew McConaughey managed to completely sabotage his own reputation with efforts like Free State of Jones, The Dark Tower and Serenity. Teaming him with Harmony Korine, whose let-it-all-hang-out approach to drama has made him a must for mojo-seeking actors, was a smart idea; whatever else the actor is doing in The Beach Bum, and he seems to be breaking narcotics laws in practically every scene, he certainly seems to be, if not being himself, then living up to public perceptions of himself.

The Beach Bum is a writer called Moondog, Charles Bukowski- style, whose main subject seems to be capturing and immortalising in poetry the ruins of himself and his relationships. He’s married to Lingerie (Isla Fisher), and doesn’t seem bothered that she’s in a sexual relationship with another man (Snoop Dogg). In fact, he doesn’t seem to care less about her, or anything, other than getting high, until a plot twist forces him to face his demons, stop living such a hedonistic lifestyle, and get his act together to satisfy a legal stipulation.

Korine is a divisive film-maker, and The Beach Bum is something of a provocation, asking us to take an interest in a selfish, arrogant, mean-spirited and general detestable character, although there will be a small group who will see Moondog as some kind of holy fool. Either way, it’s simultaneously entertaining and repellent watching Moondog screw, blunt, dance and mug his way in and out of rehab, with Zac Efron, Jonah Hill and Martin Lawrence all adding to their outré credibility by phoning in lively if short cameos.

The Beach Bum is Korine’s best and most accessible film to date, hinging on an out-there star performance that’s worth celebrating for its sheer extremity; it would be worth voting for awards recognition just to see how a clip of The Beach Bum would look in the sizzle reel. McConaughey seems to be having fun, and there’s a reasonable punch-line to this shaggy dog story; one that suggests that the popular actor has got his own mojo back in some erratic style.

Blue Finch Film Releasing presents Harmony Korine’s The Beach Bum in select cinemas 25 October and on demand 30 October 2019