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.

 

 

Monos 2019 ****

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Part of the attraction of awards season is the wild card entry; who had Monos down as one of the possible nominees in 2019? And yet this from-nowhere Columbian film about child soldiers has waged a careful campaign since making waves at Sundance back in January, with selected public previews to drum up interest, critical acclaim and a building reputation as a must-see film. Alejandro Landes’ film isn’t for everyone, for sure, but it’s a worthy recommendation, clear in purpose, effective in delivery, agonising in content.

The Monos are a group of commandos, gathered on a remote mountaintop where they have been detailed to guard a hostage. The reasons for the imprisonment of Doctora (Julianne Nicholson) are never clear, but Monos is very much war from the POV of a grunt, and that kind of information is not disclosed. The names of the kids say it all; Rambo, Wolf, Bigfoot, Smurf. They may carry machine guns, but they’re still children. The idea of kids acting like soldiers is played for laughs in Stranger Things, but the reality is substantially more grim. The kids also are given a valued cow named Shakira, but irresponsibility leads to its death. And when Doctora escapes, the fissures amongst the group crack open like wounds.

Although there’s a couple of striking scenes which place the activities of the children in some kind of wider context, part of the power of Monos is that our focus is tightly within the group; there’s echoes of Lord of the Flies here, and some of the jungle madness of Apocalypse Now, but Monos doesn’t slavishly reference either. The atavistic theme of Heart of Darkness is here, but the focus is more concern for what this specific environment does to the human condition.

Like Beast of No Nation, Monos shines a light on a subject that’s obviously distressing, but there’s no sense of exploitation. The rapid erosion of morals in our political world will have a direct repercussion for the kids that follow, and Monos is quick to point out the potential for decline. Monos is not a lot of laughs to be sure, but it’s an important, sociologically relevant film that resonates in 2019’s changing climate of increased moral anxiety.

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.

Stateline Motel 1973 ***

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Also known under the underwhelming title Motel of Fear, Maurizio Lucidi’s Stateline Motel is a rather cool little melodrama, ruined for your home viewing by this hideous print on Amazon Prime. Looking like the disregarded holiday snaps of an extremely amateur photographer, Stateline Motel is of interest primarily to connoisseurs of murk, but for those prepared to look beyond the abject, miserable presentation, there’s some narrative gold to be mined.

More recent efforts like Deadfall or Reindeer Games have a similar vibe; Stateline Motel is a Canadian-set, Italian financed melodrama the follows crooks in the aftermath of a heist gone wrong. Fabio Testi plays Floyd, jail-bird partner of Eli Wallach’s Joe, who both have blood on their hands and some priceless jewels to split after a Montreal store-raid; Joe takes the bus across the border, while Floyd takes the car. Driving like a diddy for no obvious reason, Floyd totals his car and is forced to check into the motel of the title, where Michelle (Ursula Andress) is undressing five times nightly, distracting him from his share of the loot. Floyd and Michelle inevitably get it on, but when he wakes up, the jewels are gone…

Stateline Motel is no masterpiece, but it’s actually pretty compelling in the final straight as Joe closes in and the plotlines finally intersect before a cool final twist; it’s tough, hardboiled stuff, the kind of thing that Tarantino’s best films ape effectively. Testi and Andress are fine, and Wallach is a nasty bad-guy, with another Bond- girl Barbara Bach also in a key supporting role.

With horrible dubbing, gibberish subtitles and a dismal print quality, Stateline Motel perhaps is not the ideal place for genre fans to gain a taste of the 1970’s, but there’s just enough meat on the bones to justify a watch. It’s just a pity more time and effort hasn’t gone into restoration; the cast deserve better than this.

Leon: The Director’s Cut **** 1994

leonThe director does indeed seem to have been cut from the package accompanying this blu-ray release of Luc Besson’s celebrated film; there’s barely a glimpse of the French auteur, while star Jean Reno and musician Eric Serra are front and centre of the extras provided here. Given the general obloquy surrounding Besson’s reputation at the time of this new release, perhaps that’s understandable, but it would be a shame to consign Leon to the dustbin of history; it takes more than one person to make a film, and Leon is notable for a trio of iconic performances from Reno, Natalie Portman and Gary Oldman, the latter setting a gold standard for manic villainy that’s rarely been bettered.

The rangy-looking, punkish Reno plays the title role; Leon, pronounced more like Sergio Leone that Leon the pig farmer. He’s a hit-man of remarkable effectiveness, introduced in a generic but effective series of track-downs. Operating in a sunny New York, Leon retires to his apartment between jobs, only to find himself drawn into a violent stramash when he takes pity on precocious kid Mathilda, played by Portman. When her family are eliminated by Norman Stansfield (Oldman), Mathilda’s last hope is to knock on Leon’s door; he lets her in, not only to his apartment, but to an array of weapons and a philosophy that would befit a samurai; the knife comes last. Of course, Leon and Mathilda’s relationship is frowned on, not least by Stansfield’s government colleagues, who want them both eliminated.

Those who seek to psychoanalyse Besson, to prove him innocent or guilty of actions elsewhere, will find plenty of evidence to consider in Leon; this director’s cut, some 23 minutes longer than the original, makes explicit that Mathilda sees Leon in a sexual way, and also makes explicit that he does not share her view. That was implied in the version originally released as The Professional in the US, but it’s probably worthwhile to have this spelled out. Either way, the film retains an uncomfortable edge that adds to the plotting; given how effectively Leon’s story plays out, it’s strange that Besson has never taken an espionage/assassin story so seriously in the many films that followed.

If Besson’s reputation is problematic at the time of this blu-ray’s release, Leon: The Professional is, like the central character, beyond reproach. Reno was never better than this, silent, dexterous, unexpectedly comical and a consistent, powerful presence. Portman makes Natalie seem both grounded and real, while Oldman gives the kind of huge, villainous performance that makes a great movie flow; snaffling drugs like sweets, playing an invisible piano, his manic energy is balanced by Reno’s absorbent hero. And Leon has never looked as good as it does here, the blu-ray fully capturing the canyon streets of NYC, a breath-taking, outsiders view of a dark and dangerous city hidden by shafts on sunlight.

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 Witch Who Came From The Sea 1976 ***

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It’s the answer to the trivia question; what connects family favourite Back to the Future to the notorious video nasties, films banned by the UK government as potentially morally corruptive influences back in 1984? Cinematographer Dean Cundey warmed up for Marty McFly with this bleak, hard and for-sure nasty female killer drama, but it’s one that deserves a different kind of reputation. Actress Millie Perkins had once played the lead in Diary of Anne Frank; here she’s Molly, a troubled abuse victim who descends into madness, seducing, castrating and murdering men she sees on television while working in a seafront bar in Santa Monica. Despite the title, there’s no supernatural content; the title of this sleazy, yet erudite film relates to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, which is discussed in some detail. The murder scenes are deeply unpleasant and it’s tempting to look away, but the rest of Matt Cimber’s film is no easier to watch, with a frank and unsparing treatment of the incest that Molly suffered, seen here in flashback. Written by Perkins’ husband Robert Thom, The Witch is more character study that exploitation film; almost like a female version of Taxi Driver from the same year. Perkins throws herself into a deep, troubling role, and Lonny Chapman, from Hitchcock’s The Birds, is support. This has, for obvious reasons, been a film that’s been put well out of reach of the public; this Arrow Films release may well generate a cult audience. Cimber went on to make the Pia Zadora vehicles Butterfly and Fake Out, but it’s arguable whether he, Thom or Perkins is the real author of this powerful, upsetting portrait of a wronged and sympathetic woman.