THE GENTLEMEN (2020)

January 23, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Let’s get this out of the way upfront. Filmmaker Guy Ritchie’s return to London crime-comedy is most assuredly a bit too far removed from today’s acceptable Politically Correct line. It features mostly male characters and far too many stereotypes to count. It’s also ridiculously funny. Mr. Ritchie doesn’t take his story or characters too seriously, but he proves yet again that he’s serious about entertainment.

The film begins with Matthew McConaughey ordering “a pint and a pickled egg”, a jolt to the senses, and a very cool opening credits sequence (think James Bond). We then find Fletcher, a sleazy private detective, making a surprise appearance at Ray’s (Charlie Hunnam) house. Fletcher is played by a deliciously smarmy Hugh Grant. He is trying to extort 20 million from Ray by offering up the details he has uncovered about Ray and his boss, marijuana kingpin Mickey Pearson (McConaughey). Conveniently, Fletcher has turned the story into a screenplay, which he has generously agreed to include for the 20 million.

It’s tricky business trying to make drug dealers likable, and Ritchie steers clear of this despite the presence of a few. In addition to Mickey, we have Matthew Berger (Jeremy Strong) who is trying to buy Mickey’s business; Lord George (Tom Wu), who controls the Chinese syndicate; and Dry Eye (Henry Golding), an ambitious underling of Lord George who is anxious to make his own way, by any means necessary. Other players here include Mickey’s wife Rosalind (Michele Dockery, “Downton Abbey”, “Godless”) who runs a “safe space” garage for exotic cars owned by women; Coach (Colin Farrell) who runs a boxing gym for troubled young adults; and Big Dave (Eddie Marsan), a tabloid editor seeking revenge for a dinner party where he felt Mickey disrespected him.

As if all of those characters don’t provide enough humorous crime fodder, we also have a Russian Oligarch, street gangs, heritage estate owners in need of cash, YouTube fight porn, and the plight of Laura Pressfield (Eliot Sumner, Sting’s daughter) in a heroin haven. Fletcher’s ongoing narrative for Ray provides the framework for the film, and each scene is filled to the rim with clever and wise-cracking dialogue – often delivered with flair by one of our colorful characters. Mr. Grant and Mr. Farrell are exceptionally fun to watch, and Ms. Dockery leaves us wishing her Rosalind was more prominently featured.

For some reason he’s never been a critical favorite, though Guy Ritchie garnered a cult following with his early frenetic crime flicks LOCK, STOCK and TWO SMOKING BARRELS (1998) and SNATCH (2000). Lately he’s been focusing on big budget films like SHERLOCK HOLMES (2009), SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS (2011), THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (2015) and ALADDIN (2019). He’s back to his roots here, and is joined by many actors and crew members he’s worked with before. Ritchie co-wrote the screenplay with Ivan Atkinson and Marne Davies. His cinematographer is Alan Stewart (ALADDIN) and his film editor in charge of those signature smash-cuts is frequent collaborator James Herbert.

Quick listening pays off in some deadpan one-liners that might otherwise sneak by, although most of them can’t be repeated here. The “c-word” most frequently used in the film is not ‘cash’, and is rarely a term of affection. There is even a Miramax gag. Too soon? Only you can decide. It’s rare for McConaughey to play the heavy, and he seems to relish the opportunity. But then most of the actors seem to really enjoy delivering these lines and wearing these clothes … well except for Colin Farrell’s track suits and spectacles! Certainly this one isn’t for the masses, and undoubtedly people will be offended. This is what happens when you make Guy Ritchie play nicely for a decade.

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INTRIGO: DEATH OF AN AUTHOR (2019)

January 16, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Daniel Alfredson directed two of the three films in the original “Millenium” trilogy by fellow Swede, the late Stieg Larsson. He handled THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE and THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET’S NEST. Alfredson has now signed on to direct a trilogy of films based on Hakan Nesser’s “Intrigo” novellas. This is the first in the series, with “Dear Agnes” and “Samaria” coming soon (each with completely different casts).

Nesser’s stories have been adapted for the screen by Alfredson and Brigitta Bongenheim, and they face the challenge of all crime stories making the move to movies … how to create an equal level of suspense. Benno Furmann (JOYEUX NOEL, 2005) stars as David, a translator by profession who has written his first novel. We first see David on vacation with his wife Eva (Tuva Novotny, ANNIHILATION, 2018), who spoils his plans by telling him she is leaving him for her therapist. We next see him planning or imagining her death.

Flash forward three years and David has arranged a meeting with successful writer Alex Henderson (Sir Ben Kingsley, Oscar winner for GANDHI, 1982) in hopes of receiving advice on his debut novel. Their meeting takes place at Henderson’s isolated island retreat, which serves as his primary residence away from ‘people’, the lot of whom he readily admits he doesn’t much care for. Henderson agrees to let David read passages of his novel, and the ‘cat and mouse’ game is afoot.

David has been contracted to translate the final book of Austrian writer Germund Rein, who recently committed suicide (mysteriously) while at sea. As the twists and turns unfold, David begins to wonder if there is a connection between Rein and his own story. A simple cough heard while listening to a radio concert sends David on the road. He discovers a code within Rein’s manuscript, and the film bounces between the multiple stories and layers.

When David’s fiction crosses over with his own reality, it’s our job as viewers to keep up and distinguish between the two. It’s not always easy as the structure seems designed to confuse. On the other hand, some of the aforementioned twists and turns might as well have neon signs explaining what is about to happen, why it happens and how it is related to what has already happened. Because of this, the film lacks the tension suspense and conflict necessary for this type of story. Storytelling is the focus, but it’s that storytelling that is the film’s downfall. While it’s always fun to watch Kingsley tear into a role, and some of the scenery is drop-dead gorgeous, we do hope the next two chapters of Nesser’s books transfer better to the screen.

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THE HOST (2020)

January 16, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. The success of Ryan Murphy’s “American Horror Story” has inspired many writers and filmmakers to dive headfirst into the genre. The results have been mixed – some really creative works, and some ho-hum copycats. What has been interesting to watch is the genre-bending (or stretching) when what traditionally would have been a suspenseful drama or thriller, has elements of horror added to spice things up. That’s my best lead-in for director Andy Newbery’s film based on a story by Laurence Lamers, and adapted for the screen by Lamers, Finola Geraghty, Brenda Bishop, and Zachary Weckstein.

Sixty years ago this would have fit right in as an episode on “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”, even down to the bookend therapy sessions led by the fine British actor Derek Jacobi as Dr. Hobson. He tells his patient (whose face we don’t see) that his is “an unusual and disturbing case.” We then ‘see’ the story unfold … or maybe unravel is a better description. Robert Atkinson (played by Mike Beckingham, younger brother of Simon Pegg) is a bank employee enjoying a lunch break tryst with a beautiful woman. Sarah (Margo Stilley, 9 SONGS) just so happens to be married to Robert’s boss, and she clearly has only one use for Robert since he has no money and his life is a mess.

It’s not long before we discover Robert has many vices: gambling, smoking, drinking, and of course, romping with married women. In a moment that can be attributed to a desperate attempt to legitimize his existence, Robert nabs a 50,000 pound cash deposit from a new bank customer and promptly heads over to his favorite gambling hall. Things don’t go well, and dumb-as-a-rock Robert is soon cutting a deal with Chinese cartel leader Lau (played by the always reliable Togo Igawa).

Robert’s deal sends him to Amsterdam, a city where many things can go wrong – and often do. Local resident Vera Tribbe (Maryam Houssouni) offers Robert a room in her mansion, and, as we expected, things don’t go well for him. Both the cartel and Robert’s brother Steve (musician Dougie Poynter) are on the trail to find out what happened to Robert. DEA Agent Herbert Summers (played by Nigel Barber and his silky voice) is also involved, and what we find is a whole bunch of ‘nothing good’ thanks to the creepy rich Tribbe family,

Familiar faces pop up throughout the film, yet it’s difficult to buy into the sense of dread when most of the characters are making the kind of dumb decisions that Geico riffed in their commercial about ‘the running car’ and hiding behind the chainsaws. The lessons are pretty simple. Don’t steal money. Don’t sleep with your boss’ spouse. Don’t agree to run an errand for the Chinese cartel … or any other cartel flavor. Only if you can overlook the cluelessness of the characters will you find some entertainment value here.

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LES MISERABLES (France, 2019)

January 15, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Being the new student in school can be an emotionally trying experience for some kids. Now take that pressure and put it in a patrol car for law enforcement in a tough part of town where racial and religious tensions are always on edge. The ‘new kid’ in this case isn’t a kid, but rather an adult cop … and the experience will eclipse ‘trying’ and shift directly to life-altering. “Ever since 2005 …” is a line that reminds us that the Paris riots of that year remain fresh in the minds of locals, and police harassment is applied to most every stop or interrogation. This is an area that has yet to reclaim balance and writer-director Ladj Ly, having grown up in this part of the city, is more qualified than anyone to tell these stories.

Montfermeil is the Paris suburb where Victor Hugo wrote his classic 1862 novel “Les Miserables”. Recently divorced Stephane (played by Damian Bonnard) has transferred to the Anti-Crime Squad (ACS) in the area to be closer to his young son. His first day on the new job involves riding on patrol with local officers Chris and Gwada, who are veterans of these streets. Chris (played by Alexis Manenti) is a racist, hardened by the locals who have nicknamed him “Pink Pig”. Chris’s intimidation methods are old school and iron-fisted. Gwada (played by Djebril Zonga) is an African-Muslim who tries to capitalize on his own roots with locals, even though they now consider him a traitor.

Immediately obvious is the fact that Stephane’s ‘by-the-book’ approach doesn’t meld with the forceful posture assumed by Chris and Gwada. “Greaser” is the nickname Chris gives to Stephane, emphasizing that the new cop doesn’t fit on the streets or in the patrol car. As the prime example of how this environment can cause a small situation to escalate quickly due to one wrong word or movement, a young thief named Issa takes a lion cub from a travelling circus as a prank. The next thing we know, the Muslim Brotherhood is involved and threats are flooding every interaction, creating tensions for all. When the cops finally track down Issa, an accident occurs that further escalates the tensions between various street factions and the cops. Things get really ugly when it’s discovered a young boy captured the event with his drone.

Director Ly opens on citywide excitement at the 2018 World Cup with a backdrop of Paris sites such as The Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe. The script from Ly and co-writers Giordano Gederlini and Alexis Manenti doesn’t allow us to wallow in the happiness for long. Soon, we are on the streets with the cops in Victor Hugo’s (and Ly’s) setting – contemporary only in look, not feel or substance. We are dropped into an environment where each moment is dictated by racial-social-political lines. Foot chases, car chases, and confrontations are de rigeur. Disenchantment cloaks kids and adults alike, and the fear of anarchy never wanes. A bad day for Issa turns into maybe the worst ever first day for Stephane. This is one of the year’s most incredibly tense and gripping films, and one that leaves us exhausted and dumbfounded. It’s a brilliant work.

January 2020 UPDATE: The film has been Oscar nominated for Best Foreign Language Film

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UNDERWATER (2020)

January 10, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. The opening credits have an “X-Files” look and feel. Newspaper headlines and redacted reports zip by … in fact, the rapid cuts are so quick that very few viewers will be able to keep up. Even if you haven’t finished your Evelyn Woods speed-reading course, the gist is clear: there is a (very) deep-water drilling lab located 36,000 feet below the ocean’s surface. Yep, that’s almost 7 miles deep for the crew of 316, and some mysterious bad things may or may not be lurking. That’s really our only set-up … unless you want to count Kristen Stewart brushing her teeth.

It’s literally less than 5 minutes in when the rig is rocked by an explosion of some kind. We are told the structure is 70% damaged. The survivors are quickly identified. Nora (Ms. Stewart) and Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie) are together in the immediate aftermath. Nora is a mechanical engineer and computer whiz. They soon come across a co-worker buried in rubble. It’s wise-cracking TJ Miller and his (actual) stuffed bunny. Next up are the Captain (Vincent Cassel) and lovebirds Emily (Jessica Henwick) and Smith (John Gallagher Jr). With no time for early character development, we learn tidbits as their perilous journey hopefully leads them towards rescue. Of course anyone who has ever watched a movie can tell you, they won’t all make it. Maybe the 8 year old girl sitting in the row behind me wouldn’t know that … but no parent should take their 8 year old to a PG-13 movie that has “terror” in the parental warnings.

Director William Eubank and co-writers Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad create plenty of tension, danger and suspense. The movie is at its best when they let the moment speak. It’s the dialogue that is mostly cringe-worthy, as well as the predictable and unnecessary jump-scares. These people are stranded miles deep in the ocean and are running out of oxygen and options … and are being chased by something they can’t identify. The visual effects are successful in generating the environment of danger and claustrophobia.

It’s in the little things where the film falters. When we first see the Captain, he has his arm in a sling. He’s obviously injured. Once the bulky underwater suits are donned, his bad arm seems just fine … he’s even pulling one of the others with a rope! Nora makes a big deal about being the “smallest” of the group and volunteers to explore a narrow passage. The problem is that they are all wearing the same suits – a fact that should negate any advantage of Ms., Stewart’s slim, toned body. Lastly, the film has borrowed heavily from James Cameron’s classic ALIEN. In fact, it has been referred to as “Underwater Alien”. Of course, this film isn’t nearly as well-rounded or complete as that one … but then few are.

Mr. Eubank’s film is a sci-fi/horror mash-up, but it’s really more a survival thriller than science fiction or creature feature, although the sea creatures have their moments. Cinematographer Bojan Bazelli does a nice job in keeping with the ‘play it straight’ approach, and his camera work is complemented by the electronic score from Marco Beltrami and Brandon Roberts. Ms. Stewart and her buzzed blond hair hold their own amidst the danger. A blatant lecture about how we are going places (deep sea) we shouldn’t go and doing things (drilling) we shouldn’t do is included for those who might not figure it out on their own, but mostly we spend our time trying to figure out how to survive the deep sea pressure with little oxygen and no escape pods. Just leave the 8-year olds at home.

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THE SONATA (2020)

January 9, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. A throwback to 1970’s cinema is easy to appreciate, whether it was intended or nor. Writer-director Andrew Desmond’s debut feature film certainly serves up the feel and style of so many of those low-budget horror films I watched as a youngster (many, it seemed, featured the late Roddy McDowall). Mr. Desmond and co-writer Arthur Morin (also his first feature film screenplay) likely viewed some of those same films, as this one succeeds in capturing the same creepy tone.

For some, the music they create comes from their soul … it makes them who they are. For these musicians, their obsession and quest for perfection can be off-putting to others. In an early sequence, we see young violist Rose Fisher (Freya Tingley, “Once Upon a Time”) react to news of her father’s death by shrugging and stating she wants to continue with her recording session. See, Rose’s father deserted the family when she was a toddler, and the two never spoke again. Richard Marlowe (the late great Rutger Hauer) was an exciting and brilliant young composer when he chose to drop out and live as a recluse (think Salinger). He’s even compared to Pink Floyd founding member Syd Barrett. Rose chose to never use her genetics as a springboard to success; never even telling her manager Charles Vernais (Simon Abkarian, CASINO ROYALE) of the connection.

Rose visits Marlowe’s house, and before learning of the startling manner in which his life ended, she discovers his final composition locked away in a drawer … a violin sonata seemingly left for her to find. Neither Rose nor Charles recognize some of the non-musical symbols included on the sheet music, but it’s clear there are elements of genius in the piece. While Charles envisions piles of cash to be made by capitalizing on this situation, Rose sets about tracking down clues to the unknown symbols by exploring her father’s estate.

It should be noted that Marlowe’s “house” is actually the 19th century Cesvaine Palace, and it makes a wonderfully gothic setting for this story. This sub-genre of horror films is always best when the setting is a creepy old mansion/castle, and includes a mysterious housekeeper, other-worldly children, a leather-bound book of secrets, and a subterranean room (this one is beneath a chapel) with curious wall murals telling some forbidden legend of the occult. The only element missing here is vicious dog that pops up periodically.

The symbols lead to a French secret society, and in their own ways, both Rose and Charles learn that finishing Marlowe’s final piece will conjure the Anti-Christ. While Charles pursues greed, Rose pursues the music. Spoken words pale in comparison to the music Rose creates. Screen veteran James Faulkner appears as Sir Victor Ferdinand in a vital supporting role. While it’s a bit disappointing that the late, great Rutger Hauer has very little screen time, it’s quite enjoyable to watch Ms. Tingley carry the lead. Mr. Desmond filmed in Latvia, and delivers a film that fits quite nicely for those who enjoy the creepy throwback horror style.

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1917 (2019)

December 23, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s now been over 100 years since World War I ended. The Great War garners barely a mention in high school history books these days, and Hollywood has devoted much more time and energy to WWII. Filmmaker Peter Jackson did his part with last year’s stunning documentary THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD, a video and photographic look at the actual people involved in the First World War. And now, Oscar winning director Sam Mendes (AMERICAN BEAUTY) delivers another glimpse … and another technical marvel.

Mr. Mendes, working with Oscar winning Cinematographer Roger Deakins (BLADE RUNNER 2049) and Oscar winning Film Editor Lee Smith (DUNKIRK), has shot and edited the film to give the look of one continuous take in real time. Although used previously in such films as Hitchcock’s ROPE and Inarritu’s BIRDMAN, the single take approach is certainly no gimmick here. We open on two young British soldiers lounging in a prairie as they are summoned to report to the commander. Their mission is described as critical, as a British battalion is preparing to walk into a deadly trap set by the Germans. More than 1600 lives are at stake and the phone lines are down. It’s up to Lance Corporal Blake and Lance Corporal Schofield to work their way across No Man’s Land to the front line and hand-deliver an order stopping the attack. Oh, and one more detail: Blake’s older brother is in the battalion he is tasked with warning.

The real time approach serves the purpose of allowing viewers to take on the urgency of Blake and Schofield. We experience the tension and horrors of war. Barbed wire, booby traps, slushy trenches, snipers, rats, dead bodies, dogfights (the aerial type) and towns under siege all play a part here as the men rush towards their goal of saving fellow soldiers lives, including a beloved family member. Dean-Charles Chapman (“Game of Thrones”) plays Blake, and George MacKay (CAPTAIN FANTASTIC) plays Schofield. We spot the personality differences between them. Blake is super focused and determined to save his brother, while Schofield doesn’t welcome the assignment, but is a dutiful soldier and loyal friend.

It’s really the Schofield character with whom the viewer mostly relates. He’s no super soldier or Jason Bourne-type, but rather a young man trying to stay alive and fulfill his orders. With the relentless pacing of the film, we feel the fear and admire the courage. There is an especially touching scene in a bombed-out town where paths are crossed with a French woman (Claire Duburcq) caring for an orphaned infant. It’s a reminder that humanity still exists, even within the bounds of war.

There is no clock ticking in the corner of the screen, but we know time is of the essence, and quite limited. The camera seems to be always moving forward, rarely allowing for us or the characters to exhale. As you might expect, running is done frequently – sometimes towards something, sometimes from it. Roger Deakins is in prime form here with his camera, and there are too many remarkable moments to mention them all; however, the river rapids and waterfall, and the town under siege at night, are two of the most incredible sequences I’ve seen on screen.

Along the journey, some familiar faces pop up as military men: Andrew Scott, Benedict Cumberbatch, Richard Madden, Mark Strong, and Colin Firth. Although each appears only briefly, it’s a testament to their acting prowess that each is memorable. The chaos and relentless terror of war is on display, more often than not. But this isn’t a film designed to create deep thoughts or serious debates on the merits of war. Instead, it’s meant to focus on one of the countless personal stories that occur during war. War is fought by people, not faceless countries, and each person has their own story.

Non-linear story telling has been a movie-thing since even before MEMENTO, but director Mendes (and co-writer Kristy Wilson-Cairns, “Penny Dreadful”) show us the true presentation of linear … in the moment and by the moment. GALLIPOLI and PATHS OF GLORY are about the closest comparisons I can come up with, and the weight of the film is felt physically and emotionally as we are drawn in. The exceptional score from Thomas Newman (14 time Oscar nominee) serves to accentuate the chaos and relentless terror. It’s a work of art and a unique viewing experience.

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