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.

watch the trailer:


ALADDIN (2019)

May 22, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Aladdin … come on down!  You are the next participant in Disney’s ongoing mission for live-action remakes of their classic films. And rest easy fans, this time the mega-studio has done right by the original. Now that doesn’t mean there aren’t surprises. How about Guy Ritchie as director?  How about a cast of mostly unknowns? How about modernized songs and even a new one sung by Jasmine? And it probably goes without asking, but how about a lot of CGI?

Mena Massoud (“Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan”) stars as Aladdin, and he gets to showboat early in the film and flash some parkour skills in the familiar and high-octane chase through the village. Aladdin, of course, is labeled a ‘street rat’ and ‘riff-raff’, but he’s also charming, handsome, talented as a thief, and quite warm-hearted. He and his pet monkey Abu – or more accurately, partner in crime – are streetwise and work quite well together, both for theft and love.

Naomi Scott (slated to star in the CHARLIE’S ANGELS movie coming out later this year) is a beautiful and ambitious Princess Jasmine, who wants to succeed her father as Sultan of Agrabah, but is instead forced to choose between a steady stream of suitors – each a Prince, as required by law. Ms. Scott has a terrific singing voice and really gets to cut loose on the new woman power song “Speechless”.

The blue Genie is played by Will Smith, and this is what has fans of the beloved 1992 animated film so flustered. No, Will Smith is not Robin Williams, and few if any, could match the late great comedian for his energy and comedic flair. But Mr. Smith does a marvelous job of staying true to the original, while also adding his own style … a style that works very well for comedy, music, and dramatic moments. He is not likely to disappoint anyone who has an open mind.

So let’s talk about the villain. Marwan Kenzari is Jafar, the man so dissatisfied with being number 2. Personally, I would have preferred a more intimidating bad guy, but given the tone of the film (more on that below), he’s a solid fit. His sidekick and smart-aleck parrot Iago is voiced by Alan Tudyk (it was the distinctive Gilbert Gottfried in the 1992 version). Two other key supporting roles include Nasim Padrad (“Saturday Night Live”) as Dalla, Jasmine’s handmaiden; and Navid Negahban (Abu Nazir in “Homeland”) as the Sultan and Jasmine’s father.

It’s been 27 years since Robin Williams’ Genie entertained so many, and the comparisons to that version are inevitable. It’s a relief that Disney opted to keep the film family friendly (Rated PG) and avoid the dark tone that had their recent projects aimed more at adults than kids, rather than the balance they’ve been known for more than 6 decades. Yes, this is the same director that made SNATCH (2000) and SHERLOCK HOLMES (2009), neither of which any decent parent would allow their young kids to watch. But, Mr. Ritchie has delivered a film which entertained (and didn’t overly frighten) kids as young as 5 in the screening I attended.

Director Ritchie co-wrote the script with John August, who is best known for his work with Tim Burton (BIG FISH, CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, CORPSE BRIDE, DARK SHADOWS, FRANKENWEENIE). The film runs 2 hours and 8 minutes, 38 longer than the 1992 film … though it doesn’t feel too long. Gemma Jackson’s set design of Agrabah, the Palace, and the Cave of Wonders are all stunning, and then of course, there is the music. Alan Menken won an Oscar for ALADDIN (1992) and his music is back and modernized, and sounds wonderful … especially “A Whole New World” and Jasmine’s new song.

With a talented cast of Arab/Middle Eastern/Central Asian/Southern Asian actors, there should be no cries of “foul”, and there really is something special about a movie that can be thoroughly enjoyed by all ages. The Bollywood-type closing number provides a kaleidoscope of color, texture and dancing … and is a nice twist to “You’ve Never Had a Friend Like Me”. And I’ll leave you with this final offer: you can have the monkey, if I can have the magic carpet.

watch the trailer:


THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

August 22, 2015

man from uncle Greetings again from the darkness. There aren’t many of us left. I’m referring to fans of the 1960’s TV series who will always think of Robert Vaughn, David McCallum and Leo G. Carroll as the real United Network Command for Law and Enforcement – shortened to U.N.C.L.E. Of course, these days, the movie industry is committed to remakes, sequels and re-boots, and it’s not surprising that it takes “Superman” and “The Lone Ranger” to try and fill the shoes of Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin.

Henry Cavill as Solo and Armie Hammer as Kuryakin join forces with Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina) as Gaby in a mission to thwart the sale of a nuclear warhead built under duress by Gaby’s estranged father. Also joining in the fun are Jared Harris as Sanders, Hugh Grant as Waverly (Mr. Carroll’s old role) and Elizabeth Debicki (she made quite an impression as Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby), who makes a very intriguing “bad guy” as Victoria.

A one word description of this movie would be pretty. Most EVERYTHING and EVERYONE are pretty. The clothes are pretty. The sets are pretty. The Italian locations are pretty, and Lord knows the people are pretty. Most of the lead actors have spent some time modeling: Cavill, Hammer, Vikander, Grant, Debicki, and Luca Calvana. Heck, David Beckham even has a cameo just to make sure every scene includes someone really pretty.

In the same year with the latest Mission: Impossible (Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation) and James Bond (Spectre) movies, it’s understandable that the Sherlock Holmes writer/director team of Lionel Wigram and Guy Ritchie take a less serious and more tongue-in-cheek approach. Unfortunately, the comic chops are a bit weak on the leads, so while they look pretty … many of the punchlines come off pretty weak.

For any other surviving loyalists to the original TV series, the best advice would be to accept the movie for what it is, and avoid comparing to those classic memories. Even Jerry Goldsmith’s original theme song only merits a few moments of airtime. Those unfamiliar with the original material will likely accept this as the Pirates of the Caribbean of spy movies, and understand that the current TV show “The Americans” handles the Cold War much more dramatically and intensely. However, if anyone is looking for pretty …

watch the pretty trailer:

 

 


SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS

December 17, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Normally if a sequel shows up a mere two years after the original, we would have good reason for low expectations (ie, The Hangover). However, director Guy Ritchie is back and just as importantly, Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law reprise their roles as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Adding a few twists to the successful template provided by the original, the team delivers one that is sure to keep fans happy.

The reason so many Sir Arthur Conan Doyle loyalists dismissed the first film is that the frenetic pace and towering action sequences seem to go against what made the original stories so great. So what does Mr. Ritchie do? He goes BIGGER and FASTER! There are three extended action sequences that are mind-boggling to watch. They work because the plot is so elementary, my dear. Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris) is out to cause a war from which he can personally profit. His plan involves guns, bombs and assassinations. Only our heroes can possibly stop him.

 Much of the odd-ball bromance from the first movie has been toned down here, and we get not only the return of Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) and Watson’s new wife (Kelly Reilly), but also the introduction of a third female character – a gypsy fortune teller, Madame Simza (the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Noomi Rapace). Of course, McAdams character doesn’t last long, Reilly gets tossed from a moving train, and Rapace is given a few lines and a couple of sprinting scenes. There may be more women, but this is still a man’s world.

 The vision for this franchise is an updated version that encourages discovery of Holmes by a new generation. And while Downey is excellent, it’s difficult not to notice the similarities to Captain Jack Sparrow. Also, Professor Moriarty is very much a Bond-type villain. None of that matters too much as the rapid-fire dialogue between Holmes and Watson, and the crackling chemistry between Downey and Law, make this a fun time at a huge holiday movie. An added plus this time is a brilliantly written and executed chess match between Moriarty and Holmes. That scene fed my need for the more brainiac Holmes that I so adore.

It seems odd that the release date for this one is so close to that of the new Mission:Impossible, but they both deliver what the fans want and hopefully find their audience. Even if you aren’t a fan, the fabulous sets and various world filming locations will keep you interested, even as you dodge giant explosions.

note: this is the first English-speaking role for Noomi Rapace

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: while watching the first one, you thought to yourself “too bad there aren’t more explosions and fight scenes” OR you enjoy the test-pilot speed at which Guy Ritchie and Robert Downey Jr so excel

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer the traditional, methodical pace of the Doyle books OR watching a wife get thrown out of a moving train might motivate you to action

watch the trailer:


SHERLOCK HOLMES (2009)

January 3, 2010

 (12-27-09) Greetings again from the darkness. Great literature seldom makes for great cinema. The mediums are vastly different. However great literature, in the right hands, can make for very entertaining cinema. Such is the case with Guy Ritchie’s interpretation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s greatest character.

Mr. Ritchie provides us with quite a departure from the Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce “Holmes and Watson”. Here we get dazzling special effects and near super-human feats and stunts. Another twist is that this Holmes here is no meticulous, fastidious bore in real life. In fact, he lives more like a frat boy or rock star – replete with trashed room and bouts of isolation.

What is not missing is Holmes’ world class attention to detail. The story here is multi-layered and actually very interesting, if not a bit high-minded and high-concept. The still-under-construction Tower Bridge plays a role in the film and the bleakness and gray of London is captured perfectly.

Of course, I won’t reveal any details of the story other than to say the “good” guys are out to get a real bad guy here … wonderfully played by the always solid Mark Strong, who may or may not be dead. That always makes for an interesting case! Support from Rachel McAdams and Eddie Marsan are fine, but Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law are the real stars as Holmes and Watson. As odd as it seems, they really do have a buddy factor that works well on screen. Downey’s physicality has always set him apart from many contemporary actors … he moves like a dancer and fights like a champion. Jude Law is often too pretty-boy for me, but he really does a nice job of capturing the reluctant sidekick with complimentary skills.

This is a BIG movie! It is made to be a rollicking good time with tons of popcorn munched. Smaller kids will not be able to follow the story, but anyone who has read a Holmes story (and isn’t against a little artistic license) should see the film. It is extremely entertaining and fun to watch.