The Gentlemen

If ever there was someone who clearly benefited from the rise of independent cinema through the wedge of Quentin Tarantino, it was Guy Ritchie.  His take on English gangsters propelled him into prominence and he has had some great opportunities ever since. Maybe all of his films have not been successes, but after shepherding the live action remake of Aladdin to a worldwide box office of over a billion dollars, his failures will be overlooked for a while. He returns to his natural milieu with “The Gentleman”, a violent comical take on the economics of the marijuana business. It is filled with the sort of off kilter characters that “Snatch”, “Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Rocknrolla” also overflowed with. Even though Vinnie Jones and Jason Statham are missing, “The Gentlemen” will take it’s rightful place alongside those rough cut gems.

The cast is chock full of Richie regulars but features some newcomers as well. Co-producer Matthew McConaughey is given star billing and while he earns it, there are several standout performances along the way. Charlie Hunnam, who starred in the Ritchie misfire “King Arthur” is a sturdy second banana to McConaughey’s crime lord.  He is all quiet coiled professionalism, waiting to be provoked into action. Henry Golding who has made a name for himself as a romantic lead in “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Last Christmas” gets to play a heavy in this film and he is cynically effective as a self absorbed hoodlum on the make and maybe stretching past his reach too soon.  Eddie Marsan, a veteran of the two Guy Ritche Sherlock Holmes movies, plays a belligerent newspaper publisher. The resolution to his part of the story is one of the images we are fortunately spared from viewing.

It is two big names playing supporting parts that steal this movie and make it so enjoyable to watch. I could have sworn that Colin Farrell was a veteran of the crime films Ritchie made in his early days, but this seems to be their first film together. You know how Tarantino has filled the mouth of Samel L. Jackson with amazing dialogue in their collaborations? while this feels the same way. Farrel delivers the lines that Ritchie has written as if they have worked together for decades. He gets the intonations, relational status and emotional equivalency exactly right. Some things just go together perfectly. So to the list of milk and cookies, peanut butter and jelly, and James Bond and Martinis, add Colin Farrell to Guy Ritchie.

As great as Farrell is in his almost tangential role, there is another well established actor who basically steals the film in a wholly unexpected manner. Hugh Grant has been a light romantic comedian for most of his career. As he is aging out of the romantic lead casting, he has found his true niche as a character actor. In “Florence Foster Jenkins” he gave a sympathetic performance backing up Meryl Streep. In “Paddington 2” he delightfully plays the villain and deserved even more awards attention. Unfortunately, this fil gets a January release here in the States and by next December, people will have forgotten how great he is here. Grant plays a investigator/journalist/detective who tries to take what he finds out about the drug kingpin as a way of both blackmailing the gangster and breaking into the movie business. He is also the narrator of the film, who provides exposition, transitions and color to the events being described. Usually Grant has a proper sounding pronunciation and delicate manner of expression, but not his character Dexter. He is a foul mouthed, dirty minded, over confident and smug creature. Visually he is barely recognizable as the world famous actor he is, but vocally and with many mannerisms, you will not know that this is the same guy who wooed Julia Roberts, Drew Barrymore, Sandra Bullock and many more.

The dialogues, violence and complicated machinations of the plot are the things that you expect in a Guy Ritchie crime film. The elegant turns of phrase that McConaughey uses as he engages his potential business partners and his enemies is a great example of the screenwriter’s strengths. Hunnam and Farrell with their mild deferential styles contrasted to what we see both are capable of are a plus with the dialogue and the action. Although it seems that the events in the story are spinning out as a series of unplanned obstacles, there is always a way that those moments tie back into the plot, usually in a surprising way.  At least it will be a surprise if you have never seen one of Ritchie’s earlier gangster films. If you have, you know to expect the unexpected, but you will be able afterwards to say, Of course.

Dumbo (2019)

If you have not visited before, let me tell you something about myself that repeat visitors have already heard, I am a sentimentalist. I tear up at dog stories, mt throat constricts when I see the American Flag waving in the background of a patriotic scene, and a well placed song can send me on a nostalgia voyage that I might take days to return from. With all of that front loaded, “Dumbo” should have been catnip to me and just the kind of soft sweet film to enjoy on a family night out. That is what makes it so depressing to report that the film is a rather joyless and empty exercise in spite of all the emotional manipulation that it attempts. Tim Burton has lost something here, and it is not his unique visual style .

The film looks great. I was so in during the opening moments of Casey Jr. chugging down the tracks toward the home of the Medici Brothers Circus. The hint of the original theme, and the near face on the front of the locomotive, made me think of riding in the tiny circus cages pulled by the miniature train at Disneyland. That moment was fleeting however. When we arrive at the circus, we are rushed through an introduction of characters that tells us their names but nothing about who they are. Milly is a scientist supposedly trapped in a circus child’s body. How do we know this?, because someone says it. We don’t learn it organically from her actions, the character is being described to us. She fares better than her brother however, poor Joe is not given any character at all, not even a expository line about his personality. In a blink and you’ll miss it moment, we discover that they have been cared for by the circus magician and his wife after the death of their mother while their father was away in WWI. It is his return to the circus that starts the movie, and that feels like the wrong start. I can see the parallel being developed by the story structure of an absent parent and the need for connection. Colin Farrell as Holt Farrier, needs to re-establish with his kids, but we are seeing all of this out of any previous context and I mostly did not care because I had to emotional connection to anyone yet.

We should feel emotionally invested in Dumbo immediately. Baby animals are almost always cute and a baby elephant just screams “adorable”. The CGI creature that is the star of this movie is suitably appealing but somehow still fails to capture our hearts the way he should. When baby Dumbo is being sepearted from his mother, it should be a moment of heartwrenching drama, instead it is a moment of mild sadness that passes much too quickly. I’m not sure what Burton and screenwriter Ehren Kruger missed, but there is definitely a shortage of giving a darn here. I think it may be that the story of the kids and their father steps on the emphasis on Dumbo and his mother. It also does so without giving us enough emotional reward for the human story. We are supposed to care about the tragedy that has befallen this family, but there was no flashback to happier times or a current display of the family bonds. Once again, we are just told that this is what is happening, not really shown it.

The biggest missteps in my opinion come from trying to establish the villainous characters in the story.  Holt is supposed to take over the responsibility of the elephants in the circus, but a roustabout who doesn’t really like the elephants and has been in charge, resents having his authority undermined. That character is drawn so broadly, that you can tell he is evil from the moment he appears on screen. That his malicious treatment of the elephants and Holt, results in an on screen death in a kids movie, tales this away from being light hearted family fare. This has a dark edge to it, that might work in other Burton films but is a sour center to this piece of eye candy. It gets worse when the main villain, portrayed by Michael Keaton, comes on like a young John Hammond, all set to show the world something impossible and then he morphs into the standard shortsighted capitalist that is the easy parody for struggling screenwriters. Almost nothing Keaton’s character does after bringing everyone from the circus to his amusement center makes sense. Each choice he makes is counter intuitive to the goals he has and the supposed status he has attained.  The climax of the film comes as a result of a temper tantrum that takes place for no reason what so ever.

Give Burton and Kruger a little credit for playing a bit subversively with the Keaton character V.A. Vandevere. When we see the amusement park he has created, it is a send up of Disney himself and the legendary park that he created. The “Trip to the Moon” ride in the background is lifted from one of the early attractions in Disneyland’s Tomorrowland, as is the “Hall of Science” which has a futuristic display that anyone who remembers the “Carousel of Progress” will chuckle at. The ruthless businessman behind the warm hearted innovator is a caricature of Disney’s legendary duality. This idea would have worked so much better if there was a redemption arc to the story rather than a comeuppance. Stupidity in a character who has succeeded beyond imagination may be Burton’s attempt to get a little revenge in the complicated relationship he has had with the house of the mouse since the start of his career.

Danny DeVito is the ringmaster owner of the Medici brothers circus. He has played a similar role in other Tim Burton films so the casting works although his performance is a little outsized at times and the actions he is required to take to make the story move forward do not make much sense. Eva Green is an aerial artist who initially looks like a villain but moves into the role of ally effectively and love interest much less so. Her relationship with the children, their father and Dumbo himself is ambiguous when it should be more obvious.

So if a guy like me, who cries a little at the trailer for a chezy movie about a dog, can’t get worked up about a film like this, someone has missed a step. There are only two moments where I started to feel a connection to the characters and the story. First was the moment when the circus folk are singing the song that came from the original film, and the mermaid is plucking it out on her ukulele. That was a piece of fan service that was necessary and worked because of the previous connection. The second moment is when Dumbo is watching the bubble show that goes on right before his performance and his head nods with the dancing pink elephants that are faintly suggested by the bubbles. Had there been a little bit more of that magic, this opinion would be different. Unfortunately, we miss the comic antagonists of the cartoon and don’t care about the protagonists or antagonists in this re-imaging of the story.

Widows

A slow burn with a heist that does not carry much weight in the end. “Widows” is a quality film about a criminal enterprise, unfortunately, it is the political system in Chicago as opposed to the robbery that is at the heart of the film. The cast for the film is impressive and the story is full of unpleasant twists but there is something about it that holds me back from a strong endorsement. Those who want a slick crime film will be disappointed because this movie travels down some byzantine alleys and the thing that is around the next corner is usually a downer.

The grime and decay of the neighborhood featured in this movie should be enough to tell you this is not “Ocean’s 4”. There is nothing cute or charming or fun happening here. This is a story focusing on rich criminals robbing each other in the midst of urban decay and neglect. That the criminals are all politically connected should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with how things work in these big urban centers. One crooked deal makes way for another and the only thing more depressing is that everyone considers this de rigueur. The only thing that changes is who gets the power. This movie attempts to shift the power to a group of women by turning them into reflections of evil men. I’m not sure that is the best way to create a story of female empowerment.

It is a little hard to tell what the basis of the opening theft is. The story starts mid-crime when there is a shootout between the robbers and the security team for a local thug who has delusions of political grandeur. Half an hour later we see what happens to those crooks who were supposed to be providing security and got taken. They should have just asked to jump in the van and take off with the money. As it turns out, getting tagged and tracked down to a local warehouse is part of the plan. I can tell you that this detail was not included in the notebook containing the plans for all of the criminal masterminds plans. Viola Davis is an excellent actress and she shows her worth in a couple of grieving scenes. Her husband has been killed in the robbery and her moment trying to gather herself rings very true. In a flashback, we see another death that she mourns and again, it plays realistically although that death plays like a note from a producer on the film who is a little too “woke”.

As the widows begin to plan their robbery, there are several tasks they have to accomplish. Michelle Rodriguez has a very solid scene where she gets caught in a lie and still manages to get a piece of human behavior awkwardly into the moment. Had it gone any further, the moment would seem unrealistic but the guilt and the loneliness of the two people involved really does provide some emotional core for what is otherwise a very cold film. Elizabeth Debicki has the only moments in the film that could be thought of as light. As she tries to get a proxy to buy guns for her, she uses a story that is grimly amusing. Unfortunately, as we have learned, physical abuse at the hands of a man is not a fiction in her life. Cynthia Erivo who I just saw in “Bad Times at the El Royale” is equally good here as a babysitter/hairdresser who gets recruited for the job and turns out to be just the right touch of bad ass under the skin.

As for the rest of the cast, well there are a lot of them and most are solid. Lukas Haas who I just realized was in “First Man”, is a man with a cynically realistic view of romance who enables the women to get a key piece of information. Garret Dillahut makes a second appearance in a Steve McQueen film and this time he is a lot more sympathetic. Colin Farrel, Bryan Tyree Henry and Robert Duvall, dance around each other as political hacks with ambitions that confound each other. Jackie Weaver is the most cynical Mother you will ever hope to meet. It is Liam Neeson however who manages to turn a small roll into a strong performance and with one plot twist turn most of our assumptions around. What starts off as grief turns to long term resentment and finally to the worst sort of betrayal you can imagine. Finally, Daniel Kaluuya lurks in the background, menacing everyone with his crazy eyes and and reckless disregard for humanity.

The exposition that goes on in long conversations between the characters often reflects danger but it is not just physical danger but moral danger we are facing. Only the very last shot in the film provides any hope that the world might be an OK place to live.There was a point in the story where the worst crime we can see coming is directed at an animal, but at least the immorality of all of the characters is not taken out on the dog.

The Beguiled (2017)

What looks like is going to be a Gothic horror set in the Civil War period, turns out to be a psycho-sexual drama with a slightly demented finish. I was not fooled by the trailer or other marketing, because I’d seen the original version of the story from 1971. There are a few changes in the film which were supposed to alter the perspective from the soldiers point of view to that of the women in the story. I guess that would be the justification for remaking a film that was not particularly compelling the first time out. Let’s just say for the moment that they may have altered the perspective some but they have not overcome the issue of the film lacking a need to exist in the first place.

Sophia Coppola is a director that many admire but I have found most of the films by her, that I have seen, to be cold and disengaging. They are beautifully shot and “The Beguiled” is certainly beautiful. Set in Virginia during the last year of the War between the States, the story concerns a wounded Union soldier taken in by a girls academy. The school is run by matron southerner Nicole Kidman. She is assisted by a younger woman played by Kirsten Dunst and they are in charge of five young women and girls who are being educated in a traditional form for young ladies. As they learn French and penmanship and sewing skills, their life is disrupted by the war around them. The introduction of Corporal McBurney (a solid Colin Farrell) into their island  of antebellum etiquette throws things into a tizzy. Since it is a Sophia Coppola film however, it is done at a languishing pace with each frame posed as if it were a still life being painted for the wall of another plantation.

 

The pacing of the story is so agonizingly slow, but still interesting, because of the mores and cultural rules the people of that time operate in. Even when he is being chastised by Kidman,  the dialogue between the two consists of polite and well thought out vocabulary. The inflections and tones contain the reprimands more than any word does. McBurney slowly courts the Dunst character and again it is done in a manner reflecting the times. In the original film, Clint Eastwood is much more clearly manipulative and he is wooing multiple women simultaneously. Farrell’s version of the character seems sincere in his approach to Edwina, but Kidman’s Miss Martha is also drawn to him and Elle fanning as the recalcitrant Alicia is the most brazen of the girls who have sexualized the Corporal in their heads. The little girls are fascinated by him as well but it is his Irish Charm and status as a Union soldier that holds their interest. As the story gets closer to the dramatic elements, it feels like it wakes up in a burst of energy and tries to accomplish everything the movie set up in the first ninety minutes in a two minute segment. There is a betrayal on a couple of levels, but those come rapidly and are followed by a resolution that seems to have been arrived at capriciously. The film feels like it is missing the second act.

Farrell and Dunst are the two standout performances. They are tentative and then passionate and frustrated and anguished in very effective moments. Kidman seems a little miscast. She is older but certainly desirable rather than repressed and desperate. Her delicate bathing of Farrell when he first arrives was the strongest part of her performance but in the manner she shows herself during the rest of the film, she feels a little stiff. The biggest unpleasant surprise from the actors comes from Elle fanning, an actress that i thought was special in  Super 8, but here she looks like she is play acting and although she is an aggressive flirt, she does not give off the impression of lustfulness that would justify the Corporal’s behavior.

The only way I see this film as being a more feminist version of the original is that only one of the women completely falls under the sexual power of the man, and he is the one who is manipulated by two of the other women. That’s about it. This is a good film but not a great one. It retells the original story but without much justification for doing so. It also makes the languid pace of the original seem frenetic by comparison.  The only music in the film occurs on screen when the girls are singing or performing, with the exception of an occasional synthesizer note held for a long period as a prelude to a couple of moments near the end. That may be another reason the fil feels longer than it should, without a melody it feels plodding. This is a film for Coppola Completists  or someone who has missed the original and has already seen everything else playing. I am largely indifferent on it.