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.

Last Christmas

Probably everyone goes through a part of their life when every decision we make is a bad one, no good turn goes unpunished, or simply we string together a series of hardships that make our lives seem worthless. I’ve heard that the holiday season is also the season where there is the most depression, because in part, we are surrounded by good feelings that we don’t share in as much. Sadness about lost opportunities and relationships get magnified by the cheerful goings on around us and as a consequence, the down feelings get exaggerated. Now, imagine that you have some of that sadness and you are immersed in Christmas all year long. That is the premise of this romantic comedy/drama starring Emilia Clarke.

Kate (Katarina as her Mother prefers) works in a shop that sells Christmas items all year long. Everyday she is dressed as an elf and encounters people who are in a good enough mood that they will shop for unusual Christmas ornaments, even in the summer. The problem is, a year before, Kate had a medical emergency. We are not told exactly what it was in the early part of the film because that would tip off some of the turn that is coming at the end. Frankly, when it did get revealed, I started to immediately wonder how it was going to connect everything. I will admit I went in a different direction in my thinking than the script does, but not too far away, so the story does have a bit of logic to it. I do think it is a bit of a cheat but I am very forgiving of those things with a movie that wants nothing more than to make you feel good. Anyway, Kate’s medical procedure has left her an em optional wreck, capable of doing dumb things and completely ignoring the destruction that is left in her wake.

In a way, this is another retelling of a “Christmas Carol”, where the spirit of the holiday is called on to redeem a person who has lost their way. Henry Golding plays Tom, a man who appears in Kate’s life and seems to be pointing her in some different directions. His character is not exactly the opposite of hers but in a ying/yang way he compliments her needs. Tom is meticulous, graceful and always looking for the bright side in things. The mess that Kate is making with her life needs some of that direction. Kate has friends but she is burning through them as a way of avoiding her Mother, an overprotective and equally thoughtless woman. Emma Thompson plays the mother, she also co-wrote the script for the movie. Her character could be a villain but it turns out she is just as lost and depressed as Kate is, just in different ways.

The movie is filled with characters that we can enjoy in small amounts without taking away from Kate’s story. The crew and clients at the homeless shelter where Kate ends up spending time are probably a little “too Hollywood” homeless, but it is a Christmas movie and we don’t want to be confronted too much with drugs and mental illness. Kate’s boss is one of the great pleasures of the film. Michelle Yeoh is “Santa” the owner of the shop where Kate works. She appears to be flinty and judgmental of Kate’s life, but it turns out she has deeper thoughts about Kate than anyone else has managed to express. She also just needs to be prompted to let her soft side out, and when it does come out, it is a joy.

Every year we get holiday films that try to move us and inspire us to be better people. This movie wants to be “Love Actually”, but it does not quite reach those heights. It does however try in a sincere way to be that kind of movie, and it’s shortcomings are small enough to be forgiven. “Last Christmas” may not be a perennial film for everyone, but it is pleasant enough to start the holiday season with. It also manages to make the Wham/George Michael song tolerable for an hour and forty minutes, and that is some kind of accomplishment.