Ozark (Series 1 to 3) 2017-20 ****

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Arguably the best Netflix series, if something of a sleeper, is Ozark, a tense drama/thriller about a Chicago family who abruptly up sticks and move to the backwaters of America. They’re on a mission to money launder; Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) realises too late that his business partner has some strong underworld connections, and is lucky to escape the resultant bloodbath with his life. Byrde has also just discovered video evidence of infidelity by his wife Wendy (Laura Linney), and their family unit is in danger of fragmenting. But Marty successfully begs for a chance at survival, moving to the Ozarks and aiming to launder money from a Mexican drug cartel.

With bin-bags crammed with banknotes, this covert operation is no easy task; buying a house, a share in local businesses, strip clubs and funeral parlours is not enough, and by series two, the Byrde family are getting involved in the casino trade and local politics. Their two children are initially oblivious, but as interactions with the locals grow more extreme, the Byrde family struggle to maintain a normal demeanour as the bodies pile up around them.

Ozark is an absorbing crime-thriller with a great angle; the Byrde family are normal people, faced with an extraordinary situation; how to get millions into the local economic system without giving themselves away. The same situation could easily be exploited for comedic purposes, as with Bateman’s Arrested Development, but Ozark is deadly serious, even if there are blackly comic twists along the way.

The huge plus here is the acting; Bateman and Linney are both terrific performers, and their portrait of a husband and wife way beyond the end of their tether is utterly compelling. Julia Garner is equally hypnotic as the opportunistic Ruth Langmore, who takes full advantage of the Byrde’s situation, and Janet McTeer plays brilliantly against type as the ice-cold and deadly lawyer Helen who represents the interests of the drug cartel.

Batemen has indicated that Ozark’s story is soon to be brought to a close, and that’s probably for the best. While there have alwasy been lapses into clichés (bogus religious services on riverboats with heroin delivered inside bibles), the Lord and Lady Macbeth angle gets repetitious by series three as the endless line of new characters introduced only to be rapidly killed off stretches credulity. And the mental health angle in series three, introduced via Wendy’s brother, isn’t a great look for the show; he’s yet another firecracker waiting to unleash violence when off his meds, a rote character in a creative series that doesn’t need to fall back on such negative stereotypes.

Such faults aside, Ozark is one of the best examples of a streaming show, and anyone who hasn’t caught it yet is in for a treat. Created by Bill Dubuque and Mark Williams, it’s an adult, intense show that aims for a societal fault line where crime and community intersect on Main Street. A great final season will make Ozark a show for the ages, if they can get the formula back on track.

https://www.netflix.com/watch/80117552?source=35

Lullaby 2019 ****

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The late eighties/early nineties saw a slew of woman-in-peril movies (Sleeping with the Enemy, The Hand that Rocks The Cradle, The Stepfather) riffing on the sexual politics of Fatal Attraction to create threats, male and female, to the American family unit. Usually written and directed by men, they formed a classier, better-dressed variation on the slasher movie for an audience growing up to relish such stabby exploitation. Big hits at the time, they’re not so fondly remembered now; in the 21st century, sisters are doing it for themselves when it comes to exploring rather than exploiting feminine fears on the big screen

Based on a real life murder case, dramatized and embellished in Leila Slimani’s award-winning book, Lullaby was retitled The Perfect Nanny in the US, presumably to hark back to previous genre entries. But Lucie Borleteau’s film has no intentions to thrill, or to exploit; it’s a rare film that attempts to get inside the head of the covert interloper in question, Louise. Played by Karen Viard, we see her polishing her shoes and briskly walking to work early in the morning. She has an air of sadness, but also a professional demeanour that impresses Myriam (Leïla Bekhti) and Paul (Antoine Reinartz); a Shallow Grave-style introduction reveals the comically obvious flaws of other candidates for the job.

But while the couple’s motives are clear and obvious, Louise has hidden depths; she overdoes the protective act when Myriam’s little boy gets into a sandpit argument, her finances are questionable, and she also seems to have issues about being afraid of the water. A hallucinogenic scene involving octopuses adds a sexual frisson, an air of alienation developed when we see Louise lying naked, listening to a news report about Parisian riots. Louise suffers from a detachment which intensifies her connections to the family, and Lullaby is a character study, not a thriller; we don’t have or needs cats leaping through shattering glass windows for cheap jump scares here.

Lullaby is an excellent film, well worth Viard’s Ceasar nomination for best actress; the horrific ending manages to shock without revelling in gratuitous detail. Middle-aged white male critics won’t understand why, but The Hand That Rocks the Cradle is about as relevant as Mary Poppins Returns here; Lullaby looks with supple skill at the relationship between two women, and lazy men seeking the demonization of rogue, crazy females need not apply.

 DIGITAL DOWNLOAD LINK ABOVE, DVD BELOW, NOW IN THE UK FROM 6TH APRIL 2020

First Love 2019 ****

First Love (Signature Entertainment 14th February) (16)

Released in the UK on streaming, disc and cinemas on Valentine’s Day 2020, the latest from Takashi Miike arrives in time to offer an alternative to rom-coms and feel-good fare, with a release in Japan scheduled for later this month. Those familiar with the director will know what to expect; yes, we’re talking suits, neon, Samurai swords, ceilings, offbeat comedy, splattery violence and occasional lyricism. But as the title suggests, First Love has a more tender side than, say, 2007’s Detective Story, and it’s an ideal introduction to the auteur’s work.

One night in Tokyo, boxer Leo (Masataka Kubota) gets some bad news; a loss of consciousness has a dark cause, and he’s advised that a developing brain tumour is likely to shorten his life considerably. Leo is understandably consumed with rage at the injustice, but soon has other issues to deal with, namely Monica (Sakurako Konishi), a call-girl who is involved on the fringes of a drug-deal gone wrong, one which draws policemen, assassins and various other interested parties together for a series of violent encounters.

First Love places a tender love story at the centre of a hard-boiled genre piece; the world of the film could easily map onto the John Wick universe, which has a similarly glossy, gritty feel. Things really take off in the last ten minutes with a dynamic animated section and some haunting imagery as the pursuit ends, and there’s more than a few choice moments of carnage. If anything, there’s a little too much story and too many characters running around, but the focus on the tentative relationship between Leo and Monica keeps things empathetic.

Perhaps the success of Parasite will renew the love-affair between audiences and subtitled films; those with the stomach for the endless fray will enjoy the graphic dynamism of Takashi Miike’s direction, which mixes the comic and serious with deadpan style. Monica’s hallucinations of her dead father indicate the film’s empathy with a seriously wronged women, and Leo is an appropriate surrogate for audience concerns. First Love is tough, silly, violent and thoughtful by turns; if you enjoy extreme cinema, find someone who feels the same, kick back, and enjoy the internecine world of First Love.

 

Buffalo Soldiers 2001 ****

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An awards contender for almost a week back in 2001, Buffalo Soldiers is a great little film that was completely out of step with the times. Perhaps the fresh Oscar recognition for Joaquin Phoenix will encourage an intrepid few to seek out Gregor Jordan’s subversive military comedy; it’s certainly one of the best performances of the actor’s career, with few of the mannerisms which have become synonymous with his style; he’s a straight-up leading man here, and burns the screen like a young Paul Newman.

The content is abrasive; Phoenix plays Ray Elwood, a wheeler and dealer in the spirit of Milo Minderbender in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. Nothing phases him; he sells all manner of drugs to bored US troops stationed in Germany, and when a group of stoners accidentally blow up a local petrol station with their tank, two American soldiers are killed in the aftermath. Elwood snaps into action, taking possession of the valuable arms trucks the soldiers were driving, and attempting to sell them. His superior, Colonel Berman (Ed Harris) suspects nothing, but Robert E Lee (Scott Glenn) is onto him, and surprises Elwood by hiring a firing squad to demolish his beloved Mercedes car.

The above scene happens after Elwood enjoys an ecstasy-fuelled night with Lee’s daughter (Anna Paquin), a change of pace from his dalliance with Berman’s wife (Elizabeth McGovern); the boy is burning his candle at both ends. Buffalo Soldiers, based on Robert O’Connor’s 1993 book, has a progressive, yet transgressive attitude to drugs that pre-dates the rise of the Seth Rogan comedy. It also has a reckless, amoral feel that recalls the same period’s Trainspotting, with little regard for institutions or individuals alike. First screened at Toronto, Buffalo Soldiers must have been a hot prospect until the Sept 11th attack days later made it the diametrical opposite of the kind of sombre flag-waving audiences sought.

Nearly two decades later, Buffalo Soldiers is a pleasure to re-appraise. It identifies something both attractive and dangerous in rampant American entrepreneurism, and Elwood is a character for the ages with his blank-eyed lies and accomplished today-ism disguising an intense drive to subvert. The lack of content or originality in the Joker movie didn’t match the intensity of Phoenix’s performance, but if you really want to see him play a role that shocks, amuses and plays hard-ball with the trickiest of concept, don’t watch that, watch this. An opening image of muddy footprints across an American flag sets the mood, and the black comedy featured here is sharp, vicious and timeless.

Killerman 2019 ****

KILLERMAN_BannerHe may just have hit the headlines by divorcing Miley Cyrus, but Liam Hemsworth is developing acting chops that should allow him the same stellar trajectory his brother Chris has. After a prominent role in the Hunger Games films, Hemsworth the younger takes the kind of leap that worked so well for another teen heart-throb Robert Pattinson in the Safdie brothers’ Good Time; as a scuzzy dealer from the New York diamond district, there’s also elements of The Safdie’s Uncut Gems here. Although Killerman isn’t quite as good as either Good Times or Uncut Gems, it’s set in a similarly downbeat, real-world universe, and fans of the crime genre should appreciate it’s B movie smarts.

Hemsworth plays Moe Diamond, a money launderer whose services are highly sought after. He strikes a deal by which he collects and deposits cash in small doses, hoping to avoid attention from the IRS and other parties. But when a delivery gets cancelled after the cash is collected and before it can be deposited, Diamond suddenly finds himself vulnerable. A tentative drug deal goes up in Diamond’s face, and during the following car chase, he experiences a severe concussion that seems to obliterate his sense of who he is. Confused and easily manipulated by unscrupulous others, Diamond has to figure his way out of a venal snake-pit of local gangsters and corrupt cops, but he’s got a secret of his own that even he may not be aware of.

Killerman also has a touch of Memento, although the story isn’t told with the kind of arty pizazz that Christopher Nolan doubled-down on. Instead, this is a straight-forward, yet twisty-turny thriller that delivers a solid 90 minutes of high-octane entertainment, with gory killings in street-wise fashion, and a brief but exciting car chase that leads to an impressively messy smash. The NYC locations, starting with Katz’s deli, are authentic, and even if the contrivances eventually move it away from Safdie territory, it’s decent fare.

Hemsworth is the name-above-the-title attraction here, and he’s got the star-power to hold the film together. He manages well with the tricky amnesia switch, but in his leather jacket and five-o-clock shadow, presents just the right kind of anti-hero for this kind of amoral world. There’s a few regrettable camera set-ups and some loose lines of dialogue, but it’s a promising film from writer/director Malik Bader; if you can’t wait to see what the Safdies have got in store, Killerman deserves points for serving up a similarly dark and dangerous urban nightmare.

 

Parasite 2019 *****

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The aging, white, male makeup of the Hollywood power elite is ably reflected in the lack of diversity in awards voting members; Bong Joon-Ho’s blackly comic Parasite seems to have mopped up most of the diversity vote in the 2019/20 race, but that’s no reason to hate it. While it’s unusual for subtitled films to get a Best Picture nomination, only a sainted few (Life Is Beautiful, Il Postino) actually get the honour, and they tend to be awash with sentiment.

That’s certainly not true of Parasite, which, despite all kinds of bores coming out of the woodwork to acclaim its virtues, is a pretty good film when the dust settles. Bong Joon-Ho’s ventures into international film-making have, in my unfashionable opinion, been overblown duds (The Host, Snowpiercer), but he’s on home ground here and it shows. The premise is simple; a young man wins a position as a tutor to an affluent household, and seeks to get his sister employed there as well. Before long, his whole family have formed a parasitical relationship with his employers, but there are still a good few reversals to come.

The final burst into OTT violence feels like a lurch, but otherwise this is an immaculately conceived and crafted drama, with secrets well worth keeping. Parasite is a reminder of the pleasures of real cinema, not franchises, not world-building, not trying to do anything but engage, intrigue and then wrong-foot the audience with a great narrative. Wider meanings, political and social, are possible, and there’s an Upstairs Downstairs/Downtown Abbey comparison that’s there for the making. Ultimately, it subscribes to the Orwellian notion that class conflict is largely the working and middle class swapping places, and that the power elite continue unscathed, but even that notion may be giving too much away.

A key part of what makes Parasite interesting is the take on poverty, physical, financial and emotional; the protagonists subscribe to the fake-it-till-you-make-it mentality so beloved in 2020, but the perfect picture they subscribe to turns into a nightmare. The way the family view wi-fi as their daily bread, and look to the father to provide, feels modern and genuine. It’s a great film for Korean cinema, for subtitled and arthouse film, and for film-making generally; don’t read another review until you can see it, and enjoy the twists and turns before they become pop-culture 101.

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.

 

 

Uncut Gems 2019 ****

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We seem to be living through a surfeit of Scorsese right now. As if it’s not enough that he delivers a film longer than most tv shows at the three-and-a-half hour The Irishman, there’s also Joker, a film which he developed. Joker is a greatest hits of Scorsese covers, mimics plot lines and specific scenes from King of Comedy, Taxi Driver and more. So it’s with a weary heart that we turn to Uncut Gems, another Scorsese-produced slice of awards fodder from Netflix, entered into competition with The Irishman, Joker and any other Scorsese wannabes in the 2020 awards stakes.

And yet, Uncut Gems is the work of Josh and Benny Sadfie, whose blistering Good Time seemed to be a blast of fresh air in the urban thriller stakes. They coaxed a career best performance from Robert Pattinson for that film, and it’s no surprise that Adam Sandler would seem them as a way out of the comedy inanity that he’s found himself yoked into. Sandler is an accomplished comic, and his hand-dog charm has worked well in films like The Wedding Singer. Attempts to re-launch him in a more serious context (Spanglish, Reign Over Me) have been less successful, but Uncut Gems will be something of a revelation for fans and detractors alike. Sandler is electrifying as an amoral NYV gems hawker, pin-balling between clients, gangsters and marks as he attempts to steady his financial ship while exposing himself to potential dangers.

Howard Ratner (Sandler) is a family man, but he’s also a duplicitous scumbag who seems to be daring fate to take everything away from him. He imports a rare opal, lines up a buyer in the form of a rich basketball player, and borrows money against his own success; he’s constructing a house of cards with unstable foundations. Ratner’s home-life is equally turbulent, and it seems like only a matter of time before clients and family members will realise that he’s scamming them all.

Although Uncut Gems is a good-looking movie thanks to cinematographer Darius Khondji, it’s never in thrall to the environment in the way that the Irishman is, side-stepping clichés and coming up fresh; the way Ratner’s bluster is sidelined by the casual use of a security cordon feels real in the way that hit-men don’t. Like Good Time, the environments is drawn in a realistic way, and the way low-key story-elements are knitted together as the walls close in on Ratner, literally in the final scenes, is striking and impressive.

Downbeat and scuzzy, Uncut Gems may draw audiences keen to see more of Sandler, but this isn’t a feel-good movie in any way. It’s a character study of a man whose lies have been out of control for some time; a scene in which he fails to sweet-talk an auction house employee is particularly painful. Uncut Gems is a triumph for the Sadfies, and for Sandler, who should expect serious awards consideration for his transformative performance. Just don’t expect a good time here; Uncut Gems is as rough, uneven and tricky as the central character portrayed here.

The Hound of the Baskervilles 1959 ****

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Any vaguely annoying dog still gets referred to as the Hound of the Baskervilles to this day; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel is a cultural touch-stone as popular as Sherlock Holmes himself. Film and tv version of this celebrated story are rarely up to snuff; this Hammer production, directed by Terence Fisher, plays down the hound itself in favour of a meticulous attempt to nail the original narrative; with strong atmosphere and a perfect cast, it’s a welcome addition to the Holmesian canon.

Who better to play the great detective that Peter Cushing? The length of Cushing’s career, and the number of films he made in old age, might blind us to what a vigorous and dashing figure he cuts here, quite literally bouncing of the scenery at some points. But there’s also method in his madness; Cushing nails the mood-changes in his first dialogue scene as he considers the request of Sir Hugo Baskerville (David Oxley), seeming to dismiss, then engage with his client. Holmes is a spikey wit here, while Watson (Andre Morell) is anything but a buffoon. Fisher even keeps with the source by having Holmes off-stage at key moments, but with Christopher Lee a saturnine Henry Baskerville, and John Le Mesurier as the butler, there’s no lack of good manners on show.

What really works here is the deductions; what Holmes sees, and how he puts it all together, perhaps because for once, this is not pastiche Conan Doyle, but a fair reworking of his actual plot-lines. Flickering lights on the moor, strange paintings, ravenous devil dogs; all the elements are in place, and although the final masked pooch effect is rather underwhelming, the conclusion still packs a punch.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is perhaps too violent to be a tv staple, and yet too cerebral to appeal to horror fans; either way, it’s a real genre classic that deserves to be exhumed and enjoyed. Cushing and Lee are both in strident form here, and Fisher displays the kind of barn-storming style that made him the pick of the Hammer House of directorial excellence.

 

The Good Liar 2019 ****

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It’s nice to see Helen Mirren and Ian McKellern back on screen; he’s 80, she’s in her 70’s, and at that age, wizards, crones, vampire queens and alien rulers are the kinds of parts that seem to land with a thud on their agent’s desks. So modest crime-drama The Good Liar marks something of a change of pace from the sillier Hollywood work, central roles in a two-hander con-job film that’s dialogue and character based; the source is a novel by Nicholas Searle, adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher.

Bill Condon is writer/producer here, always with a waspish sense of dark humour; Roy (McKellern) is a con-man, who creates elaborate financial scams with his partner (Jim Carter) in London over a decade ago; the mobile phones and occasional period cars get the idea across. Roy is romantic but alone, and gets involved in an online dating site, which puts him in contact with Betty (Mirren), a retired history professor. Her grandson Steven (Russell Tovey) is suspicious of Roy’s motives, but who is Roy, and what does he really want from Betty?

Any story about con men (and women) should have the audience searching for possible marks, and The Good Liar’s title suggests that none of the information we get should be taken as read; a neat opening shows Roy and Betty completing their dating profiles, ticking the boxes for no smoking or drinking while they enjoy their vices. But Condon’s film aims to go deeper that petty personal hypocrisies, with atrocities committed during the Nazi Germany regime relevant to the narrative plot twists.

The Good Liar has reputedly, made $30 million on a budget of a third of that; a little sleeper for Warner Brothers that could probably use some awards traction to cement success. The spy quality of the story doesn’t quite fit the traditionally turgid nature of awards-season dramas; The Good Liar aims to keep us guessing, and just about makes it to the conclusion without any let-up in tension. McKellern revels in a character who fakes ill-health, only to spring into action as he enters a sleazy strip-club. Mirren, meanwhile, appears to be a soft touch, but seems to physically change when she begins to realise the truth of her situation. And there’s an edge to proceedings, with a couple of shockingly violent scenes that keep the stakes high.

Entertainment isn’t usually high on the list of qualities that awards-voters seek, and The Good Liar risks getting swept away amongst more ballyhooed work. But it’s a smart, well performed drama that perhaps goes over the score in the final scene; nevertheless, fans will enjoy a couple of vintage performances for the most respected of actors.