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


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.


The True History of the Kelly Gang 2020 ***


Peter Carey’s writings have been turned into big-screen entertainment with intermittent success; his screenplay for Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World is something of a secret  triumph, even if the wonderfully quirky film itself didn’t reach the mainstream. Laura Jones had more success with her take on Oscar and Lucinda, and Gillian Armstrongs’s spare, austere visuals provides a sensitive gloss to the soul-searching individuals at the narrative’s core. One’s heart sinks, however at the notion of director Justin Kurzel having a go at Carey’s prose; the man behind the lamentable Assassins Creed adaptation and the even duller version of Macbeth would seem like the wrong man for a tricky job, and so it proves.

The Ned Kelly story has been told before, notably with Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger, and this time around 1917 star George Mackay takes the lead, by dint of his Australian father. A caption, ‘None of what follows is true,’ recalls Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid, but even the fictional elements here are strictly revisionist stuff, with character motivations generally ascribed to sex, impotence and randomness. A lengthy sequence establishing Kelly’s relationship with his father gives way to a striking introduction of Mackay, physically contorted in front of a Union Jack flag. Charlie Hunnam turns as a copper, while a bearded Russell Crowe seems to enjoy himself as a writer with a taste for obscene verse. But things often feel different when translated from page to screen, and Kurzel’s film suffers from adhering without much thought to the clichés of the Western genre, with a tough hero, struggling with inner demons and confused sexuality, leading a band of misfits to one last, misguided stand.

Mackay is probably about as good as he could be in the circumstances, and after a draggy mid-section, the final climax is reasonably compelling as white-hooded figures surround Kelly and his gang in their metallic strong-hold. But Carey’s interest in myth and reality does not survive the translation here; Kelly is just one more wronged maverick seeking oblivion outside of societal norms, and whatever made the book’s blend of reality and myth so potent just writes around in the dirt and filth here.


Holiday 2018 ****


Some films are more challenging to viewers than others; Isabella Eklöf’s Holiday is one that has to be approached with real caution. It’s a film suffused with mood, and dread, and the oppressive quality makes it one to avoid for the delicate of disposition. Male sexual violence is the subject, and for some, just that choice of focus will be enough to dissuade; reaching past the obvious provisos, Eklöf’s film manages to justify the contentious images on-screen, but it’s a close run thing at times.

Holiday takes a familiar location; the high-life of low-life crims in the Mediterranean sunshine. We’ve been here before, in Sweeney 2 or Sexy Beast, and Holiday has a similarly dark feel to Jonathan Glazer’s celebrated Pinter-riff. But there’s little comfort here; Victoria Carmen Sonne plays Sascha, a young woman who is the voluntary plaything of the violent Michael (Lai Yde). Michael deals drugs, and his social events are ones to avoid. Thomas (Thjis Romer) unwisely gets involved with the couple, and things end violently, although not quite as might be expected.

Holiday deals with events which shock; there’s a lengthy sexual assault scene that’s absolutely pivotal to the story, but even knowing the director’s intent, is still almost impossible to sit through. To what extent should we accept this as shining a light of a real social problem, or does the explicit quality of the scene push too far? Certainly, the comments on the imdb reviews board (never a great gauge of anything) suggest that few viewers were able to read the scenes as un-simulated, and that’s part of the film’s hard edge. This isn’t the kind of vapid exploitation that made, say Donkey Punch so revolting; Holiday’s sleek photography and natural acting palate disguise something more in the vein of a Lars Von Trier movie, specifically The Idiots or Breaking the Waves.

Provocation has become a bad word of late, and Holiday didn’t get the kind of free publicity that tabloids use to dish out. This release, on the Anti-Worlds banner of extreme art-hour releases, should do something to secure it’s on-going reputation. There’s more than a touch of Brett Eason Ellis’s trademark nihilism here, probably more realised than in the American author’s own films. For those who have the stomach for it, and this critic really had to wrestle with the off switch at times, this is a rewardingly tough drama with a hard feminist edge.

Holiday is released by Anti-Worlds from Feb 2020, and links for disc and blu-ray releases are supplied below.


Blue Story 2019 ****


On the basis of Blue Story, Paramount awarded British writer/director Rapman a chance to remake a hot property, A Prophet. That’s quite a prospect, given that Jacques Audiard’s jail and gangsters tale has been one of the most notable entries in the cycle over the last decade. Blue Story has had a number of difficulties to overcome, notably release date changes in the US (March 20th 2020 is the latest) and a truncated release in the UK that muted a potentially strong box-office performance.

Blue Story is a considerably superior product to Noel Clarke’s lamentable wannabe Kidulthood trilogy, and also looks good in comparison with Saul Dibb’s benchmark Bulletboy; this is a modern gangland culture film without Scorsese’s nostalgic touch, based around the on-going postcode wars. Two friends Marco (Michael Ward) and Timmy (Stephen Odubola) find their friends and families have to take a side in the turf-wars, but their best efforts can’t preserve them from the on-going cycle of violence.

Showcase Cinemas in the UK pulled the film after 25 separate incidents were reported at 15 screenings, but that ban was later revoked; given that the film steps nimbly away from issues of glamorisation, it’s hard to see why the film-makers should pay a penalty. Those growing up in Peckham and Deptford, the areas described here, probably have enough problems to be going on with without being demonised in the media; perhaps the white-heat anger of Blue Story will be best appreciated as a home-entertainment event, but losing the opportunity to be a community event is detrimental to this kind of hearthelt production.

Rapman narrates the story here, and while his commentary removes much of the nuance from his film, it also makes sure the message lands. Britain, or at least the inner cities, faces a real challenge through the gentrification and ghetto-isation of their inhabitants, and Blue Story’s slick production marks a rare departure by the BBC into tricky real-world issues. Ward is a stand-out in a uniformly strong cast, and while such grim realities might put some viewers off, Blue Story is to be commended for standing up for the dispossessed and telling things as they are, circa 2020.

Beowulf 2007 ***


Let’s pity those who aim to push the boundaries of computer-generated technology; there’s ever chance they’ll end up with a film is weirdly misbegotten as Beowulf. One of two competing works based around the Old English epic poem, Robert Zemeckis’ expensive film didn’t bust many blocks on release, and has since vanished into relative obscurity for such a bally-hooed prospect. There’s a simple reason for this; time has not been kind of Beowulf. A year later, 2008 saw Iron Man generate a run of hit Marvel films and imitators that used CGI to create action scenes in the real world, making Beowulf’s motion-capture/animation hybrid look decidedly dated.

The oddball writing team of Roger Avary (Pulp Fiction, The Rules of Attraction) and Neil Gaiman gives some clue as to the wobbly tone here, but Beowulf feels like the result of some shonky creative meetings. A big cast including Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovich, Brendan Gleeson and Robin Wright Penn allow their likenesses to be used for CGI characters that look as dead-eyed and inexpressive as PS2 game characters, while Ray Winstone lends his gravelly betting-shop-flogger voice to Beowulf, who looks like a Jesus-Christ super-saviour hero, often naked but with helmets, pillars and other items obscuring his genitals in Austin Powers-style. Beowulf aims to please the king (Hopkins) by defeating the monstrous Grendel but, in a twist that’s familiar from the 1998 Godzilla to Pacific Rim, discovers he’s killed off the child, not the mother…

And the mother is Angelina Jolie, also unclothed throughout; this Beowulf’s adventures looks like a Jim Steinman album cover and bears the unmistakable feel of a teenage boy’s fantasy. And yet a $150 million film based on an Old English poem can only be interesting, if only to see how the narrative is reshaped into a modern idiom. There are some really striking visual flourishes here, like a view from beneath the ground as a bloodstain spreads. In fact, the world of Beowulf is striking to behold, and the dialogue and restructuring isn’t bad, it’s just that technology hadn’t caught up with character design in 2007, and the resulting lack of involvement with these waxwork figures is fatal.

Beowulf is something of a noble failure here, and attempt to harness Hollywood to access classic texts rather than comic book archetypes. It doesn’t quite work, but in amongst the ruins, there’s the design of what might have been a game-changing dive into turning great literature into great art.


Commando 1985 ****


Do we need to talk about Commando? There seems to be an issue with this Arnold Schwarzenegger action thriller; a big hit back when I was at school, it was one of the first X or 18 certificate films I ever saw, and watching it again, it’s pretty good. Predator gave birth to a unending series of sequels and reboots, franchise, Terminator did the same, Conan The Barbarian and Total Recall have been rebooted, so why should Commando be a derelict property since, from this distance, it looks like prime real estate?

Finding roles of a larger-than –life star back in the 80’s cannot have been easy; the original script for Commando was about a peace-loving Israeli, but Mark L Lester’s film is all about war, and war is just fantastic. Cars, boats and even people explode while John Matrix (Schwarzenegger) seeks out those who have kidnapped his daughter, namely Dan Hedeya and his side-kick Bennett (Vernon Wells). In his muscle vest and chains, Bennett cuts an incongruous figure here; to steal a line, ‘the gayest man on earth might think he was over the top.’ There’s no real surprises as to how Matrix’s mission goes, but there’s are high-points. A visit to LA’s Galleria shopping mall leads to an impressive stunt where the star swings from one side of the other before dropping down onto a moving elevator. Elsewhere, Matrix hangs onto the undercarriage of a plane as it takes off, before dropping down into presumably very soft marshland.

What’s notable here apart from the slick action is the comedy, which later replaced the toughness in the star’s vehicles. “I thought you said I’d be last to die,’ complains a henchman, dangled over a canyon by our hero. ‘I lied’ replies Matrix, before dropping his enemy to a certain death. ‘What happened?’ asks Cindy (Rae Dawn Chong) as Matrix returns to their car ‘I let him go,’ replies Matrix. This is something of a double-whammy when it comes to one-liners, tailored to the star’s lack of expressiveness, one following neatly on from another as Arnie methodically makes his way through the cast-list in typically violent style.

Oddly, the best moment in Commando involves Cindy using a rocket-launcher; being a woman, she’s not au fait with the tech, and accidentally explodes a vehicle behind her when she fires it. She gets the trick right later in the film, when it counts, and no spoilers are required to say that Matrix rescues his daughter and kills the baddies in short order. Even in 2020, Commando has obvious sequel/franchise potential; it’s a known, loved IP and the star would be great as an older, wiser Matrix, possibly helping his daughter escape his shadow. With Terminator and Rambo franchises running dry, surely Commando 2020 would be worth a shot?

Little Murders 1971 *****


There’s a perfect little throwaway scene in Alan Arkin’s Little Murders in which Elliot Gould finds himself soaked with blood and riding the New York subway. His shocking appearance leads to a few looks and whispers, but as he heads up towards the city-streets, he passes another man, soaked with blood, whose appearance is more remarkable than his own. It’s a tiny moment, but one that lays out a firm route for Jules Feiffer’s script. This is a dog eat dog world, and what’s happening to you, however bad it may seem, is already happening to someone else.

That downbeat feel inhabits every frame of Little Murders, adapted by Feiffer from his own Broadway play. Rolling power blackouts cut the lights mid-scene, with characters barely acknowledging being thrust into darkness. Gangs roam the street, picking on the innocent and vulnerable. Into this beleaguered world, Patsy Newquist (Marcia Rodd) attempts to win the heart of disillusioned advertising man and photographer Alfred Chamberlain (Elliot Gould), but Alfred is already locked into a negative cycle of self-abasement. When Patsy meets Alfred, he’s allowing himself to be beaten up by a gang; the nihilism of Fight Club has roots in this kind of counter-cultural shrug. Patsy takes Alfred to meet her parents (Vincent Gardenia and Elizabeth Wilson), but it takes a senseless, violent act to snap him out of his alienated dwam…

With many of the cast reprising their stage-roles, there’s more than a touch of the theatrical here, but Feiffer’s play is still spry and admirably anti-authority in outlook. Arkin has a wild cameo as a detective who has completely lost the plot, and he also calls in a big name cameo from Donald Sutherland as a wacky minister. Reuniting Sutherland and Gould the year after Robert Altman’s MASH is something of a coup, and both men excel here, delivering crazy, true monologues that reflect Feiffer’s vision of a world gone mad.

Feiffer once drew a cartoon of a huge crowd surrounding a tiny podium, with the caption to the effect; ‘how will we tell them that the microphone isn’t working?’ How to use a mass-medium to deliver his messages was an issue that seemed to preoccupy Feiffer, and yet Little Murders, something of an obscure film, absolutely nails the author’s social commentary. With the leads all alive at the time of writing this assessement, Little Murders would be well-worth a feature-length documentary to explore the themes caught here; it’s something of a neglected classic, and would be a great subject for a streaming revival.

Birds of Prey : And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn 2020 ****


‘I thought the guy was supposed to give the girl diamonds,’ chirps Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) in Cathy Yan’s significant entry in the superhero stakes. Birds of Prey, to remove the elaborate subtitle, is a fairly rollicking spin-off from the truly awful Suicide Squad movie, and part of the interest is seeing scenes, characters and cinematic styles which didn’t work at all in David Ayer’s film revived and made to seem rather cool here. Yes, it’s a grimy, gritty Gotham city, yes, there’s a constantly low thrum of guitars and drums, and yes, there’s splattery violence; an early scene features a man in a wheelchair unable to avoid a truck. And yet the black comedy works here, largely due to a terrific lead performance by Robbie, who also produces.

Harley Quinn is done with The Joker, and has blown up the chemical refinery where the couple initially met before the opening credits roll. Quinn is keen to emancipate herself, and being the best version of herself involves avoiding the many, many malcontents who are seeking revenge on her. These include Rosie Perez as a cop with a taste of 80’s cop show dialogue (and a cool T-shirt slogan to boot), plus the excellent Mary Elizabeth Winstead as The Huntress, a hooded assailant with a crossbow, not a bow and arrow. There’s an obvious McGuffin in the form of a diamond with a hidden secret, a device which Quinn breaks the fourth wall to describe, notably a ‘compication’ when it gets swallowed by a teenage pick-pocket. The diamond in question is sought after by super-villain Black Mask aka Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor, hamming it up in style), and only Quinn stands in his way.

Birds of Prey does not have, or aim for, the serious, pretentious tone of Joker; instead, it’s a punchy, frenetic romp that would be ideal for kids if it wasn’t so deliberately scuzzy; a throw-away rape scene in which Black Mask cuts a woman’s dress off at knifepoint should probably have been excised, although some of the devices used to avoid gore, including what looks like a glitter-gun, are rather ingenious. Questions of good or bad taste are irrelevant here; talking to the camera in I,Tonya style, Robbie knocks it out of the park as Quinn, alternating geek-chic with acrobatic abilities, but never losing sight of the character’s scattershot vulnerability.

For a spin-off from a truly lousy film, there’s no real reason for Birds of Prey to work so well as it does, other than, for once,  sisters are clearly doing it for themselves. Women can and should be able to match men when it comes to super-heroes; Harley Quinn’s success bodes well for Black Widow, Wonder Woman and the production line of heroines heading our way in 2020. Fanboys may not approve, but Harley Quinn’s emancipation is fantabulous stuff.

Queen & Slim 2019 ****


Landing something between Thelma & Louise and Badlands, Queen and Slim is an American road odyssey featuring two characters who have no desire to run away; both Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) are thinking of other things when they go on a tentative Tinder date in an Ohio restaurant. The date itself is inconclusive, and yet Queen and Slim’s paths are now firmly and forever interlocked by fate, or at least the attentions of an overzealous lawman.

Recent features like The Hate U Give have attempted to bring BlackLivesMatter issues to the fore with a heavy hand; Queen & Slim, written by Lena Waithe, and directed by Melina Matsoukas, makes a clear statement about how flashpoints of violence emerge from distrust, then steps nimbly aside to focus on the human cost as Queen and Slim try to register their new predicament. He has a family, but she is a lawyer, and it says something about the growing chasm between races that her immediate plan is to go on the run. Justice, in court, in the media, of any kind is the preserve of a monied elite and if you’re black, it’s hard to trust that the authorities will deal with you fairly, so Queen surmises. Changing cars, haircuts and clothes, Queen and Slim set off in the hope of finding new lives and identities far from their Ohio home.

Their journey has echoes of the Underground Railroad, and Queen and Slim’s story gains power from the ease with which the two characters drop into a criminal world. The resolution is less powerful than the set-up, but Queen & Slim is bolstered by some great character work by Turner-Smith and Kaluuya in particular, building on his electrifying turns in Get Out and Widows.

As a voting Academy member, I’ve yet to meet another voting member who has seen Queen and Slim, despite plenty of public and critical raves. Before suggesting overt racism, it’s worth pointing out that watching 140 films in a solitary month is a impossible task in terms of viewing every film. But Queen & Slim’s failure to gain mainstream recognition confirms the film’s underdog status; like Just Mercy and Waves, it’s a nominee from a year in which carelessly built and outdated voting platforms accidentally squeezed out all but the front-runners.


The Gentlemen 2020 *****


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.