The Gentlemen

The Gentlemen

By: Kevin Jordan

Travel well indeed.

Guy Ritchie needed a win. After the success of his two Sherlock Holmes films in 2009 and 2011, people largely ignored the very good The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015), King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017) was an unmitigated disaster, and the Aladdin remake (2019) was a pile of shit that was only successful because certain nostalgia is as potent as heroin. Taking that nostalgia as a hint, Ritchie decided to go back to his roots by making another film in the same vein as the two that put him on the map (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch). Full disclosure: I have never actually seen Snatch or Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. I probably should. Now that I have seen The Gentlemen, I have an idea what those other two are like.

One filmmaking technique I go back forth between hating and liking is starting a movie by showing us something from the middle or end of the story. The Usual Suspects employs one of the best uses of it and John Wick easily has one of the worst. Context is key. It works in The Usual Suspects because we want to find out the identity of Keyser Soze. It utterly fails in John Wick because we know John is not going to die. The Gentlemen starts with drug lord Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey) sitting in a pub, talking to his wife, Rosalind (Michelle Dockery) over the phone. Behind him, a man with a gun walks up, the camera cuts to the table in front of him, then we hear a muffled gunshot and see blood spray across the table. Immediately, two thoughts race through your brain. One – did they just kill Matthew McConaughey? Two – there is no way they just killed Matthew McConaughey. Right?

You think he’ll mind that we used his Lincoln for this?

Long ago, my wife taught me one of the cardinal rules of filmmaking – if you didn’t actually see the death, it didn’t actually happen. That is not to say characters are not killed off-screen sometimes. It is to say that an off-screen death can always and easily be undone. The Gentlemen puts this idea front and center. On one hand, McConaughey is the lead in the film, and he is Matthew McConaughey, so we immediately doubt that he is dead. On the other hand, he is playing a drug lord, so it is very conceivable that the story ends with his death. At this point, we don’t know if Pearson is good or bad or even know the fact that he is a drug lord (unless you had that spoiled for you by trailers or IMDb). All we know is the guy from the Lincoln ads appears to have taken a bullet to the brain.

In order to sell the mystery of the opening scene, the story is presented to us in the form of paparazzo Fletcher (Hugh Grant) and Pearson’s right-hand man, Raymond (Charlie Hunnam), walking us through the events leading up Pearson’s shooting. All of the events are the result of Pearson deciding to sell his marijuana business to American drug lord Matthew Berger (Jeremy Strong) and another aspiring drug lord, Dry Eye (Henry Golding), wanting to get in on the action. Fletcher has a bunch of incriminating evidence of Pearson and Raymond’s operations, including plenty of associated crimes, and decides to blackmail Raymond for £20 million. Raymond patiently listens as Fletcher recounts events and we, the audience, are treated to a very entertaining film.

He is definitely dead. Unless he isn’t.

Plenty of credit goes to Ritchie, as this genre is his wheelhouse, but the film really works because of the performances. Hunnam and Grant are wonderful together, bantering and toying with each other throughout the film. Golding and Strong provide great contrasts in character to each other and Pearson, all three of them giving us a different type of character. Colin Farrell, playing a boxing coach whose students accidentally get them all caught up in the mix, steals every scene he is in. Dockery makes a case that she is the real power behind Mickey’s throne, standing out as the alpha in her every scene. And then of course, McConaughey. Pearson is an Oxford-educated, well-spoken kingpin, who is every bit as intimidating when calm as he is when his emotions break free. He is every bit the guy driving the Lincoln, as well as that same guy in the unaired commercials that murders passing-lane cruisers that cut him off while texting.

More often than not, I am not a fan of gangster flicks. Usually, it is films like The Irishman or The Departed or American Gangster that turn me off to the genre. Films that take themselves way too seriously; where violence seems to be the key focus of the film. Basically, movies that are no fun whatsoever. I gravitate towards the ones that are either very clever or have a sense of humor or, best of all, both. The Usual Suspects is the epitome of clever. Pulp Fiction has a sense of humor and is clever sometimes, though really tests the audience with the rape dungeon (and let’s be honest – the primary appeal of Pulp Fiction is much more the format of the movie than the story it tells). Over the years, I have found that British gangster films are my favorite because they are almost always clever and funny and The Gentlemen is definitely both. I am still patiently waiting for Sherlock Holmes 3, but The Gentlemen is worth the delay.

Rating: Do not ask for any money back unless you are still annoyed that Ritchie wasted our time with Aladdin.

Gold

By: Kevin Jordan

Stranger than fiction.

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The first thing you are going to do after watching Gold is look up the actual story the film is based on.  Actually, the real first thing you are going to do after watching Gold is find a Lincoln commercial so as to try to get the image of fat, comb-over, snaggletooth Matthew McConaughey out of your head.  I mean – look at that poster….yech.  Let me help…

jim_carey_snl

Nope, that’s Jim Carey making fun of McConaughey on SNL.

child_lincoln_ad

No, that’s a child making fun of McConaughey.

mcconaughey_lincoln

There we go.  Ahhhh.

Now that that’s over, you can focus on reading about Bre-X, the company this movie is based on.  If you have no idea what Bre-X is, do not look them up before watching Gold or you will SPOIL the movie for yourself.  Also, do not read the rest of this review because, obviously, I’m going to talk about it.

(Seriously – SPOILER ALERT.)

Once you have seen this movie and read about the Bre-X mining scandal, you’re going to wonder the same thing as everyone else – why did they change so much of the story?  The real story is bonkers enough.  In the mid-1990’s, a Filipino geologist working for Bre-X minerals convinced another geologist and an investor that he had discovered gold in Indonesia.  Bre-X’s stock skyrocketed from pennies to nearly $300 per share over the course of two and a half years.  As it turns out, the Filipino was ‘salting’ the core samples from the site with shavings from his wedding ring, then with river-panned gold he bought from the locals.  The Indonesian government took over the site after the three men sold a bunch of their stock and allowed another company to continue mining.  After finding zero gold, the Filipino supposedly committed suicide by jumping out of a helicopter.  The stock became worthless, the investor denied everything and died two years later, and the second geologist was acquitted of crimes and moved to the Cayman Islands.  I mean, come on – that script writes itself.  The only problem is how to make McConaughey look like a Filipino.

This being Hollywood, they changed things both big and small.  To start with, the second geologist and the investor were mashed together to create Kenny Wells (McConaughey), an American miner who managed to wreck his father’s prospecting company to the point where he was running the remains of the business out of his waitress-girlfriend Kay’s (Bryce Dallas Howard) bar.  That forty pounds makes sense now, doesn’t it?

In a drunken fever dream, he sees a jungle and knows he will find gold there.  The next day, he remembers stories of a geologist named Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramirez) who theorized the location of gold in Indonesia.  Acosta is what the writers of the film created out of the Filipino geologist.  Wells flies out to see Acosta and convinces Acosta to partner with him on the dig.  After weeks of digging, they find nothing and Wells catches Malaria.  Upon Wells’ recovery, Acosta informs him that they’ve found gold to the tune of 1/8th ounce per ton of rock.  Yeah…they struck it rich!  I think.  Wait, is that a lot?  It doesn’t sound like a lot.  Or did I just misunderstand the number?  No matter, they struck it rich!!

This is what you look like when you have have gold fever and jungle fever at the same time.

This is what you look like when you have have gold fever and jungle fever at the same time.

The rest of the film bears very little resemblance to actual events, but a whole lot of resemblance to a combination of Two for the Money and The Wolf of Wall Street.  Rise to the top, lavish spending, helicopter sex, etc. followed by the fall from grace.  The movie tries to make Wells somewhat sympathetic by making him care more about being recognized as a great miner than money.  Potato, pot-ah-to, right?  This leads him to declining multiple lucrative offers for the mine and you can guess where he ends up.  The film also tries to make something out of his relationship with Kay, though it falls completely flat during the film and Howard is given very little to do outside of a breakup scene that comes out of nowhere.  Finally, they try to play up his loyalty to Acosta, and that turns out to be the one thing that makes you root for him just a little bit.  To be fair, the film keeps the scandal part – Acosta salting the samples, cashing out his stocks, and possibly dying in a helicopter suicide jump (but not from the sex helicopter).

In addition to adding the girlfriend and changing the characters, the film is set back in 1988 and the timespan is shortened to about six months for no reason.  They also toss in two different investment companies vying for Wells’ to partner them in, but really in order to give screen time to Stacy Keach and Corey Stoll (and Stoll was delightfully on target as a sleazy Wall Street investor), but they at least serve the purpose of moving Wells through his rise and fall.  Perhaps the weirdest creative choice is Bruce Greenwood doing a bizarre accent while playing a gold magnate and forced to look at naked, fat McConaughey when they first meet.  I get what the writers were going for there – contrasting a fool with a viper – but Greenwood can’t unsee that.  That’s just mean.

I get older, but they stay the same age.

I get older, but they stay the same age.

(Note: Rachael Taylor is also naked in that scene, so it’s not all bad for Greenwood.  Probably still not worth it though.)

Having said all that, I don’t really mind that they changed so much from the real story, but I do wish they hadn’t thrown in the unnecessary girlfriend subplot.  It drags the movie down and doesn’t change your opinion that Wells is mostly a bad businessman and comes off like a used car salesman.  But the thing I mind the most is that the film tells you almost from the beginning that everything is going to go south for Wells.  Early on, we see a panning shot of a microphone and hear Wells talking to someone who is obviously questioning him.  As soon as you see that microphone, you spend the rest of the film knowing Wells is going to fail, you’re just not sure how.  Unless, of course, you ignored me and read up on Bre-X prior to watching the film.  I actually went into this movie thinking it was going to be a story about a man who defied the odds and ended up proving everyone wrong.  I was looking forward to some crazy hijinks and close calls, but an inevitable win in the end.  Thanks a lot, writers – the one time I don’t go into a movie pessimistically and you ruined it for me.

Still – I did find myself enjoying the movie quite a bit.  McConaughey brings his A-game, you can never get enough Stoll, and it’s much better than the typical January fare we’re used to seeing.  And, even though I knew things were going to end badly, I never suspected the salting scandal, which was a genuine surprise.  I just thought the fool was going to get taken by Wall Street sharks, not his friend.  Does Hollywood deserved to get smacked around a little for messing with this nutty, true story?  Sure.  But that doesn’t mean it still wasn’t worth a pat on the back.

Rating: Ask for two dollars back and never look at the Gold movie poster again.

(Source note: Here’s the article I read detailing the Bre-X scandal.)

Free State of Jones

By: Kevin Jordan

I love history.

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I am a huge American Civil War buff.  Everything about it fascinates me from the battles to the politics to the logistics to the economics to the before and after.  I’ve read books, seen movies, watched documentaries, and visited many battlefields and memorials.  I even own a Civil War chess set, though I’ve never taken part in a reenactment because that’s just crazy.  After nearly three decades of digesting information, my interest hasn’t waned because I keep learning things about the time that I had never even heard of.  Case in point – apprenticeship.  Right after the War ended, southern states started passing laws known as Black Codes, including one called apprenticeship.  Here’s the text from the Mississippi version:

“…It shall be the duty of all sheriffs, justices of the peace, and other civil officers of the several counties in this State, to report to the probate courts of their respective counties semiannually, at the January and July terms of said courts, all freedmen, free negroes, and mulattoes, under the age of eighteen, in their respective counties, beats, or districts, who are orphans, or whose parent or parents have not the means or who refuse to provide for and support said minors; and thereupon it shall be the duty of said probate court to order the clerk of said court to apprentice said minors to some competent and suitable person on such terms as the court may direct, having a particular care to the interest of said minor: Provided, that the former owner of said minors shall have the preference when, in the opinion of the court, he or she shall be a suitable person for that purpose.

…In the management and control of said apprentice, said master or mistress shall have the power to inflict such moderate corporal chastisement as a father or guardian is allowed to inflict on his or her child or ward at common law: Provided, that in no case shall cruel or inhuman punishment be inflicted….”

What that says in layman’s terms is that black children could be taken from their parents and given to white families to work on their plantations as “apprentices,” as long as they provided very basic education and services to the children, under the guise and judgement of white “authorities.”  These laws didn’t last long, legally speaking, as Congress invalidated the laws in 1866.  My point is that I learned something from Free State of Jones and that wasn’t the only thing I learned.

The main thing to be learned from this film, historically speaking, is that a white Mississippi man named Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) deserted from the Confederate Army because he didn’t want to die for a rich man’s cotton, ended up gathering a few hundred people into an army that fought against the Confederates, and held a section of Mississippi during the latter part of the war.  Given Hollywood’s proclivity for embellishing and spinning truth, we should all go read actual books about Knight and the events depicted in the film to get the truth of the details, but the basic story is indeed true, as are many of the details.  From apprenticeships to the Confederate army stealing from its own people under the pretense of supporting the troops (not the rich Southern people, which is a major point of contention with the not rich Knight and his not rich neighbors) to granting voting rights to freedmen (freed slaves) to the beginnings of the Ku Klux Klan murdering freedmen who try to exercise those rights, it’s a history lesson in full living color that you probably never got, but badly need.

(Here’s a good place to start with your own research – http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/true-story-free-state-jones-180958111/?no-ist)

Which brings me to the other thing to be learned from this film (this is where I get on my soapbox for a moment) – we still have a long way to go with regards to not hating people simply because they are slightly different.  It’s impossible to watch this movie and not see the parallels to our current political and societal atmosphere, which is toxic at best.  A chunk of our population is still trying to deny others equal rights and status.  A chunk of our population still thinks it’s okay to be racist, sexist, and act like assholes to other people.  A chunk of our population continues to rationalize hatred like that for no reasons other than selfishness, unwarranted fear, and delusions of superiority.  And it’s still happening because nearly all of our current political leaders (and I mean both major parties here) are spineless, corrupt, power-hungry individuals who forgot they work for all of us and not just the people that give them money.  **Deep breath**  This film reminds us that, as great as our country can be, we should never forget how horrendous we’ve been at times.

(Getting off soapbox now.)

The one major flaw with the movie is that it tries to intertwine a court case from 1948 involving the Knight family.  Long story short – Mississippi wanted to invalidate a marriage between Davis Knight and a white woman because Davis’ lineage traces back to Newton and his second wife, Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who was black (Mississippi initially won the case, but it was overturned on appeal and Davis was declared white.  Yes, it’s as stupid as it sounds and, yes, that happened in America less than seventy years ago).  Anyway, throughout the film, we catch glimpses of this trial and it does more harm to the flow of the movie than help.  I get the point (eighty years later and the Knight family was still fighting deeply rooted racism), but it simply doesn’t work with the 1860’s portion of the film.  All it really does it remove you from the main story every time you are just getting back into it.  It almost felt tacked on in post-production rather than a fleshed out chunk of the narrative (an easy fix would have been to show us half the trial at the start of the movie, then the rest of the trial at the end so as not to disengage the viewer during the Newton night story).

The other noticeable issue with the movie is the amount of time spent after the war is over.  The bulk of the movie focuses on the Jones’ folk fighting the Confederates, specifically Colonel Lowry (Wayne Père) and his regiment, over the course of three years.  Once this conflict is resolved, the next ten years are crammed into the last twenty-five minutes or so of a 140-minute movie and the theme turns full tilt to equal black rights.  That would have worked if the bulk of the film focused on black rights, but Newton’s initial fight is much more concerned with the treatment of non-rich people in general than the treatment of blacks.

Even with those two issues, the movie is quite good and doesn’t try to overdramatize the carnage of the war or murder of blacks for the sake of gratuity.  It felt like a good balance of history and Hollywood drama and never loses sight of its main goal of teaching us some things we didn’t already know about that time.  As I said in my review of Selma, this is the way history should be taught.  If it doesn’t make you a little (or a lot) uncomfortable and cause you to rethink our current state, it’s not doing it right.

Rating: Don’t ask for any money back, but do ask that this movie accompany Selma in our kids’ classrooms.  It’s that important.

Interstellar

By: Kevin Jordan

It’s all relative.

Interstellar

Two years ago, one of the best movies I’d ever seen – Cloud Atlas – went largely ignored by the American public.  It was an amazing movie that was meticulously crafted and beautiful to behold, but poorly marketed and horribly misunderstood by many critics.  Then, last year, Gravity came out and every critic thought they’d seen the best science fiction movie in the history of ever, despite that Gravity had almost no plot, contradicted its own physics as well as factual reality, featured a grand total of two characters – neither of which was well-developed, and had nothing at stake beyond the main character’s own life (seriously – how did not a single critic note that if she had died, it wouldn’t have mattered to anyone or anything because she had no family and she wasn’t trying to save or stop anything from happening?!).  Sure, it had cool special effects, but Michael Bay’s been doing that for years and nobody has ever accused his movies of being Best Picture material.  Now, we have Interstellar, the latest from Christopher Nolan, as our annual fall sci-fi flick and again, an oddball response from the main-stream critics (by which I mean those who are featured on Rotten Tomatoes) and a “fresh” rating of only 73%.

I’m not going to trash the critics like I did in my John Wick review, but sometimes I think they have a form of brain damage that occurs temporarily and randomly and causes them to hate something in a movie that they absolutely loved in another movie.  In Gravity, the critics loved the realism and science – even though both of those things were wildly inaccurate – and thought the story was incredibly riveting, even though it was incredibly generic and predictable.  In Interstellar, they deride the science and realism – even though both are driven by pure theory, thus open to all kinds of imagination – and thought the story was tedious and boring at times, even though it was never either of those things.  It doesn’t make any sense –unless they have brain damage.

But enough of that – let me tell you why this movie is far and away the best movie of the year.

Interstellar is the kind of hard-core science fiction that reminds you of guys like Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Joe Haldeman, and Larry Niven – guys that wrote science fiction that was both incredibly creative and scientifically fascinating.  All of them used prevailing theories or topics of the time to build their universes and write about what-if scenarios and their possibilities.  What if humanity developed regular space travel?  What if humans fought intergalactic wars?  What if wormholes were real?  Those guys asked those questions with more depth than something like Star Wars – they actually cared about the consequences of things like relativity with regards to faster-than-light travel or acceleration and deceleration to and from high velocities.  Interstellar follows in their footsteps by including things like wormholes and black holes and then imagining the effects of those things.  As a science fiction fan, I was geeking out worse than a man dressed up like a Reaver at comic-con finding himself locked in a room with Summer Glau.

Interstellar takes place in a future an indeterminate number of years from now.  Blights have decimated global crops, starvation has killed millions and the situation has gotten to the point where corn is the only crop left that will grow.  Oh, and massive dust storms regularly ravage the land and everything is constantly covered by a layer of dirt.  Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, an engineer/pilot-turned farmer, ekeing out a living with his son Tom, daughter Murph, and father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow), on their farm.  One day, with some help from Murph, Cooper stumbles upon a secret NASA installation and Cooper is recruited by Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and his daughter, Amelia (Anne Hathaway) to captain a space mission to find a new planet to colonize.  Yes, it’s an amazing coincidence that Cooper just happened to have been previously trained to fly their specific space plane and just happened to live within driving distance of the secret facility without them knowing it, but you’ll just have to live with it.

Anyway, Brand explains to Cooper that a wormhole appeared near Saturn and that they have already sent twelve explorers through to find suitable planets for humans.  Since communications through the wormhole are spotty at best, Cooper’s mission is to go to the best candidates to retrieve the explorers and their data and return to Earth.  In parallel, Brand is working on finishing a formula that will allow them to manipulate gravity to the point where they can launch an entire station off the Earth and through the wormhole to start the colony.  All of that is Plan A.  As a Plan B, Cooper’s ship is being loaded with 9,000 fertilized human eggs to be used to start a new colony in case they are unable to return or must explore further for a suitable planet.

Ok – I know that’s a whole of detail there, but I wanted to make sure you understand that this movie’s plot is far more detailed and layered (I’ll get to the other layers in a moment) than the incredibly shallow plot of Gravity.  Plus, there’s more at stake than just the entire human race.  Due to relativity, Cooper and his crew will age slower (when they travel) than the people of Earth, so they can’t just succeed – they also have to finish and get back before all of their loved ones age and die.  How freaking awesome a concept is that (I told you I was geeking out hard)?!

Time dilation is also one of the consequences I talked about earlier and one of those hard core science concepts that is hard to grasp, but included in most science fiction dealing with travelling through space.  Basically, the concept is that the faster a person moves, the slower time passes for that person relative to the people who are not moving with them.  This is showcased in the movie during a sequence in which one of the planets they visit is near the event horizon of a black hole.  Because the planet is moving incredibly fast around the black hole, seven years will pass on Earth for every hour that passes on that planet.  In other words, if Cooper and crew spend three hours on that planet, his kids will age twenty-one years during that same.  Considering Cooper’s driving force is to get back to his kids, he probably doesn’t want to find out if Starbucks has already found that planet.

Because I think this movie is awesome, I won’t reveal anything else about the planets they visit – which are visually spectacular – or anything else from a plot perspective in the movie, but I do want to talk about the other main topic in this movie – human emotions and motivations.  One reviewer claimed that you won’t care about the characters’ fates because they are poorly developed, but nothing could be further from the truth.  In addition to trying to save the human race, Nolan looks into the human element of such a grave task.  We get to run the gamut of greed, stubbornness, despair, love, fear, betrayal, courage, anger, and deceit among the main characters.  Hell, even the intelligent robots display their humanity, adding humor and sacrifice to the list.  And, yes, I did say robots.

As if the story and visuals weren’t enough, the acting is great and the music and sound are off the charts.  In order to get the audience emotionally invested, the actors have to convince us to connect with them and boy, do they ever.  There were a couple of times during the film when I felt myself tearing up with the actors, a couple of times I wanted to shout warnings to them, and other times when I was just as angry as they were.  And, if the actors don’t suck you all the way in, the music finishes the job.  If you’ve never quite understood the meaning of palpable, you will after this movie.  Not only does the Imax make you feel the music and sound, but the tone of the different pieces fit their scenes perfectly, even when there is silence.  The music alone is enough to make you feel some of the emotions wrought during the film; so good it’s almost its own character.

I know I’ve gone for a while and gushed for a lot of it, but it’s only because I haven’t seen a movie this close to perfect since Cloud Atlas.  My biggest hope is that Interstellar has a better marketing campaign than Cloud Atlas and that it crushes the box office.  Actually, my biggest hope is that this movie wins Best Picture because there hasn’t been a movie even in the same ballpark as Interstellar this year and it would restore some faith that the Academy isn’t completely worthless even if most main-stream critics are.

Rating: Worth more than the next best five movies combined.  I’m pretty sure I didn’t blink for the entire 169 minute running time.